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One of the first things I learned while completing my urban studies and planning degree was that adding lanes to a freeway or arterial road increases congestion.
Induced demand, or the idea that increasing the supply of roads actually attracts more drivers, has been proven by economists and traffic engineers since the 1960s. Think of it this way: Berlin, an old city with narrow, zig-zagging roads and millions of people constantly moving in every direction, would logically ensue endless traffic jams. Millions of people are moving through the U-Bahn, however, a robust and efficient underground metro system, and a multimillion-euro, multi-decade investment. The result is smoothly moving car traffic at one of the world’s biggest cities. Those who prefer to drive can still do so without crippling gridlock.
So why are we still looking to freeway expansion as the answer to traffic congestion?
Freeway expansions don’t just worsen traffic congestion, they poison our most vulnerable communities. The most disadvantaged communities of San Diego, in terms of socioeconomic status and exposure to harmful pollutants, are located along the I-5, I-805, SR-94, and SR-15 freeways. Specifically, along the proposed Measure A expansions voted down by San Diegans last election cycle.
We are stuck in traffic because we have no logical transit alternatives. A trip from Chula Vista to UC San Diego currently takes an average of 1.5 hours on transit. The Blue Line expansion will eliminate the transfer and wait time between each of the 150 Rapid buses. The South Bay Rapid, which runs only during peak hours, eliminates a 30-minute detour to the Palomar Transit Center and places Chula Vista commuters downtown in 25 minutes. Checking your email or snoozing a few extra minutes on streamlined transit instead of idling on I-5 and watching your paycheck combust into the air seems like a good deal.
Streamlined transit lines like the expanded Blue Line, the South Bay Rapid and the Centerline are catching the attention of those who prioritize productivity and are tired of dedicating disposable income to the pump (plus insurance and maintenance, totaling nearly $9,000 annually per driver). But even those riders are among the lucky because they are able to opt for the most rational transportation decision, the one that reduces travel time and complexity. What about captive riders?
Every time I get on the bus or trolley, I am greeted by people who look like me. A large share of transit riders are captive riders because they cannot afford to own and maintain a car. San Diego’s workforce moves on transit. Every morning, Blue Line trolley cars fill up with service members, students, and hospitality, health care, construction, shipyard, custodial, maintenance, food service and retail workers traveling up to 30 miles from the South Bay to downtown, La Jolla, Carlsbad and Coronado, making numerous bus transfers along the way.
Our public transit system should be more effective for those who use it the most, but we need more efficient transit lines that connect those stuck in traffic to their destination. Prioritizing public transit investment over roads is not “highway robbery,” as the mayor of Coronado recently suggested; it’s eliminating cars from the road by convincing those who want to use transit that they can get to their destination quickly and safely.
What about the income and race disparity of our transportation system? Gov. Jerry Brown has set a goal of getting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the state’s roads by 2025. But not every San Diegan can afford that possibility, for factors not limited to our housing crisis. There are, however, cheaper and greener alternatives to electric vehicles. In fact, existing transit is much greener. Yes, even natural gas buses are cleaner than zero-emission cars. Moving 30 people on one bus is cleaner than moving them on 30 electric vehicles juiced up by our grid the night before.
How do we get San Diegans to fill our buses and trolley cars? That happens when a public transportation system is able to give riders a rational alternative to driving alone.
Since the 1950s, development patterns that prioritized the movement of cars — both electric and gas-powered — over people led to major deficiencies in public transportation, and continue to dominate San Diego regional planning discussions. The rest of the world is moving toward transit and active transportation for all, so why aren’t we?
Vianney Ruvalcaba is a resident of Chula Vista and the transportation and planning coordinator at City Heights Community Development Corporation.