The second half of 2015 has featured plenty of transit and housing-related developments, both here and in other west coast metros. I was taking a break from the blog during much of that time, but not from obsessively (and sadly) collecting links about all the changes. Here in San Diego the biggest development was SANDAG’s unanimous approval of a regional transportation plan for the next 40 years that “fails to set the county on a course for a transit-friendly future, fails to meet the state’s long term greenhouse gas reduction goals and fails to address the reality of climate change“. The SANDAG plan essentially nullifies the city of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan before it’s even up for city council vote; SANDAG’s executive director (and former Caltrans district head) Gary Gallegos called the CAP’s transit goals “unrealistic” and “dreamed-up stuff”, plus:
Gallegos said communities outside the city, especially those along congested state Routes 78 and 56, would prefer to see a greater percentage of SANDAG’s money spent on freeway widening and road construction instead of transit and bike lanes.
Despite pleas from transit advocates, CAP author Todd Gloria and CAP advocate Mayor Faulconer both voted for a regional transportation plan that didn’t remove a single freeway expansion from its last incarnation – not even the general-purpose-lanes expansion set for I-5 in National City.
For context, on-road transportation accounts for 43% of San Diego’s greenhouse gas emissions, global CO2 emissions are now at an all-time high, and we appear to be on course for at least a 2.7 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, with huge impacts as a result. San Diego is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change given our coastal location, ongoing drought and high wildfire risk; its regional planning agency responded by approving a transportation plan that exceeds state 2050 emissions goals 7 times over.
The plan isn’t just a failure from a transit and climate change perspective, but on a common sense level too. Gallegos’ former agency now admits that widening freeways just creates new traffic through induced demand, and other state DOT’s are also beginning to grasp this concept. Yet the suburban board members of SANDAG and their car-dependent constituents simply refuse to listen, and are relentless in their demands for more and wider roads.
What’s most interesting about SANDAG’s actions isn’t their continued defiance of state court rulings invalidating their plans, but how out of date their freeways-first approach is versus plans approved in other cities recently. In Los Angeles this summer, the city council voted for a mobility plan that “adds hundreds of miles of new bicycle lanes, bus-only lanes and other road redesigns”, acknowledging the changing transit priorities of younger residents. Because this will potentially slow traffic in some areas, drivers there have claimed the city “want[s] to make driving our cars unbearable by stealing traffic lanes from us on major streets and giving those stolen lanes to bike riders and buses“. For a group that doesn’t even come close to paying the cost of roads, it takes a lot of chutzpah for some motorists to say our public streets are “theirs” only.
In San Diego, elected and appointed officials typically cave in to these selfish interests, as we’ve seen time after time. (One notable exception is Marti Emerald, who stood up for a bike lane on College Ave., and more recently, a road diet on Fairmont in City Heights.) In LA, the council members didn’t back down, and are doing the right thing for their constituents’ safety and the planet’s future. Reaching a Vision Zero goal of zero pedestrian deaths within 20 years requires courage to stand up to business and motorist interests, not just passing proclamations.
In his piece on LA’s Mobility Plan 2035, Christopher Hawthorne addressed the commonly-voiced complaint that making streets safer for others will inconvenience drivers (in this case, taking the kids to soccer practice), and therefore shouldn’t be done:
For starters, people who live in Chicago (or Seattle or New York or Philadelphia) don’t consider taking their kids to soccer practice some distance away, via private car, the sort of basic right that their elected representatives should spend a lot of time helping them protect.
In Los Angeles we have come to view things differently. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are the only big city in the country where we can have all the great things that come with urbanization and, remarkably, none of the eternal and endless traffic congestion. We want the cultural amenities and economic clout of a major metropolis but the traffic patterns of a garden-variety suburb.
This is a kind of magical thinking.
There are several other good points in Hawthorne’s piece, including how residents have blocked needed housing because of traffic congestion concerns, helping to create the housing crisis in LA. The same applies to San Diego, where preservation of free street parking nearly always trumps affordable housing – just ask the KenTal Community Planning Group and their unanimous opposition to state assembly bill #744. The bill (now signed by Governor Brown), reduces parking minimums on new senior, special-needs and low income housing near transit. Are state laws our last resort to overcome the hostility of many San Diego planning groups toward affordable and middle class housing?
Another big change in LA’s mobility plan is that it follows a state directive to drop the automobile Level of Service (LOS) policy. Auto Level of Service analysis, which measures traffic delays, is currently applied to any development or infrastructure change – even transit-oriented development and bike lanes. So changes that encourage multi-modal transit and safer streets for people on foot and bikes can be rejected solely because of their impact on auto travel times. This is exactly what San Diego’s Traffic Engineering Divsion (Steve Celnicker in particular) did to the Transform Hillcrest bike lane compromise that had universal community support. Yet when I asked Climate Action Plan author Todd Gloria (whose plan seeks an 18% Uptown bike mode share by 2035) why an outdated analysis method was being used to kill the compromise, he seemed unfamiliar with the policy. Why do our street engineers, who have spent their entire careers optimizing our roads for fast traffic flow, still have final say on deciding our city’s (unsafe) street design?
