At last week’s State of the City address, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer enthusiastically stated, “I want to radically overhaul the system itself. The bureaucracy has been set up to empower anti-housing forces that delay or deny projects at every turn… We need to build more housing near employment centers and transit.”
This is a rejection of our long-standing, auto-oriented, one-size-fits-all approach to city making. Fortunately, in 2008, our City of Villages plan began to shift the standards of new construction of private development from single-family, single-use land use outcomes towards more mixed-use buildings and blocks filled with offices, shops, affordable housing, and market-rate homes. This proclamation officially transitions San Diego from focusing on suburban outcomes, as we have for the past 60+ years, to building within our urban neighborhoods.
Now it’s time to do the same for our transit services.
With the Mayor’s emphasis on using transit to connect our employment centers to new housing construction, it is time to shift our transit modes from its one-size-fits-all, over-reliance on Light Rail Transit (LRT – The Trolley) to a mix of transit modes. The problem today is that our Trolley acts like Commuter Rail by linking downtown to Santee and the border, as well as acting like a Streetcar by linking downtown’s Little Italy to Gaslamp. No matter where it is in the city, the trolley stops every 15 minutes at over 56 stations. Plus, it is limited in its ability to climb hillsides to access and serve the neighborhoods and districts located on our mesas.
With its one-size-fits-all use, our Trolley does not really perform to its fullest LRT function, nor is it capable of being a true Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Streetcar. LRT is a fixed-rail system intended to serve city-to-city, such as connecting Chula Vista to La Mesa to Santee. BRT is intended to serve community-to-community, such as North Park to City Heights to Rolando. And, Streetcars are intended to serve neighborhood center to neighborhood center within each community, such as from North Park’s 30th street from Adams Avenue to Upas.
Our city’s new Rapid Bus service is essentially an Express Bus, or BRT-Lite, that flows with traffic, stopping at streetlights, and merging with all traffic on the freeways with 15-minute waits between buses. We do have a short segment of BRT, but it is located on a half-mile stretch on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest. And, we have one historic Streetcar circling a downtown loop on our LRT tracks. These limited modes are our best opportunity to quickly expand access to our city with cheaper and lighter forms of transit.
We need a mixed-modal, walkable to/from transit network to compete with the auto-oriented infrastructure we’ve built over the past 60+ years. It is easier to drive a car around than to take transit because we purposely designed and invested to do. San Diego needs to add BRT on major corridors and local neighborhood Streetcars to connect our mix of surface street buses and fixed rail trolley network.
Since 2013, San Diego has been a member city of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), who state in their Transit Street Design Guide (Island Press, 2016, page 178) “Cities with both buses and a dedicated right-of-way rail system (LRT) have historically structured the former (bus) as a feeder service to the latter (LRT). Bus Rapid Transit can be used to upgrade new parts of the network into trunklines… Streetcars and Buses can also form a multi-hub network.” Just last month the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department stated that it, “is allowing the incorporation of NACTO design concepts as presented in the Urban Street Design Guide (Island Press, 2013),” to plan and design projects. These new rules will permit more dedicated BRT and Streetcar lines throughout the city.
The hierarchy of San Diego’s full-range of public transit service modes are as follows:
- Heavy Rail (Amtrak) – Connects San Diego to Los Angeles and the nation a few times a day;
- Commuter Rail (Coaster) – Connects three coastal cities at peak hour times;
- Light Rail (Trolley + Sprinter) – Connects Santee, San Ysidro to San Diego (with a new line up to University City next year) and Oceanside, San Marcos to Escondido with frequent stops every half-mile or more. Our bus networks feeds into our main LRT lines;
- Bus Rapid Transit – Easily retrofitted into our wide streets with dedicated bus lanes, separated from traffic, and given priority at intersections to be competitive timewise with local car trips. These connect our canyons (Mission Valley) to our mesas (Clairemont Mesa and Rolando);
- Express Bus (Rapid & Breeze) – These run faster schedule by not making as many stops as than normal bus services between the same two commuter or destination points on quicker routes;
- Local Bus – The bulk of our transit service with stops every quarter-mile throughout the city;
- Streetcars – Modern and historic cars that run on rails that usually flows with traffic on main streets and connects neighborhood to neighborhood;
- Shuttles (Paratransit, Flex & Lift) – Connects people with daily service and those of us with physical, cognitive, and visual disabilities throughout the city.
The hierarchy of San Diego’s full-range of private mobility modes are as follows:
- Shuttles (Airport Shuttles, Van Share) – Connects people with daily service and those of us with physical, cognitive, and visual disabilities throughout the city.
- Bicycles & Jitney facilities – Connects people up to three to five miles comfortably at a slower speed;
- Pedestrians & scooter facilities – Connect us up to a quarter to half mile distance at a walkable pace.
To support our Mayor’s vision for San Diego, we need to build a more sustainable transit network that focuses on connecting job centers to neighborhood centers with BRT and interconnecting Streetcar lines. Our zoning requires our new housing to be constructed as mixed-use and accessible by pedestrians. The new BRT study investment our City Councilmembers, Georgette Gomez and Chris Ward, announced this week is the right start to building the right mix of transit types to connect new housing with job centers.