I'd forgotten how good I had it.
It was that trip to Paris and Rome last year that reminded me how amazing mass transit is. You can go everywhere you want to go without a car. There's no worrying about parking. And it's even affordable. Living in Boston, first as a student and then after college, I never needed a car. Even when I moved out to the suburbs, having a car was a luxury, not a necessity. On a regular workday, I'd walk across the street from my apartment and pay 35 cents to get on the bus, which drove 30 minutes to the nearest Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority station. There I'd pay 85 cents to get on a subway train that would take me the rest of the 30-minute ride into downtown Boston. Then I'd reverse it on the way home. Just three years ago this 30-mile roundtrip cost $2.40.
It wasn't just that my job and home were strategically located. I could get anywhere I wanted to go on Boston's network of subways, buses and commuter rail trains, which run throughout the city, into the smaller cities lying directly outside Boston's limits and far afield in the suburbs 30 miles south and 60 miles north of the city. The one-way fare to reach the farthest stretches of the service lines was $4.
This is what I think about every time I'm sitting in traffic on College Avenue trying to get to my office. But if I wanted to take mass transit, the bus from Hillcrest would cost $2 and take 33 minutes one way, according to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System website. Thanks anyway, I'd rather do the 15-mile trip in 20 minutes-with traffic-and pay the price of a half-gallon of unleaded.
After jury duty last year, I took the No. 7 bus from downtown to the corner of Park Boulevard and Cypress Street in Hillcrest. But for my free jury-duty bus ticket the less-than-four-mile, one-way ride would have cost me $2. When my in-laws were in town, my husband and I took them on the trolley from Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach three stops to the San Ysidro border crossing. It cost $3.50 round-trip per person to go three stops. We could have driven there and parked for less than the $14 it cost us all the ride the trolley. And it would have taken less time, too, since the trolley was running only every 15 minutes. In the time we waited for the trolley we could have continued down I-5 to the border.
These experiences are not exclusive to me. Cities all over the country and the world have efficient, affordable, frequent and safe public transportation systems. Why don't we have the same here in San Diego? We used to have one, you know. San Diego's first neighborhoods were situated around streetcar lines that went from La Jolla to the north all the way south to Chula Vista. They ran throughout downtown San Diego, through what is now Uptown, throughout National City and Chula Vista. Even over to Coronado. So what happened?
“We really had a pretty rich history of public-transportation usage,” said Tom Larwin, who heads the Metropolitan Transit District Board (MTDB), which coordinates public transportation in the region. “It's only after World War II and the promise of having a couple cars-and people liked having a couple cars and liked having a freeway system [so much that] we started developing a community that was planned around moving cars and not moving people.”
More specifically, a new form of city planning emerged. Instead of building high-density housing laid out in a grid system as it had been in downtown San Diego, National City, Chula Vista and the Uptown area, developers fanned out to farther areas building curved streets and complicated neighborhood structures with cul-de-sacs that blocked thoroughfares.
“Those are all things that many people like but it makes walking difficult. You can walk in your neighborhood but in terms of function-getting to the store, even church and school in a lot of cases-it's very difficult to do,” Larwin said. “And if you can't walk easily, it puts public transportation at a significant disadvantage because we rely on people walking.”
Critics who are not in charge of transportation for San Diego might add that it also has to do with poor planning and bad management decisions. Whatever the cause, here we are, coming up on 60 years after the end of World War II and we have terrible air pollution, overflowing freeways and no way to avoid either. Given the existing mass-transit system in San Diego, there's a long way to go before we'll be able to mitigate the impact of the additional 1 million people that the San Diego Association of Governments expects to be living here by 2020.
It's not all bad. More than 84,000 people ride the trolley's nearly 47 miles of tracks every day, and 101,000 people ride San Diego's 31 bus routes each day. Not only are those people served by mass transit, but also the rest of us benefit from their not being on the roads contributing to gridlock. And many people who ride the system don't think it's so bad.
Downtown resident Jackie McKee uses the bus and trolley services to look for jobs. She's able to get where she needs to go for a reasonable price, not like in her hometown of Chicago. She has only a few criticisms. “They need to put more stops. There's a stop here, and a stop here, but they need one in the middle, which is where you want to be,” she said while waiting for a Blue Line trolley at the Old Town Transit Station. “And they need to educate people more about the Day Tripper [trolley pass]. A round trip is only $5 and it's good all day.”
