Earlier this year the city unveiled an updated plan to combat climate change, the 2016 Climate Action Plan (CAP). It is an impressive, and ambitious document which advocates a future for the world’s finest city in which the health of citizens and the environment are prioritized. The CAP proudly proclaims efforts to “improve public health by removing harmful pollutants from our air” as one the plan’s top priorities. More specifically the CAP calls for San Diego to contribute to helping California reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2050, with a shorter-term emission reduction target of 15 percent of 2010 levels by 2020. Although San Diego has one of the most aggressive environmental urban plans in the nation, the city faces the daunting task of overcoming challenges posed by its biggest polluter, traffic.
The Climate Action Plan notes that motor vehicles are the main polluters in the city, with transportation being responsible for fully 55% of city wide emissions. The CAP specifically cites the “high frequency of single-occupancy vehicle trips” as bearing responsibility for the majority of transportation related emissions. Much of these emissions are the result of rush-hour gridlock. In 2014, the average San Diegan spent a depressing 37 hours in traffic, at an annual cost of 774$ per commuter in wasted fuel and time alone. In addition to imposing a financial (and emotional) burden on commuters, the excess fuel consumption contributes to lower air quality and ultimately exacerbates local efforts to curb emissions and achieve the important targets set. If San Diego is to be successful in achieving the lofty goals proclaimed in the environmental plan, traffic congestion needs to be addressed and alleviated to improve transportation and energy efficiency.
While the goals of reducing emissions are obvious, the best strategy to achieve them is less so. Currently, San Diego’s Regional Plan seeks to expand the city’s vast network of highways even further. Over the next 35 years San Diego Association of Governments plans to construct an additional 1,757 miles of highway. These additional highways at best offer a temporary solution that will only guarantee more traffic and further environmental pollution down the road. Instead of constructing additional highways at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars, a wide array of cheaper alternatives could be used to greater effect, and in less time. Pursuing efforts to make downtown more bike friendly, providing additional incentives for carpooling and rewarding local businesses for having staggered work hours or allowing telecommuting are more cost effective alternatives that can be implemented sooner rather than later.
Businesses can play an important role in making San Diego’s CAP successful by instituting alternative work scheduling practices. Alternative work scheduling, which includes staggered work shifts, compressed work weeks and flextime, provides a simple and often cost free solution to reduce traffic congestion. Staggered work hours, in which employees arrive and depart work at different hours, reduces the number of commuters on the highways during peak traffic times. For example, by allowing some employees to work a 10am – 6pm schedule and others to work 8am – 4pm, a business could do its part to ease rush-hour and improve air quality.
Compressed work weeks are an even more effective alternative, by allowing the option of a four-day work week with 10-hour shifts and three days off. These hours give employees more time with family and friends and reduce annual work related fuel consumption by more than a fifth when ten hour shifts are factored in, which inherently avoid at least one rush-hour per day. Any business that utilizes a compressed work week or offers telecommuting is actually playing an important role in reducing San Diego’s emissions and protecting the environment.
The creation of more bike paths downtown is another way to take vehicles off the road and reduce traffic congestion. Anyone who uses a bike to commute downtown will tell you that it can be daunting to share your lane with city buses and other massive vehicles. The addition of more bike paths separated from vehicle traffic would encourage a broader segment of the population to take advantage of them. It is far less intimidating to bike in a specially marked lane than having to weave in and out of traffic. Half a world away, Amsterdam’s well-organized system of bikeways demonstrates the potential of an efficient bike system for reducing vehicle traffic. A stunning 48% of downtown Amsterdam’s traffic is by bike. Meanwhile less than 1% of San Diego resident’s bike to work.
If downtown San Diego could replicate even a fraction of the Dutch capital’s biking infrastructure, the Climate Action Plan would have a far greater chance to meet its 2020 benchmark of having 6% of residents commute to work via bike and its goal of 12% by 2035. The clearest strategy for implementation of these goals is through the creation of buffered bike lanes separated from vehicle traffic throughout the city. San Diego’s Bicycle Master Plan provides a detailed framework for implementing these changes needed to make the city more bike-friendly and compliments the Climate Action Plan.
Increased incentives for carpooling offers yet another affordable and simple solution to our city’s traffic congestion. The San Diego Association of Governments currently offers an iCommute Award to businesses that make use of compressed work weeks, telecommuting and ride sharing. Businesses can then advertise their membership and market themselves as an environmentally and socially conscious company. The iCommute Award program and carpool express lanes are excellent start, but the city needs to offer more substantive incentives. Businesses and city government can also do their part to support carpooling by offering additional incentives to employees such as cash, gift certificates, or gas and parking vouchers. The city of Portland, Oregon is a leader in promoting carpooling and offering preferred parking spaces, reduced parking fees and tax credits. Our city could learn from Portland by implementing at least a few of their carpool incentive policies.
Transportation company Uber has already launched a new carpooling service in San Diego, UberPool, which allows users to save money by sharing their ride with other passengers going in the same direction. By providing this service the overall number of single-occupancy vehicle trips is reduced, in effect taking cars off the road, which is good for traffic and the environment. Carpooling, whether through ride share companies or promoted by traditional businesses, will help San Diego reach the goals set out by the Climate Action Plan by easing traffic and working to offset the need for further highway construction.
San Diego must reduce traffic, and in-turn emissions without adding to our behemoth system of mega-highways. These highways divide neighborhoods and consume vast swaths of public land that could be better utilized serving the community’s they cut through. Additionally, highways themselves pose a health risk to those living nearby. Residents living within 1500 feet of major highways report higher levels of Asthma and other lung ailments. The tragedy of increased highway pollution is two-fold as it disproportionately impacts lower-income residents who often lack access to necessary healthcare to cope with asthma and other pollution related illnesses.
The solution is not to build more highways but rather to focus resources on more cost-effective strategies to alleviate traffic congestion and mitigate rush-hour gridlock. Adopting staggered work hours, providing greater incentives for carpooling and creating a more comprehensive system of bike paths will reduce traffic and allow us to implement the Climate Action Plan. If accomplished, this would be a major achievement for a major U.S. city and would highlight San Diego as a model for other cities seeking to combat climate change. As our city moves forward with its bold environmental plan, every avenue, rather than freeway, should be considered to make San Diego’s plans to lead the fight against climate change a reality.
Photo by Author.