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Half a dozen news reports last week blared a similar headline: A new study showed San Diego’s trolley stops, or its trolley system in general, were the worst in the state.
That is not what the study actually found.
The study was far more damning.
The study’s most critical conclusions weren’t directed at the Metropolitan Transit System or its stations. They keyed on decades of development decisions by the city of San Diego and other cities along the trolley lines.
It quantified a phenomenon that’s long been apparent anecdotally: Local leaders support smart growth – urban development that’s crucial for transit ridership – in theory, but not in practice.
They are not planning for or facilitating enough construction of walkable, affordable housing near transit access points.
The Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley’s School of Law and nonprofit research group Next 10 concluded the San Diego metropolitan area has done worse than all other metro areas in the state at combating climate change and economic inequality through its development decisions.
“All I can do is comment on the outcomes,” said Ethan Elkind, one of the study’s authors. “The outcomes place San Diego at the bottom. In terms of walkability and encouraging a sustainable growth network, San Diego has a lot of work to do.”
Concentrating development – both jobs and housing – around stations determines how successful a transit system can be and how much public subsidy it needs. It combats climate change, with transit usage nationwide cutting emissions equivalent to the electricity usage of 4.9 million homes a year. It allows low-income residents the economic freedom of forgoing car ownership.
This is the basic goal that’s motivated every major planning document in urban San Diego for many years.
Yet despite the wholesale embrace of “transit-oriented development” by long-term planning documents throughout the region, the city almost never follows through on it in practice.
The report measured the transit friendliness of half-mile areas surrounding 489 light-rail stations in Los Angeles, Sacramento, the Bay Area and San Diego. It created a grading rubric for each one based on things like how many homes and jobs were in the area and what policies local governments had enacted to promote transit-focused development.
San Diego’s transit neighborhoods came in dead last. It had the lowest-ranked station, in El Cajon’s Gillespie Field. Its best-performing station neighborhood – the 12th and Imperial Transit Center downtown – would have been the 21st best neighborhood in the Bay Area, 35th best in Los Angeles, 14th best in Sacramento and third best in San Jose.
The report quantifies what’s been clear anecdotally.
Last year, for instance, San Diego’s planning department released a study recommending the city increase the amount of development allowed at two new trolley stops planned as part of a $1.7 billion light-rail extension from Old Town to University City.
Residents revolted. They demanded the city not increase the 30-foot limit on new buildings near the station proposed for Clairemont Drive, or increase the number of homes that could be built in the area.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer quickly directed city staff to announce it wouldn’t raise the height limit.
But the proposal to let developers build more homes near the station was still on the table.
This summer, at a local planning group meeting discussing the proposal, principal planner Tait Galloway assured residents the city wouldn’t be increasing housing density in the area, either.
“We’re not going to promote that,” he said. “That’s a quote by me, Tait Galloway, tonight. We are not going to propose that kind of density with a 30-foot height limit. So I just want to clarify that.”
The city has maintained its plans to increase housing density near the other proposed station, at Tecolote Drive, though residents have vowed to oppose that as well. The city will soon begin planning for changes near the proposed Balboa Avenue station, too.
Similarly, the city received $1.4 million in two grants to rewrite the development restrictions along the Commercial and Imperial corridor in Logan Heights, where there are two trolley stations. The final plan proposes modest development increases near the station at 24th Street (the neighborhood received a D+ in the study), and maintained the predominantly low employment, industrial zoning near 32nd Street (the neighborhood received a D in the study).
Property owners of the metal scraping, auto wrecking and recycling businesses near the station have pushed the city to maintain the corridor’s industrial classification. The final plan that is moving toward City Council approval would do just that, though Council members would have the opportunity to vote for an alternative that allows for the sort of residential and mixed-use development that drives transit ridership.
But the report places blame across many stations throughout the region. Far-flung stations in suburban areas did poorly, as did those along the Green Line that runs through Mission Valley, those in Lemon Grove and Encanto on the Orange Line, on the Blue Line through South Bay and even those downtown.
Meanwhile, the San Diego Association of Governments is in the process of adopting a specific policy meant to solve the very problem that the Berkeley study identified. SANDAG’s “Transit-oriented Development Strategy” is meant as a playbook for cities to follow to create the sorts of neighborhoods that make transit a viable transportation option.
The transit advocacy group that asked SANDAG to draw up that policy is disappointed with the final product, because it doesn’t do anything to encourage – let alone mandate – that cities actually obey it.
“In California, the problems in getting transit-oriented development hasn’t been on the market demand side,” Elkind said. “It’s been on the policy side, preventing those neighborhoods from being built.”
It typically takes decades for land-use decisions to translate into major changes in neighborhoods, but San Diego’s trolley system isn’t new. What’s now called the Blue Line opened in 1980; the Orange Line six years later. Cities have had three decades to match their planning decisions to those major regional investments.
“People don’t always realize that building new lines is only part of the job,” Elkind said. “You have to be thinking of taking advantage of ridership with development.”
More than any other large metropolitan area in California, San Diego has not allowed for the development that would capitalize on the major investments made in its transportation system. Leaders in recent years have continued to profess their support for accommodating a growing population responsibly, but their decisions tell a different story.
And now that regional failure has been quantified.