Across the tracks from McKee, Forrest and Don Hancock, who were visiting from Austin, Tex., said they, too, would be able to use the trolley to get where they needed to go during their three-day stay here. Of course, by virtue of the fact that these people are using the system, it obviously works for them. Take La Mesa's Kelly Connolly, who rides the trolley two or three times a week and thinks it's alright. But once he really starts to think about it, he points out some major problems. “I do think it's expensive. It's a little more expensive than it should be because the population is so high,” he said. “It should run more often on the weekend.” And on his way off the trolley at Fenton Parkway he shouted back: “And they should change the routes so it's easier to get where you need to go.” This kid hit the nail on the head.
Where we are now
You could say that the problems with mass transit in San Diego started in one place-the development strategy for many of San Diego's neighborhoods.
“Most of our trips start when a person leaves home or a business or shopping and walks to a bus stop or walks to a trolley station,” Larwin said. “If you can't easily walk [from] your home, where most trips start, you're not going to use public transit. So we lose a lot of trips before they even start because it's too hard to get to a bus stop.”
That means-and this is one of the biggest criticisms and most important problems with the mass-transit system here-the system can't take people where they want to go.
Marco LiMandri, president of the planning group New City America, is by far one of the most vocal critics of the system here. San Diego's pubic-transportation system-“or lack thereof,” said LiMandri, not one to pussyfoot around the issue-is “completely non-functional.” He explained: “I'll give you a classic example I use all the time. There are three major generators of traffic in this city: the airport, SeaWorld and the zoo, and none of them have a mass transit link.”
Buses don't count, he said. He thinks they all need to be accessible by a trolley-like system, which can carry many more people than a bus. “This is just absurd. How could they have created a system where you drive by the airport and wave at it? And it's not like our airport is 20 miles out of our downtown,” LiMandri said. “They a have stops where they don't need them and where they do need them, they don't have them,” he continued.
For example, the bus through Little Italy, where his office is located, stops every two blocks. “What's the value in stopping every two blocks? Who takes a bus that stops every two blocks?” What's worse is that according to numbers he received from the transit district, the most heavily used stop is the one where just 11 people get on the bus. Another good example of this, LiMandri pointed out, is the Mission Valley East extension project, which will connect the end of the Blue Line trolley at Mission San Diego with the middle of the Orange Line trolley in the Grossmont area. “It's the epitome of stupidity,” he said.
Despite the fact that there are two hotels and a major church in the Waring Road area of I-8, the trolley will not stop near them. “It crosses the freeway and runs along the side of a mountain where it's only going to be able to pick up jack rabbits and lizards. It misses all those people. If you're a parent staying at that hotel by Nicolosi's and you want to go up to San Diego State, you can't do that. You have to get in your car and drive.”
Even Larwin admits that, to some degree, San Diego's system doesn't get people where they want to go.
“You look at our route structure and other than some areas [in Uptown] and Chula Vista, National City and El Cajon, we have really a wavy pattern and that makes it difficult for people to understand the system.”
And that's a drawback to using it. Because stops aren't located where they need to be, according to many critics, this slows the ride, which is yet another deterrent to using it.
“You can spend an hour and a half getting from El Cajon Boulevard to Mission Valley. You can spend two hours getting from City Heights to Sorrento Mesa,” said Gary Weber, a planner working with the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement District.
Frequency is another issue. “I could take the trolley into Little Italy, but the frequency is so bad that I have no incentive to do it. It's twice as fast to get in my car and sit in traffic,” LiMandri said.
In many cities, subways run every three to five minutes. Here, they run every 15 minutes to 30 minutes. And since we're making comparisons, let's look at the cost. In Boston you could take a 30-mile roundtrip for $2.40 using a bus and a subway. Here, a bus-sometimes an old, run-down vehicle that emits exhaust inside where passengers are sitting-costs $2 one way. Fares on the trolley range from $1.25 to $2.50 one-way. San Diegans pay $54 per month for a pass good on buses and the trolley.
“To take the trolley from Little Italy to the Civic Center is $2. That's completely absurd,” LiMandri said. Critics also cite other problems, including ticket machines that don't work all the time and the lack of parking at stations-people will never use mass-transit if they can't drive to major stations and park. MTDB has 23,000 parking spaces for its services. Conveniently, 18,000 of those spaces are located at Qualcomm Stadium. Which leaves a mere 5,000 spaces to serve the 48 other trolley stops.
