Solving the transportation problem in San Diego

It you think these ideas seem extreme think them over again the next time you're stuck in stop-and-go traffic. You'll have plenty of time.

by David Bainbridge


ne of the greatest challenges the new mayor and council will face is the Gordian knot of transportation in San Diego. To solve this problem, they will need to address the cause, not the symptoms. If they do, our quality of life can be preserved. If they don't, we will continue the slide to conditions that are worse than Los Angeles.

What is the underlying cause of the problem? As with most environmental problems, the fundamental cause is extremely heavy subsidies, in this case for automobiles and freeways. A detailed study in the Bulletin of the International Society for Ecological Economics presented a detailed accounting of subsidies for automobiles in the United States. The net subsidy was calculated as 90 percent. That is, for every mile driven, the driver is paying only one-tenth the real cost. While other studies have come up with lesser amounts, most still agree that the "hidden subsidy" is higher than suspected. Until subsidies are changed, there will be no reform of transportation and no solution to the problems of traffic.


When aren't "more roads" better?


Even with massive subsidies, we can't build new freeways fast enough to escape gridlock. We just make the problem worse by encouraging more long commutes in the short term. As Jay Forrester, the brilliant MIT engineer who invented the modern computer, notes in his analysis of transportation woes: the solution to traffic congestion is to stop building highways. This is not a popular idea, but it is true. Portland, Oregon revived its downtown by tearing out the riverside freeway. Vancouver, British Columbia has prospered ever since its proposed ocean-side freeway was stopped by a citizen uprising.

How do we stop building freeways? Remove the subsidies. To do this, we need to better determine the local costs. For example, the pollution caused by stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots shouldn't be corrected with hotel taxes, it should be paid for by gasoline charges.


When in Rome


The European charges are far more reflective of the real costs, and may possibly even understate them. European countries make up some of the difference with auto registration costs tied to horsepower. These can be quite stiff. One of my students calculated that owning his massive 1963 Cadillac in Austria would cost about $500 a month for registration and insurance. It is much easier and more equitable to simply charge for gasoline. To prevent chaos, these charges would have to be phased in over 5-10 years. There may also have to be assistance for the poor, until the transit system is up and running adequately.

Increasing the cost of gasoline provides an immediate curb on trips, as the current run-up in gas prices has shown. While still far below the highest historic cost (the high was in 1980 at $2.60 gallon in today's dollars), it is enough to make people think twice about long commutes in vehicles that get under 20 miles-per-gallon.


Changing development patterns


As the cost of driving becomes a concern, redevelopment can be channeled closer to work. The cities in San Diego county will also have to be ready with mixed-use zoning, allowing residential occupation in commercial and industrial areas, and developing viable transit systems. They should also rewrite the planning codes and street requirements to favor walkers and bicyclists. The developer of Village Homes in Davis was able to cut street width from 43 feet to as low as 23 feet by improving bicycle and pedestrian paths. This saved money, improved safety and quality of life, and protected environmental quality.

The money raised from these gasoline fees (more than a billion gallons of gas are sold in San Diego every year) would support redevelopment initiatives and improvements in more efficient, comfortable, and healthful transportation. The heart of this system for the foreseeable future will be buses: lowly, unloved, and clean only if converted to compressed natural gas (CNG) or new low-emission diesel, especially if used as part of a diesel/electric hybrid system. Buses are flexible, inexpensive and very effective if used wisely.


Curitiba: a working model


Curitiba, Brazil provides the perfect example of a bus system that works. This includes: improved bus routing and lanes; loading pods, so the fare is paid before boarding the bus; extra-large buses for major routes; an effective route network; and private ownership and operation of the buses. The city assigns the routes, sets the fares, and pays the contractor per revenue mile, not per passenger-mile. They do this to make even lower-performing routes equally attractive to operators.

This system turns a profit at a charge of only 50¢ per passenger, even with transfers anywhere within the city. This bus system moves more than 1.9 million trips a day, more than the buses of New York City. The population of metro Curitiba (Curitiba and surrounding municipalities) is now given at 2.4 million people. The development cost of bus routes is about one-third of a percent one eightieth of the cost of subways and much, much less than trolleys or light rail.


Making human-power practical

The supporting element in San Diego should be bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The best weather in the United States would enable more people to ride and walk more easily than any other city in the country. Previous support for these healthful and environmentally-friendly transit options has been minimal. All new developments should be planned to favor walking and biking. Bike route and pedestrian links and connections and support systems (e.g., lockers, showers) should be established throughout the region. All traffic lights should be retrofitted so that a bicycle will trigger the light cycle.

The City of Davis has shown what can be done. For part of the year, at least a third of the commutes are by bicycle. Germany has also begun to support bicycle commuting and is seeing the dividends. Frieburg has seen the bicycle commute rise from 12% in the 1970s to 19% today, and Muenster has increased bicycle commuting to 32%. The Netherlands now offers tax credits to people who commute by bicycle, acknowledging the savings to society and offsetting subsidies for cars.

Walking is even more seriously discouraged in most developments and by most engineering design today. Pedestrians in San Diego are reviled. Only the poor and criminals walk; the chosen drive large SUVs.

The creation of walking links paths cutting through developments and buildings should be an essential part of every new proposal, and a major effort should be made to repair past mistakes. Pedestrian bridges and tunnels are needed in many areas. Walking and bicycling (if made reasonably safe) will add a health bonus worth millions of dollars a year. The 30% of us that are clinically obese can work off some of our fat while improving the environment and better enjoying our lovely city.

Solutions to our transportation problems are available. Will our planners and politicians accept the challenge?

David Bainbridge helped develop the innovative planning policies for the City of Davis. He has worked on bikeway and pedestrian planning, traffic analyses for developments, developed a plan for a bikeway from Merced to Yosemite, and was coauthor of the first coastal bike route map for California. He currently teaches environmental studies courses at United States International University and rides his bicycle when he can.