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Brittany Gordon spent years on the streets of San Diego before agreeing to work with a homeless service provider to find more stable shelter. In 2020, she secured a spot downtown. It wasn’t her first choice, but she took what she could get because the alternative was so much worse.
She got tired of the police, tired of having her stuff stolen.
Living in a single-room occupancy unit in the city’s center came with at least one other benefit. “It’s a lot easier to get jobs,” she said.
I caught up with Gordon at Stay True Cycleworks in City Heights, one of the three places where she works. The 32-year-old still owns a car but is in the process of selling it because parking, gas and repairs eat into her budget. Though she’d prefer to bike, she’s grateful that her bus commute takes less than half an hour.
It’s more than most riders can claim.
The vast majority of San Diegans get around by car for historical reasons that should be familiar by now. The automobile appeared at a crucial moment in Southern California’s development and encouraged the sprawl we see today. That helps explain why local attempts to push public transit emphasize the environmental benefits of alternatives to driving.
The share of San Diegans who commute by public transit is small, but still represents tens of thousands of people who are integral to the region’s workforce. But getting to a job is only possible if the routes extend into your neighborhood, at the time you need it, and move quickly.
The stats I’ve seen on this point are downright shocking.
The nonprofit San Diego Workforce Partnership wrote recently that a mere 1 percent of jobs in the metro area are accessible by public transit within 30 minutes and only 8 percent are accessible in an hour. That means Metropolitan Transit System riders who don’t have access to a car — the vast majority — also do not have access to more than 90 percent of jobs in San Diego.
The demographics are similarly revealing. According to MTS, about one-fifth of riders earn less than $15,000 a year and nearly three-fifths make less than $50,000 a year, meaning most fall within the low- to extremely low-income category. As of 2019, the ridership was 40 percent Latino, 30 percent White and 15 percent Black. The top two cities with the highest per person usage were National City and Lemon Grove.
The Workforce Partnership has been studying transportation as part of a regional equity assessment, knowing well that San Diego’s geography puts us at a disadvantage compared to older metros on the east coast.
“To overcome our historical and geographical problem of being so spread out, we’d need to invest a lot more in infrastructure than other cities,” said Karen Boyd, an economist at the Workforce Partnership.
That was part of the thinking for transit advocates who urged the San Diego Association of Governments to adopt a new, long-term regional plan that expanded the transit system. The plan, as the Environmental Health Coalition has noted, needs to “meet the needs of the low-income communities of color who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.” The group is pushing for 24-hour service, an express line from San Ysidro, restrooms and more.
How to pay for these capital-intensive projects is the inevitable question. A proposed citizens’ initiative for the November ballot failed to get enough signatures. It would have raise the county’s sales tax by a half-cent. Voters rejected a similar measure in 2016.
That’s not to say there haven’t been improvements in recent years that riders already appreciate. Transit advocates are particularly proud of the Centerline, which opened in 2018 and allows buses to bypass traffic signals on the expressway.
“The Centerline stations and Rapid 235 changed the game in terms of economic opportunity for City Heights residents wanting to commute to and from downtown,” said Randy Torres-Van Vleck, the director of Policy & Planning at City Heights Community Development Corporation.
Getting the Centerline took considerable time and energy over several decades, after CalTrans tore through City Heights with the construction of State Route 15. The actions of the community organizers were more than symbolic. They demonstrate how investments in public transit have a direct effect on the workforce and the economy.
Gordon relies on the 235 today, and so does Esperanza Gonzalez, a promotora who provides community outreach for a health clinic. During her 30 years of taking the bus in San Diego, she’s experienced her share of anguish. At 61, she’s seen fights and accidents, and missed more than a few buses, all of which caused her to be late to work.
She’s proud, too, of the improvements in recent years — especially the frequency with which buses show up — but feels like the region’s transportation system is still in another century. “It’s an essential service,” she lamented.
Gonzalez never learned to drive and doesn’t feel particularly safe in a car. But when I asked her if she thought a car would improve her quality of life, she said yes.
Though relatively obscure and politically unpalatable in a country like the United States, there is a school of thought in public planning circles that proposes to do just that — give cars to low-income folks because it’s cheaper and the effects are more immediate. Advocates of this idea point to academic research showing that access to a car is a strong predictor of economic well-being. It’s strongly associated with employment, job retention and earnings over time, which is why some private charities take donated cars, fix them up and distribute them in high-poverty neighborhoods.
This is, at its core, the gap that public transit is trying to close without adding a great deal of emissions on the road. In the meantime, one possible solution is that the government makes electric vehicles available and easy to rent — essentially a public ride-sharing program where it’s needed the most.
Car ownership, of course, is not without its problems. Though an automobile is expensive to maintain, most people are wedded to it because of the flexibility it affords. Debates around public transit are not only logistical. They’re also cultural and personal.
Without a viable alternative, people find themselves in no-win situations.
Gildardo Ramos, a 52-year-old cook at the Hilton Bayfront, told me that he moved to Tijuana shortly after the pandemic hit because he was already struggling to pay his rent in southeast San Diego. Because his family owns a plot of land there, his housing cost dropped to zero.
The tradeoff, he said, is that he spends hours waiting at the border five days a week, and sometimes sleeps in his car because he’s worried about the price of gasoline and the long commute home.
I asked Ramos if he ever considered public transit. He had, but despite all the hassle he goes through to get to work and keep his job — like forgoing a night in bed — he’s convinced a bus or trolley isn’t feasible. It takes roughly the same amount of time as driving on his own and he often leaves the hotel late as service is winding down.
“It’s not convenient,” he said.
Andrea Lopez-Villafaña contributed to this column