How we got here
With nearly 60 years between San Diego's streetcar system and what we have now, it's puzzling that such an inefficient system developed. Alan Hoffman, principal of the public-transit-planning organization The Mission Group, said it's the lack of a focus on “service management,” which evaluates people, their needs and how they perceive their needs, that is missing from transportation planning.
It happens all over the world, Hoffman said, and it certainly happened here when he was a hired consultant working with MTDB. There was a gap between theory and practice. Many of the decisions about the transportation system-the type of system to build, where to expand, necessary stops for it to make on its path-looked good on paper, but when put into practice were abysmal failures.
“The realities were the service that was produced was much slower than driving for most trips,” Hoffman said. “Frequencies, waiting time, was excessive. The thing of the trolley was it didn't seem to be in the right places, it didn't seem to make the right connections.”
Linda Culp, senior transportation planner with SANDAG, agrees that market research is of the utmost importance-and indeed may be the key in turning an adequate system into an excellent system-yet she also agrees that it has not been implemented in the best way possible. However, “in all fairness to MTDB and us, the market research that was done a couple years ago, there are plans to fold that into a lot of the forecasting work we're doing and long-range planning,” Culp said. “It's not an easy task but it is an important one. To take the private-sector approach to a public service, that's where the strength of that research lies.”
Another problem with the system was the drive to keep the cost of building the trolley at the $86 million figure former Sen. James Williams had secured for construction. “A lot of operational compromises were made to keep it simple, keep it cheap, keep it working,” Hoffman said. “So they may have been good decisions, but they had implications.” For example, because the trolley shares railroad lines with freight trains, they had to use step-up trolley vehicles-which are hard for some riders to negotiate thus prolonging the time the trolley spends at each stop-because federal law prohibits platforms from being too close to railroad tracks.
Hoffman suggests platforms could have been built that fold up at night or fold down from the trolley, “but they would have added to the expense and complexity of doing the system.”
Back then-when Hoffman wasn't around-the emphasis was on function, which included speed, reliability and safety, over “gold-plating,” Larwin noted. “We're at the point now where the system has matured. We've upgraded the design criteria, and we're looking at ways to make our stations look better. I think it was appropriate for the time and it's still giving us service. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of having the money to do things with a higher quality, and as long as you don't sacrifice those key functional areas of speed, reliability and safety, I think you're OK and it's a foundation. “The alternative is what?” Larwin said. “You wait until you have money and don't have a service?”
Where we're going
A mass-transit system is only as successful as it is valuable to its riders. That means it has to take people where they want to go, and it has to do that efficiently in every way. Affordability is secondary.
“The affordability, I think, is lower [on the list of system requirements] if you have convenience and function and it takes you where you're going and you enjoy the ride,” Larwin said. To that end, MTDB has some projects in advance-planning stages that it hopes will make strides toward creating that kind of system for San Diego. The flagship solution under construction right now is the Mission Valley East trolley extension, which will connect the Blue Line at Mission San Diego to the Orange Line near Fletcher Parkway in Grossmont. The project closes the gap in the San Diego State University area along I-8. The $451 million project is expected to generate 11,000 new average daily riders and bring some 2.5 million new annual transit riders to the system, according to MTDB. MTDB hopes it won't be long before it can introduce flex trolleys-rubber-tired vehicles that look like a trolley car but operate like a bus in that it's an actual vehicle, with wheels, on pavement and operated by a driver. These vehicles should help counteract the system's image problems.
“We need to address the planning side, but we need to address our image problem, too, and the perception people have about buses,” Culp said. “We have to do something different than what we have been doing.” A “Super Loop” project is also in planning stages for the University Center area that would shuttle people from residential areas to offices and shopping.
“We've identified high-level services-high-frequency, high-speed, minimum-stop-only they'd be buses but would look better and be more comfortable and have their own lanes,” Larwin said.
MTDB is also in advance planning on projects that will connect Old Town to the beach areas as well as better serve the South Bay in areas like Otay Mesa, where street right-of-ways have already been reserved for light rail or future bus service. Few of these projects will extend the trolley; instead they will be flex trolley or enhanced bus services that encompass traffic management at intersections, fewer stops and higher vehicle speeds.
