Putting Up

Traffic is like the weather: everyone talks about it but nobody does anything about it -- even those who are supposed to. Well, now it's time to act.

by Carolyn Chase

y persistent criticisms of the 2020 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) have led people to wonder "what do I want." I recently commented to San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) staff that I bet they "hate me" now for writing such detailed and extensive comments that they had to respond to. No, they replied, but they did wonder what I wanted. It evidently wasn't clear to them from my 40+ pages of comments what I wanted. This is likely to some great degree because it's not clear to me what I want. Some have accused me of being "vague."

All of this is funny to me because I don't have a list. I'm not "gunning" for or against any particular projects -- though I have an extremely low opinion of some. I don't have all the answers as to how to solve the obviously tremendous and expensive transportation growth problems of the region.

What I do have is a decent understanding of both the benefits and the limitations of computer models and forecasting, and a lifetime's experience living in Southern California attempting to get around -- both with and without a car. I don't have is a vested interest in any particular project or approach -- except that of an environmentalist and taxpayer wanting a system that works better.

Many times I have tried to wrap my brain around the idea that the 2020 RTP recently approved by SANDAG -- without even having to provide a final copy to the public or their Board -- IS the best that we can do. But I cannot bring myself to believe it. I have fundamental respect for SANDAG staff but I simply cannot believe they can't do better. So where is the disconnect? Why isn't the plan better? I have now seen SANDAG Board members overrule good staff recommendations as often as challenge bad ones.

It boils down to this: because the market for public transit is considered second class, only second-class services are provided. What I want is a transit system that's for everyone, not mainly the poor and disabled. No one wants to talk straight about this, but the fact is: if you ride public transit regularly, you'll notice right away that 3 out of 4 riders are "captive" riders (as SANDAG prejudicially refers to them). That means people cannot operate a car because they are disabled, too young or too poor. I would hazard a guess that this also aligns with groups with lower voting turnout.

The suburbs will soon discover why effective public transit is their issue, too. If they haven't figured out that it's required to deal with horrendous freeway traffic, consider the recent public testimony at an Metropolitan Transit Development Board hearing considering the cancellation of subsidized van-pick-up services in the Rancho Bernardo area. An elderly woman, objecting to the cancellation of what amounts to a publicly-subsidized taxi service, pleaded, "I'm trapped without it."

Over-optimism about transit is as unwarranted as over-optimism about cars. What I want is a system that works better for lower costs. I want a system that is about people and not strictly about cars. I want a system that respects limits. A part of maturity is understanding limits.

There needs to be a driving principal behind planning how to use transportation resources and how to argue effectively for more. Right now, that principal seems to be: let's take the money we have, plus what we could get from renewing the special sales tax, and divide it between more highway capacity and expanding the trolley system.

What if, instead, we propelled our thinking out of that conventional box and asked: What would it take for the percentage of transit market share to escape single digits? What strategy would make using public transportation a truly competitive alternative to driving a car for many trips?

The trolley is nice and serves some markets. But for this purpose, it's too slow (average speed somewhere around 25 mph) and requires too many compromises and too much cash to be the core of an alternative system.

What sort of system could we build that would communicate to everyone who lives here -- or wants to live here -- that we could use transit to get most places we need to go, in a reasonable amount of time, at an affordable cost, with an experience you'd want to repeat, not avoid?

What sort of system would that be?

  • One that connects the region's major destinations with high speed service, not giving in to multiple stations to serve demands for access.
  • One that reaches for the best of new bus technology (check what Lane Transit in Eugene, Oregon is doing), or shows the innovative boldness of Curitiba, Brazil, or even Chattanooga, Tennessee. (When they needed a different sort of vehicle or technology to implement their strategy, they outsourced it or built it themselves).he flexibility and affordability of vehicles that run on tires hile not enjoying the romance of other modes s the superior 21st century thing to do.
  • One that builds a system of smaller vehicle service within a market radius of the major destination nodes, with service so frequent that no one needs a schedule because it feels continuous.
  • One that designs the experience you get as a customer with the same sensitivity any successful retailer has to show these days.

This debate is tragically similar to the ongoing debate over education. People assume that we can get substantially different results without doing something significantly different. Or, that we can't do anything until the public demands it. Sorry. If that's the triggering factor -- by the time the public-at-large wants something different -- it will be too late or too expensive to provide it. We shouldn't have to wait to get into the Bangkok position -- or even that of Boston, Miami, or Atlanta.

In fact, Atlanta provides all the lessons other regions should need. They had a run of a decade or so as America's great success story (near top in every "best list" -- Olympics, etc.). Meanwhile, they let their land use and transportation decisions chase every developer's whim. Now, with a carpet of cul-de-sacs (the most anywhere) and roads all over the region, they have the longest commutes anywhere. This is where Bubba met the business community. Now they have GRTA (known as "Greta," Georgia Regional Transportation Agency), arguably the most dictatorial regional agency in the western world. Is Senator Peace "stealing" from this script with his RITA (Regional Infrastructure Transportation Agency) proposal?

San Diego Mayor Susan Golding only recently began her service on the SANDAG Board. But with one 2-page memo on February 24, she began to sweep away decades of stagnated SANDAG policy embedded in the 2020 RTP. The memo directed that SANDAG "immediately engage in an update that would incorporate a new way of thinking about accomplishing the same goal of diminishing traffic congestion and increasing transit ridership but without increasing the amount of pavement," and "Instead of building a transit system and hoping 'they will come', let's create a transit system that gets the people from where they are today to where they want to go in a timely manner. This change in paradigm is critical. We need to think about transit options as opportunities and quicker alternatives to the car, rather than longer and harder to take than our beloved car."

Included in the goals:

  • ift to a "connect the neighborhoods" philosophy with the goal of double-digit transit ridership as a percent of work trips.
  • Establish incentives for housing densities consistent with growth projections and transit needs
  • Ensure the preservation of our open spaces consistent with our Habitat Plans
  • Quantify the impact of the transportation system as a whole on the region's quality of life.

The SANDAG Board approved the memo as part of their adoption of the 2020 RTP. Now the hard work begins. Can the Metropolitan Transit Development Board and the North County Transit District produce strategic plans that quadruple the share of trips that transit captures within 15 years? If they are pushed, they might perform. If San Diego wants to lead rather than follow, what better than to pick the issue that will be number one in local politics?

Remember, George Clooney is now making a film here and the name of the film is "Traffic."

The information in this story is based on a speech by Curtis Johnson, the Citistates Group, at the annual SANDAG Board of Directors retreat in February 2000