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It’s an article of faith among many San Diegans that no one uses the trolley. The idea even made it into one of those annoying lists about San Diego your college roommate shares on Facebook.

And yes, it’s true that just 3 percent of San Diego County’s workforce relies on any type of public transportation for their daily commute. (In Los Angeles it’s 11 percent, for comparison.)

But San Diego’s a big place, so even a small share of transit users still represents a lot of people. Altogether, the three trolley lines provide an average of 125,000 rides per day.

“If you’d ride the trolley, you could see that it’s simply not the case that no one uses the trolley,” said Metropolitan Transit System spokesman Rob Schupp.

The trolley isn’t widely used citywide, which contributes to the perception that no one uses it. But there are neighborhoods where people use it regularly.

The system’s busiest line, the blue line, runs from San Ysidro through the South Bay and into downtown. The green line brings riders from Santee through Mission Valley and into downtown, and the orange line begins downtown and goes through the southeastern neighborhoods before ending in El Cajon.

We’re taking a closer look at the trolley and other public transportation in the region and where it could be improved to better understand big debates about San Diego’s future. Do transit investments drive the construction of affordable housing nearby? Do dense populations use public transit more frequently? Is the public transit system giving residents a legitimate alternative to driving?

As a starting point, we’ve used data derived from MTS’s new automated passenger counting system, which keeps track of every rider who gets on or off a train. We’ve used the daily averages from four months this spring to identify the most active stations on the system’s three trolley lines.

It’s a broad measure that shows which parts of the city see a lot of trolley usage.

“You could say this is where the system is engaging deeply with life and activity, and where the system is having a bigger effect on these neighborhoods, in a comparative framework of the rest of San Diego,” said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UCLA.

In neighborhoods like Encanto, San Ysidro, Lemon Grove and parts of Chula Vista, data show there are plenty of people who make regular use of the trolley.

Overall activity isn’t a perfect measure, however. It doesn’t tell us how riders got to the station—whether they walked, drove or took a bus there. And it counts transfers between lines as essentially separate trips.

That means stations with multiple lines show huge activity, even though some of it is from people transferring from one train to another, not coming from or going to anything in the neighborhood.

Four of the five busiest stations are transit centers where people transfer between lines. The station at 12th and Imperial, in East Village near Petco Park, is the only one with stops on all three lines and is by far the system’s most active with more than 34,000 people getting on and off trains there each day, nearly double the next closest station.

But the second most active station in the whole system is the blue line’s stop in San Ysidro at the Mexican border. There are 17,000 trips beginning or ending there daily, including 10,000 riders that start their their trolley ride there every day. That heavy supply of riders is a big part of why the blue line is the most successful one in the city.

Other stations on the blue line, Iris Avenue in Otay Mesa and Palomar Street in Chula Vista, are also among the system’s most active single-line stops.

The four least-active stations in the entire trolley system, meanwhile, are all on the green line.

Qualcomm Stadium is useful for most people only on event days, and saw an average of 510 rides each day. Gillespie Field in El Cajon wasn’t much better, with an average of 656 trips each day. The Middletown Station, which is near the airport but offers no useful way to get to actually get there, has 724 ons-and-offs each day and Mission San Diego in Mission Valley, just one stop east of Qualcomm,  had an average of 898 beginning or ending trips.

Taylor, though, said any high-functioning and well-designed transit system will naturally have some stops that don’t see as much activity.

“If you only have high-volume stops, you have an incomplete network,” he said. “There are reasons that some people can’t drive even if they want, and need transit, and you need a system that gives that broad level of coverage.”

Low volume at a station might be a good reason not to invest in amenities or other expensive work at the station, he said, but it isn’t on its own an argument to remove any station.

But, Taylor said, if a string of stops is underperforming, as opposed to a single station, it’s not unnatural for a transit agency to consolidate those stops to make the rest of the line faster.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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