New projects also plan to make improvements for commuter buses traveling on freeways during rush hour. These new services will feature exclusive travel lanes for mass-transit vehicles or use existing high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Vehicles will exit the freeways using direct-access ramps into transit facilities, which will offer transfers and parking areas so users can park-and-ride. Currently, those projects are slated to begin construction this summer-but they depend on funding from the crippled state budget-and they will be located on Ted Williams Parkway, in Rancho Bernardo and Escondido. MTDB plans to integrate all these services in a “Showcase Project” featuring new-look buses, traffic management and fewer stops, Larwin said.
MTDB also plans to make overall technology improvements, including introducing “smart cards” for fare purchases, traffic-signal preemption and exclusive lanes for mass-transit vehicles and real-time message boards showing when the next vehicle is due to arrive at a stop. Many of these advances and new initiatives fall under the goals set forth in the draft Mobility 2030 Regional Transportation Plan, set to be adopted by the region's transportation-related interests in February.
Now come the naysayers. LiMandri doesn't think any of these proposals will do anything to improve the system. “Nothing they have on the drawing board makes any sense whatsoever,” he said. “How can we, in 2003 now, not have a line that hooks the 33rd Street Naval Station with Escondido? How is that not on the drawing board? This just blows me away.” With “zero faith in the ability of MTDB and San Diego Transit to run an efficient system,” LiMandri and Hoffman are taking action. The planners are working together on a proposal that would connect the San Diego Zoo to Mission Beach through the North Bay/Sports Arena area with a flex trolley vehicle. The problems with the proposed solutions boil down to poor planning, Hoffman said. Before San Diego can have an efficient public-transportation system, it needs an effective transit strategy, which is built on understanding market behavior.
In Hoffman's view, the U.S. transit industry in general-MTDB included-has no idea how to correctly apply market research like a private company does to generate revenue. Essentially, he believes, they have no idea what people want. However, one of the biggest misconceptions is that government can be run like the private sector. Ask anyone who's worked in government and they'll tell you it's impossible.
“Transit struggles because of this public-service end of things we need to address,” Culp said. “You have to remember that we have to serve some populations that it might not be efficient or business-like to serve. If you look at transit now, a majority of those people are captive riders. They don't have a car. They're stuck using transit. “We can't always take a private-sector approach to things like that,” she added. “It's not an easy task to integrate that kind of approach into some of that planning that we do.”
With a little imagination and stick-to-itiveness, though, the system could be so much more than even what these proposed projects might offer. “I think we need two transit systems in this county: One vehicular-transit system with a decent freeway system, and the other a mass-transit system,” said Weber of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement District. “In other words, you don't build mass transit to get people out of their cars, you build mass transit because people sincerely prefer to use transit to get from point A to point B.”
Weber says the light rail system should be built out until it's complete and connects major employment centers with high-density residential areas. It should be supplemented with bus rapid transit. “Then you would have two choices: living in this city by transit, or living in this city by automobile,” he said.
Focusing exclusively on light rail is too expensive, LiMandri said. The region should instead rely on flex trolley proposals. These vehicles can use a dedicated lane on existing roads, they can be elevated above intersections and they don't have the same grade restrictions as light rail, which can't get up a hill with a more than 6 percent incline. They'd be perfect in places like Pacific Highway, Morena Boulevard and Friars Road. “There's a tremendous amount you can do on existing roadways,” he said.
Larwin generally doesn't think outside the realities of the system's constraints, but there are changes that can be made gradually that would improve conditions for a better mass transit system. “All future development and all redevelopment [should] be designed in a way to first promote walking and mixed uses so you can walk to grocery shopping or schools or whatever,” he said. He also thinks public transportation should be made the top concern when developing so neighborhoods are planned around walking and streets are built with right-of-ways already dedicated to mass transit. “I think San Diego is too well developed to expect over the next 20 or 30 years we're just going to change everybody's habits,” Larwin said.
How we will (or won't) get there
The sad thing is, many of these problems will remain and the solutions to them may not materialize because there is so much apathy, both from voters and politicians, with regard to public transportation. Sure, people pay lip service to public transportation, but in the privacy of the voting booth the majority are not willing to put their money where their mouths are.
