The San Diego Association of Governments is poised to vote on San Diego Forward, its 2050 transportation plan, while activists fight to prevent changes making it less environmentally friendly. It is time to rethink what we’re fighting for. San Diego’s transportation plan is far from environmentally friendly. We can imagine something better.

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San Diego’s transportation plan relies on the best options available when it was initiated. It combines high-density coastal and valley development near existing and newly constructed trolley lines with incentives not to drive (more traffic/less parking).  

But green energy, electric vehicles and the sharing economy are a reality right now. The era of single owner auto-combustion cars is ending. San Diego has an opportunity to not just imagine, but immediately implement a better future, one based on 21st century ideas resulting in immediate emissions reductions at less cost.

Let’s start by thinking more broadly. Automobiles aren’t the problem — emissions are. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fossil fuel-fired power plants are responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 13 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

Imagine if rather than protesting to save a bad transportation plan, we took on a bad utility decision, the replacement of a zero-emission shuttered nuclear plant with one powered by natural gasInstead, let’s have SDG&E connect our city to the grid by installing highway noise barriers that also work as solar-power generators and smart roads and bikeways that also incorporate solar and other new technologies.

Now imagine if, instead of reducing all parking, we reduced parking for auto-combustion vehicles, partnering with a stand-alone energy storage company to build an electric vehicle infrastructure outside of the grid. Electric vehicle-only parking meter/charging stations would provide incentives for residents to immediately switch to cleaner technology.

Then, imagine if we partnered with an electric car-sharing service so that half of those parking/charging stations had an affordable electric public vehicle available to insured drivers for short errands or trips to a hub. This would radically transform public transportation, as well as provide incentives to forgo private ownership.

Now, imagine replacing emissions-bellowing neighborhood buses with electric vehicle-only ride-sharing services, either on-call or short routes to central hubs. Bus lanes could become bike lanes.

Then, imagine entering into a partnership with the big electric vehicle manufacturers to replace our oversized fossil fuel-powered buses with smaller electric shuttle buses. These could speed from hubs on electric vehicle-only lanes, providing further incentives for private owners to switch.

Imagine – San Diego would not only immediately slash its emissions, it would be the first city to extend the benefits of private automobiles to all of its citizens, regardless of their ability to afford them.

Now, imagine if those partnerships envisioned a conversion to  autonomous technology at a reduced cost as early as practicable. Self-driving cars, out of reach to all but the wealthy, could be San Diego’s public transportation system.

Just imagine – within months, without having to dig one mile of coastline, waste one drop of water or alter the way we live, San Diego could slash emissions and have a radically transformed public transportation system. We could use our transit cards or smart phones to borrow electric (eventually autonomous) vehicles or summon electric (eventually autonomous) ride-sharing services. Electric (eventually autonomous) buses traveling in designated electric vehicle-only (eventually autonomous vehicle-only) lanes on existing highways could speed to further locations.

Now imagine what we’re protesting for – emissions reductions through an outdated, expensive rail system; radical lifestyle changes from an aging, car-centric population; experiments in high-density crowding and untold impacts on a fragile and irreplaceable ecology – all to a great extent zeroed out by emissions gains from a newly built fossil-fuel power plant.

I’m not an environmentalist or an engineer, but I prefer the transportation system of my imagination, one that quickly implements 21st century solutions using existing infrastructures while maneuvering to take advantage of technological developments. Tesla, Google, Apple, Car2Go and Uber are all at our doorstep. San Diego has the opportunity to partner with these companies to develop a convenient and egalitarian public transportation system. Moreover, this system could be primed to bring self-driving technology to all of us, not merely to those who can afford it. Considering the tradeoffs of the current plan, it’s not too late to imagine a better future.

Shannon M. Biggs  is a retired former educator. Biggs’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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