In Seattle, voters passed a bold transit plan earlier this month to increase the number of rapid bus lines by 7, add bike lanes and fund safer street design. Residents there get it – the lives of people on foot and bikes are more important than fast street speeds for motorists – and so they allocated $71 million toward implementing their Vision Zero policy to eliminate pedestrian fatalities. How much funding has the City of San Diego or SANDAG devoted to Vision Zero? With the city’s infrastructure megabond looking unlikely, don’t expect much (from the UT):
San Diego Councilman Todd Gloria said Friday that (the megabond) was unlikely.
“I don’t have confidence the city is going to be in position to put a reasonable measure on the ballot in 2016 that could be successful,” said Gloria, noting that San Diego doesn’t have an expenditure plan and hasn’t done preliminary polling like SANDAG.
Cheap on-street storage of private vehicles is an incredibly inefficient use of public street space, when you can move many people to their destination rapidly in this same space via bus. So Seattle has removed over 1000 parking spaces for bus and bike lanes, and downtown parking garages are still only at 60% capacity. In San Diego, Hillcrest’s parking facilities are also not at capacity, yet the Hillcrest Business Association successfully lobbied Todd Gloria and SANDAG to kill the agency’s protected bike lane design on University – to preserve cheap/free street parking. Incredibly, the 91 spaces lost under the design’s worst-case scenario were more than offset by nearly 200 spaces in the DMV lot, and 145 spaces from forthcoming angled parking conversions in the neighborhood.
Seattle organizations were already taking big steps toward reducing solo car commuting before the vote. Seattle Children’s hospital subsidizes transit, bicycling, walking and carpooling using employee parking fees. Here in San Diego, the CFO of Rady Childrens Hospital was killed while riding his bike in an unprotected bike lane earlier this year; the driver still hasn’t been charged. Next door to Rady’s, Sharp Memorial employees lock their bikes to trash cans due to a lack of racks, pedestrians are regularly run over, and a visitor was even killed while crossing the speedway in front of the hospital known as Health Center Drive. In response, the hospital told visitors to park in the parking garage. How does a public transit user who disembarks on Health Center Drive do that, exactly?
In addition to passing a failed transportation plan, SANDAG also ignored requests to incentivize transit-oriented development. The Bay area has a comprehensive regional TOD plan that quantifies minimum levels of development around stations and to fund plans for jobs and housing near stations. Conversely, San Diego’s trolley system was named worst in the state for putting jobs, housing, retail and services near stations (from Voice of San Diego):
(The study) quantified a phenomenon that’s long been apparent anecdotally: Local leaders support smart growth – urban development that’s crucial for transit ridership – in theory, but not in practice.
They are not planning for or facilitating enough construction of walkable, affordable housing near transit access points.
More than any other large metropolitan area in California, San Diego has not allowed for the development that would capitalize on the major investments made in its transportation system. Leaders in recent years have continued to profess their support for accommodating a growing population responsibly, but their decisions tell a different story.
San Diego’s awful grades for its rail station amenities are a direct result of decades of building trolley lines along existing rail corridors, rather than in dense neighborhoods with built-in ridership. When you’re focused on widening freeways over building rail infrastructure (and just 12% of the new SANDAG transportation plan goes toward new rail), there’s no money left over for the expensive rail right-of-way infrastructure costs in urban neighborhoods. Throw in our city’s notorious provincialism and NIMBYism that blocks development near stations and you’ve got yet another failure.
As bad as the city and SANDAG are on these issues, the Airport Authority somehow tops them with their utter disregard for both transit users and climate change. The Authority has done next to nothing to connect to the trolley line that runs just yards from the airport, then insists to the Coastal Commission that they must build a 3000 space parking garage because no one’s taking public transit there. If you use ride-share services, airport officials say you’re creating more traffic congestion and should be parking in the garage instead (for more airport revenue). Two more garages are slated, in addition to the massive rental car garage and parking lot that were recently constructed. And while airport after airport connects to their light rail systems, next month San Diego trolley users will have the honor to stand on the side of Pacific Highway and wait for a rental car shuttle to get to our airport.
Next up is the SANDAG Quality of Life half cent sales tax, which will likely appear on the ballot next year. The measure would fund water, environmental and transportation projects, but once again freeway widening rears its ugly head (from the UT):
North County leaders stressed that including upgrades to state Route 78 would play a key role in building support for the measure in their communities.
“78 constrains every single project in my city,” Chris Orlando, San Marcos councilman, said. “We have to fix it.”
Orlando and his constituents still think you can “fix” congestion by adding more lanes, but even Caltrans is admitting this is false. Meanwhile, while there are billions available to widen freeways in the current SANDAG plan, Gallegos says we have to pass the Quality of Life Initiative if we want any SANDAG funding for a critical trolley line connecting job centers (from KPBS):
Gallegos said SANDAG needs more local funding to enact the transit projects in its recently approved Regional Transportation Plan, including a purple trolley line from San Ysidro to Sorrento Valley. He said some of that project’s $6 billion price tag could be covered by federal funds, but SANDAG can’t secure federal funding without local matching funds.
“Absent local funding, the purple line will not be possible without new local resources,” he said.”
Personally I think that before we give them any more money, SANDAG needs to be reformed to address a senior staff that’s unaccountable to taxpayers, and biased toward suburban interests that ignore state GHG emissions goals and induced demand concepts.
Well, this post has turned into a novel and I still didn’t get to some recent housing-related developments, so I’ll cover them next time.