Thus, San Diegans' fiscal conservatism may create a major metropolitan area slated to grow by 1 million more people by 2020 that has no decent mass-transit system. “We know this is a very fiscally conservative region, a fiscally conservative city,” Weber said. “The good news is they spend a limited amount of tax dollars wisely and don't ask us for more. The bad news is there's a $30 billion transportation problem.” Larwin agreed: “The city of San Diego is lower in a lot of different areas of public finance and I think a lot of people are proud of that, but it does hurt our efforts in terms of both extending service and providing new service, as well as keeping the fares down at a level lower than they are today.” Rider fares-which cover about 45 percent of the cost of operating the system-are the biggest source of MTDB revenue, Larwin noted. “This is not like private business where when you buy a meal or a product, you're generally paying for the cost of what the production is, including all the marketing and everything else that goes into it,” he said. “In our case you're paying for part of what the cost is. The other part is being paid by taxpayers.”
Many regions have significant financial resources from the state and federal government that help pay for development, maintenance and marketing, and heavily subsidize the fare. That's one of the reasons Boston's system is so affordable-the fare is heavily subsidized, which reduces it by about half to two-thirds. In San Diego, only about 55 percent of the cost of providing transit services comes from a combination of federal and state tax dollars and the local TransNet tax, Larwin said.
“The fares are our biggest source of revenue. With anything you sell you have to be smart about how you price it, but if it's our largest source of revenue and we can't manufacture revenue anywhere else, and drivers get salary increases, the cost of fuel goes up, the cost of electrical energy goes up, you've got to pay for it somehow. So we're left with a fare that is... above average probably if you were going to do a statistical analysis around the country.”
The first step is for the region's politicians to band together and deliver a consistent message about the necessity of an effective mass-transit system, Weber said. This is especially important now because in 2007, the TransNet tax-the half-cent-sales-tax increase for transportation initiatives voters approved in 1987 for a 20-year stint-expires. P
reliminary MTDB polls indicate only about 55 percent to 60 percent of voters are inclined to keep paying the tax, which will need a two-thirds vote of the public to be extended. Only one-third of the proceeds of that tax goes to MTDB, the rest is divided between other transportation-related agencies and initiatives. Even in 1987, when the tax was proposed, there was no opposition and still only 53 percent of the public voted for it, Larwin said.
Given the already-low interest in it, trying to extend the tax for more than 20 years, make it indefinite, or raise it beyond a half-cent with the aim of generating more money for a better system, isn't going to fly. “If we don't receive that, it means we're not going to be adding much new service,” Larwin said, “but it also means the other two-thirds that goes to streets and freeways for street extensions, potholes, additional lanes, missing links between one part of the system [or] the other, are all going to be postponed. It's not just going to affect us, it's going to affect transportation in general.”
The smart thing to do, Weber suggested, is put it on the ballot now to get people thinking about it sooner rather than later. That way the region has a few chances to get it passed before the tax expires, which will stop the flow of money and leave in limbo all the projects under construction and any proposed new projects. The obstacle is leadership, Weber said. “There is not, in my opinion, the political leadership there should be to make the case for increased spending,” he said. “Frankly, I think some politicians are more interested in their political careers than they are in solving some of these problems. But that's easy for me to say, I'm not a politician. “If they lost, somebody else would win and there'll be a politician to take care of business, and at least someone will have stood up and said the right thing,” Weber said.
He does, however, have faith in the City Council, the mayor's office and the MTDB. “But I think it's going to take all of them. You can't have five or six saying, ‘We think maybe...' because then it turns into a squabble,” he said. District 5 City Councilmember Brian Maienschein agrees that approach is one that would work, but not without the proper funding. “There are massive amounts of funding that would be required to have a transit system that works,” he said. “We need state and federal money. The problem is ... the governor's proposals have huge cuts in transportation funding.”
The will of the City Council and the mayor's office are there, “but the will will only get you so far without the money,” he said. “We need money from the state, and at least in the immediate future, that's not going to be forthcoming. Eventually, the state will dig itself out of the budgetary mess it's in and there will be funding available. At that time it does need to be made a priority, and when that funding comes back, San Diego needs to do everything it can to get it's share.”
Improving transportation in San Diego is one of Mayor Dick Murphy's 10 goals for his administration. He was not available for comment. It takes money-and lots of it-to construct a reliable, dependable, efficient, clean and reasonably priced mass transit system. “Unfortunately, we are hundreds of millions of dollars away from having that transit system,” Weber said.