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With the Mid-Coast Trolley extension project scheduled for completion by 2021, the San Diego region has a significant opportunity to move closer to becoming a world-class city. The criteria that qualifies a city worthy of this title is open to debate, but it’s undeniable that all cities in this category have a high-functioning and well-connected public transit system.
Yes, San Diego has a public transit system, and it is fairly well connected. But as anyone who has tried to replace their automobile commute with a public transit option knows, the system is not functioning effectively. This is not the fault of those who operate the system but rather a planning problem that has its roots in neighborhood pushback.
It’s common to hear San Diegans argue that auto-centric cities don’t need public transit or transit-oriented development, or at least any new investments in it. In 2014, hundreds of Bay Park residents attended a community planning meeting in fiery protest to increased building height limits around Tecolote Road and Clairemont Boulevard. More recently, the Union-Tribune reported that in response to on-going opposition to transit-oriented development, developer Fairfield Residential reduced a plan for a 300-condo project to a 150-condo project, drawing criticism from the San Diego Planning Commission.
In the last decade, cities such as Portland, Denver and even Los Angeles have expanded their light rail lines with a mix of medium- to high-density housing units to accompany the growing housing demand. This effort simultaneously increases the convenience of riding public transportation, while creating attractive, livable places in high demand. All these cities endured the same community pushback on transit expansion and transit-oriented development that we have seen in San Diego. However, people ride transit if it provides a convenient alternative to driving, and those communities that fought transit-oriented development are now the biggest beneficiaries.
For instance, Denver was once known for being car-centric but now holds the title of “most advanced transit city in the west.” It got there, explained author Taras Grescoe in an article for CityLab, by acknowledging a projected explosion of the population and laying down nine rail lines, 18 miles of bus rapid transit and 95 stations — much of it in defiance of neighborhood pushback.
But the money to pay for those projects came from bonds approved at the ballot box. According to Grescoe, one transportation official in Denver credited the public’s willingness to pay for those investments to a growing frustration with traffic congestion. It is well-established that more roads only lead to more cars and therefore, more traffic.
In an article titled “How San Diego’s public transit went from first to worst,” planner and writer Murtaza Bazamusa shows San Diego’s over-dependency on driving alone to work: The total percentages of San Diegan workers aged 16 and older who drive alone to work has steadily increased from 1990 to 2015.
At public meetings, the loudest voices in the room tend to argue that they’d never ride transit, preferring to stay in their cars, but the preferences of a past generation aren’t indicators of the future generation’s behaviors. I should know.
Growing up in Los Angeles County, I endured an uncomfortable, pollution-abundant and auto-centric environment. Road rage intrudes into many people’s lives, during unnecessarily long commutes, while going to work, school or even the grocery store. Fortunately for me, I could ride the nearby light-rail on my way downtown to high school. Now living in Pacific Beach, I am excited to finally be able to access the trolley at the Balboa Drive station, ride to the Gaslamp District and avoid the difficulties of catching an Uber on the traffic-congested streets downtown.
The trolley-extension will be the first time a commuter can travel leisurely on light-rail transit from Chula Vista to University City’s Westfield UTC, all while avoiding the time-restraints and stress of freeway congestion. That’s a big deal. For the first time since we’ve been building light-rail transit in our region, we are connecting the middle-income communities of the South Bay to the work centers north of Interstate 8. If traffic counts headed north in the morning from the South Bay are any indication of demand, San Diego’s Blue Line could potentially be the reason for the largest increase in transit ridership in the history of our city.
Unfortunately, the addition of the Blue Line alone will not put San Diego in the category of world-class. It remains imperative that communities within San Diego act now and embrace the opportunity that light-rail presents. Transit works better when people can walk to it. This means we need to build higher densities around light rail stations.
With only one chance to capitalize on federal investments for San Diego’s trolley extension, public officials can best take advantage of this significant opportunity by courageously defying the NIMBY, or not in my backyard, movement. Focusing on these major transit stations will help to create vibrant communities that aren’t reliant on automobiles. This integration of land use and transportation planning is the key if San Diego ever wants to bestow itself the title of world class.
Christopher Galan is a recent graduate of SDSU’s Master in City Planning program and the vice president and project manager of Pebble Creek Companies, a development and general contracting company.