Smart transportation: Ireland's 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 that “we don't want to be like Los Angeles.” Unfortunately, when planning for our growth, they seem to embrace the single item that contributes most to the problems in Los Angeles their transportation model. This is evidenced by their current plans to widen Interstate 5 to 23 lanes at its intersection with Highway 56, wider than any highway in the greater 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 (that's equivalent to six entire Interstate 805 freeways). He also points out that this will result in a need for 37 square miles of land for the additional 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 pastâ” so why don't we look to other areas of the world for workable solutions? Like Curitiba, Brazil, who rejected the idea of road widening to solve their city gridlock problem and instead eliminated all of the streets in a large section of their 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 some of these ideas would work in San Diego. Due to Ireland's history of wars and disasters, they were not financially able to develop the 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 first introduction to Irish transportation came when we went to pick up our car rental. The “mid-sized” Opal we had reserved would be classified as a small car at any automobile rental in America. I then noticed that our car, as well as most of the cars in the rental lot, had badly gouged doors on the driver and passenger sides. 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 standard passenger car and double decked to efficiently serve narrow neighborhood streets.

    Between the smaller cities, roadways are as narrow as sixteen feet wide 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, which serves as a natural traffic calming device. We were told that if you hit any sheep, you were responsible for finding the farmer and reimbursing 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 (D.A.R.T.) 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 implement 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. ÊWhile the train passed, I kept thinking: how could we get people in San Diego out of their cars and onto 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. While driving more than 2,200 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 like we hear back home. In fact, newspaper headlines 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 plan 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 former County Planning Commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land-planning firm in San Marcos. Email: