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Early in the pandemic, officials debated when and how to close beaches. Weeks later, Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down Orange County beaches citing unsafe behavior, leading to concern San Diego’s beaches would close just 48 hours after reopening.
Conversations on beach access have focused largely on the demands of people who surf and communities within walking distance of the water. But for large segments of San Diego, beaches were out of reach long before the pandemic — and the novel coronavirus is likely to make the disparity worse.
The virus killed ElevateSD, an effort by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to raise billions for expanded public transit, including to the beach, via a November sales tax measure. It’s unclear when another tax measure for transportation will go before voters. The region’s planning agency, SANDAG, could include these initiatives in its 30-year transportation plan slated for release in the coming months.
But the agency does not analyze beach access by community. SANDAG’s federally mandated transportation plan from 2019 instead considers beach access in the context of connecting tourists to destinations like Coronado and Solana Beach by rapid bus lines.
Beach access for underserved communities “is definitely not as strong as it could be,” said Coleen Clementson, SANDAG’s director of regional planning.
ElevateSD would have cut wait times for the bus in half for many popular existing beach routes, but it proposed only a handful of new routes connecting historically marginalized neighborhoods east of Interstate 5 to the coast. That would have included a new faster connecting Kearny Mesa to Pacific Beach and a faster route for the western edge of the Otay Mesa West neighborhood to Imperial Beach.
Rob Schupp, an MTS representative, said Elevate SD would have improved frequency on 70 percent of the network’s 95 routes.
“It doesn’t matter where you live or what your income level is, unless you live west of I-5, no one has great access to the beach either by car or by public transit,” Schupp said.
‘Who Knew it Could Be This Quiet in San Diego?’
If Pedro Sanchez Jr. wanted to visit Belmont Park on public transit, it would take him about an hour and a half to get from his home in Valencia Park, in southeastern San Diego. That’s if he perfectly calculated his half-mile walk to Euclid Trolley station and didn’t miss any of the transfers between the two buses and a trolley it takes to get there.
If he wanted to surf, he’d have to be skilled enough (or wave conditions appropriate) to use a board under six feet long, the restricted length under MTS rules. (Over that length wouldn’t fit upright inside a bus and would block space for other riders, Schupp said.)
But his favorite surf spots are in La Jolla, “the dream beach where everybody likes to go,” he said. The 19-year-old said that when he was in high school, on a good day, it would take him about two hours to make that journey, which includes a trolley downtown and up to 45 stops on a single bus route, the 30.
The first time Sanchez, who was born and raised in San Diego, saw the beach was elementary school. His family shared an unreliable car reserved for essential trips, so public transit was the main method for getting around.
But the first time he saw a surfboard up close was age 14 when he joined Outdoor Outreach, a local nonprofit that provides all the trappings to get thousands of underserved kids into nature. He still dreams about his first time out in the water, in the serenity that exists beyond the wave break.
“Where I live, there’s a lot of sirens and police day and night,” Sanchez said. “I remember thinking, who knew it could be this quiet in San Diego?”
For San Diego kids, getting to the beach – or anywhere else, for that matter – will likely become more difficult under COVID-19 conditions. MTS reduced bus and trolley service by 25 percent on April 13 due to record-low ridership. And riders are encouraged not to ride unless it’s an essential trip, Shupp said.
The city reopened access to neighborhood parks but, as Sanchez pointed out, some parks are unfriendly places that attract nefarious activity or are targeted by police.
“It’s so well known that it’s hard to get to the beach in my neighborhood, they’re selling T-shirts,” Sanchez said.
He was referring to an apparel company called Barely See the Beach created by Ryan Anthony meant to represent inner cities of San Diego.
“Although we live within driving distance of the beach, sometimes paradise feels unreachable,” Anthony told SD Voyager in 2019.
Beach Access Essential for Whom?
The debate over whether beach and ocean access is considered essential during the pandemic exploded after governments began shutting them down.
On April 29, a leaked memo suggested that Gov. Gavin Newsom planned to shut down beaches statewide after massive crowds gathered at Orange County beaches the weekend prior. San Diego had just reopened ocean access after 36 beachless lockdown days. Protests demanding ocean access began to spark in Pacific Beach and downtown. Newsom instead ordered just Orange County close and left local control otherwise intact.
San Diegans are trying to behave and follow the passive use restrictions to keep the beach and ocean open. But parking lots are still closed. So while San Diego’s beaches are open, they’re even tougher to access for large portions of the city.
Public access to the coast is written into California’s Constitution.
“Everyone is guaranteed access to the coast, but in practice we know that’s not happening,” said Ben McCue, director of Outdoor Outreach, the nonprofit group that helped get Sanchez to the beach.
A social equity study produced for SANDAG’s 2019 regional plan showed non-white populations have slightly better beach access via public transit than white populations. But the benefit is “very small,” the report states. It’s also trending in the wrong direction.
“Getting people to school, health care and jobs, that’s the function of transit,” Schupp said. “Getting people to the beach is not priority No. 1.”
But richer and white populations generally live closer to the ocean in the first place, due to decades of exclusionary development decisions in San Diego, so what they lack in transit access they make up for in proximity.
“We’re not on track to achieve beach justice and equitable access to the coastline,” said Randy Torres-Van Vleck, senior program manager of transportation and planning at City Heights Community Development. He sits on SANDAG’s community-based organizations working group that helped put together the 2019 analysis.
Disparate access to the beach can have deadly consequences for coastal-living kids. Preventable drowning is one of the main causes of accidental death for kids under 5 in California, according to the state Department of Developmental Services. In 2017, 55 children under the age of 5 died in a pool or another body of water.
A lack of public swimming pools in urban areas means children don’t learn how to swim and lessons may also be prohibitively expensive for a family, McCue said. Then, without ever learning how to swim or experience with Pacific Ocean riptides, San Diego kids reach high school, find a buddy with a car and the story unfolds from there, he said.
Luckily, Sanchez’s mother grew up on a Mexican island so she made sure her children learned to swim at a young age. But a lot of his friends growing up were from countries with no oceans nearby. Through Outdoor Adventures he met young people in San Diego who had never seen a picture of the ocean, he said.
Now that he’s older, working and can afford his own car, Sanchez could hit the beach more often. But the family has avoided the beach because they feel it’s opened too early.
“It’s better to just stay home and just dream for now,” he said. The longer we wait, “the sweeter it will be,” he said.