Ireland: A San Diego traffic solution?

I've found out that the freeways are a hallowed and sacred spot for people. I enter them with fear and loathing.

- New Laker coach Phil Jackson on his early impressions of Los Angeles.

by Gary Piro

ne thing that every politician in San Diego seems to agree on is "we don't want to be like Los Angeles." Unfortunately, when planning for our growth, they seem to embrace the item that contributes most to the problems in Los Angeles: their transportation model. Witness their current plans to widen Interstate 5 to 23 lanes near Highway 56: wider than any highway in the Los Angeles area.

Metropolitan Transit Development Board consultant Alan Hoffman has calculated that our projected growth will require 1,300 lane-miles of freeways, based on our existing traffic model (equivalent to six Interstate 805 freeways). He also states that this will result in a need for 37 square miles of parking required for these vehicles. This sure sounds like Los Angeles to me!

As Edmond Burke once said, "You can never plan for the future by the past." So why don't we look to other areas of the world for workable solutions? Like Curtiba, Brazil, who rejected the idea of road widening to solve their city gridlock problem and instead closed all of the streets in a large downtown area. The result of this approach was the creation of the most efficient bus system in the world.

On a trip I took last September to Ireland, I was fascinated by their different approach to transportation and wondered how these ideas might work in San Diego. Due to Ireland's history of wars and disasters, they were financially unable to develop extensive rail systems like other western European countries. Their transportation philosophy, however, is not one of automobile dependence, but rather one of automobile tolerance.

Upon arriving at the airport in Dublin, our introduction to Irish transportation came when we picked up our rental car. The "mid-sized" Opal we had reserved would be classified as a "small car" at any automobile rental in America. We then noticed that our car, as well as most of the cars in the rental lot, had doors on the driver side and passenger side badly gouged. This, I learned, was an "omen" regarding the non-accommodating traffic lanes and parking spaces we would be encountering on our trip.

Most of the traffic lanes we drove on were one to two feet narrower than the San Diego standard. Parking spaces are infrequent and also narrower than home. The busses, which run frequently, are no wider than a passenger car and double decked to efficiently serve narrow neighborhood streets.

Between the smaller cities, roadways are as narrow as sixteen feet and are usually lined with trees so that neighboring residents can't see them. It is common to encounter a herd of sheep blocking the road that serves as a natural "traffic calming" device. We were told that if you hit any sheep, you must find the farmer and reimburse him for his loss. If not, you could be arrested. Between larger cities, the major highways are just two and one-half lanes in each direction. That's two standard twelve-foot lanes and one eight-foot shoulder that is shared between bicyclists, stranded cars and slower vehicles.

It's not that Ireland doesn't have a train system; major cities are connected by efficient train service and the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail system is undergoing a major expansion.

At a restaurant we stopped at in Yeats Country, on the West Coast of Ireland, we met a young Irish student who had just come back from going to school in Montana. She told us that automobiles are not as revered in Ireland as she found them to be in America. She stated that students in Irish high schools or universities that commute by automobile rather than bicycle or mass transit are viewed as "spoiled" or "decadent." Voters had also chosen to impose a tax on the purchase of larger vehicles to discourage excessive energy use.

While driving between Dublin and Waterford, I was passed by a train that appeared to be full, while there was practically no traffic on the highway. While the train passed, I kept thinking: how could we get people in San Diego out of their cars and on to trains like this. Then, all of the sudden, it hit me! I started to think instead of how Ireland could encourage their population to get off the transit and into cars.

First of all, they would add several highway lanes and make the lanes wider to accommodate luxury vehicles. Next they would raise the price of a train ticket and travel to fewer locations on inconvenient schedules. They would then reduce the cost of gasoline so that it would be cheaper than transit travel. Finally, they would make parking convenient and abundant in every city. This is precisely what we are doing in San Diego everything that can possibly be done to discourage mass transit!

Thankfully, this is not what is happening in Ireland. Although it is the fastest growing economy in Europe, they are spending very little on expanding their road system. In driving over 2200 miles around the country, we did not see one single road-widening project. We also saw only one sport utility vehicle. We later found out that the government is spending all of their money on busses, trains and incentives to use "park and ride" facilities. Although gasoline cost more than $4 per gallon, we never heard any of the "whining" we hear back home. In fact, the newspaper headlines we read indicated that the voters wanted to "increase" the tax on gasoline to decrease automobile use and meet their Kyoto emission standards.

Ironically, our model Los Angeles is reaching the point of saturation of its freeway system and adopting a philosophy similar to Ireland's. The vast majority of the $82.5 billion budget prepared by the Southern California Association of Governments is going to rail systems and programs to make better use of existing highways without expansion. Their $4.3 billion light-rail expansion brings back memories of a rejected light rail proposal proposed in LA thirty years ago at a fraction of the cost.

We can now predict what will happen if we continue with the same transportation model, and need only look 100 miles north to see what type of legacy we will leave our children. It's not a question of if we will need to stop adding lanes and focus on new transit ideas, but when and at what cost.

If we don't change now, ten years from now the residents of Los Angeles may start telling their politicians "we don't want to be like San Diego."

Mr. Piro is a civil engineer and former County Planning Commissioner. E-mail: