Prescription for Decongestion Needed

by Carolyn Chase


ccording to a recent study, Los Angeles is the most congested city in the nation. San Diego is rated eighth, and our transportation and growth plans seem set upon our achieving the number two position in a very short time. Regional projections indicate that San Diego will add more than million more people by the year 2020, about one-third more than we now have. That could mean well over a million more cars. I don't know about you, but I seem to be getting caught in more and more traffic congestion right now.

State and local transportation agencies seem unable to cope with the root causes of traffic congestion. In our Regional Transportation Plan, SANDAG envisions that it will always take two to three times longer to use public transit than to drive. This is called planning?

A comparison of the March-April 1992 issue of SANDAG's "INFO" brochure and the 1996-2020 issue of their Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) is informative. "INFO" defines six levels of service (traffic congestion) defined for freeways and arterials, "A" through "F." Level "F" was defined as equivalent to one mile of stopped vehicles per lane.

In 1985, 72 miles of freeway were rated as congested. By 1990, this had increased to 105 miles. SANDAG forecasts that by 2020, 280 miles of our 300-mile system will be congested. Driving will be so bad that they now list four different levels of "F" service. Though the criteria for each "F" service level were not defined, it is quite possible that they translate into bad, worse, severe and "I should have packed a lunch."

As freeways become more congested, local streets leading to freeway ramps become similarly jammed. Our planners' and politicians' answer to traffic congestion has been, "Send us more money to expand the freeway and local road network." This is the same argument that prevailed in Los Angeles; though the city is two-thirds paved, congestion is worse than ever. In fact, even if we build all the projects they want, they still forecast severe congestion!

What causes the symptom of congestion? What actually underlies too many people, in too many cars trying to get somewhere at the same time? Congestion is inherent in the design of most San Diego growth and development patterns. Using urban sprawl as a method to accommodate growth guarantees congestion.

More and more houses, built further and further apart, require a car as a lifestyle, and an expensive lifestyle at that. Housing, jobs, shopping and other activities are scattered across huge areas. Highways are required to connect them. This pattern of urban sprawl development imposes considerable costs on all of us, though the costs are often hidden.

For American City & County magazine, Mike and Peggy Dobbins surveyed cities across America dealing with growth. They reported that "Growth management is on the agenda of virtually every metropolitan area in the country" and further: "'Quality of life' has become a concrete, economic imperative for regions competing for future investment. The dependence on the car and the long commute and the traditional belief that building more roads alleviates rather than compound the problems of sprawl are increasingly being questioned. Evidence is mounting that the sprawl patterns, with their innate geometric and density inefficiencies have become unaffordable."

A huge number of Californians now spend an hour or more per day in their car. Road rage is on the rise. The average Californian spends one dollar out of every five on buying, maintaining and insuring their cars. Housing requiring a car to reach home can never be affordable. Highway and automobile subsidies fueling urban sprawl are still in place today. For the most part, the "external costs" of car use (e.g.. air pollution, polluted runoff, habitat loss, fuel-related pollution) are discounted.

In San Diego and Los Angeles, only 2% of commuters use public transit. Why is it that 17% of Chicagoans use public transit, 20% in San Francisco, and 47% in New York City, but San Diego and LA can only scrape up 2%? According to SANDAG and transit district spokesmen, "It is not our fault because we won't leave our cars!" Is this a valid argument? What about the design of these systems? Of course people can't leave their cars when the systems are designed to require a car.

In LA, the Santa Clarita line of their Metrolink system carried about 900 passengers a day between the San Fernando Valley and Downtown. Following an earthquake that demolished the freeways, passenger usage jumped to 36,000 per day due to the fact that it took more time to drive using local streets than taking the Metrolink. As the freeways were reconstructed, revenue dropped to near pre-quake levels. This proves that people will leave their cars when there is a service available that takes less time.

Designing for the car in the face of growth is a recipe for increased stress and decreased quality of life. Designing for neighborhoods is the answer. Alan Durning of Northwest Environment Watch observes: "As population density rises, people do less driving and more walking. Most people believe the alternative to cars is better transit - in truth, it's better neighborhoods." We hear a lot of rhetoric to that affect in San Diego. What we don't see is substantive follow-through.

Carolyn Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and Chair of the Sierra Club, San Diego Chapter. She can be reached at . Special thanks to Bill Daugherty, Member, SANDAG Regional Transportation Advisory Committee who contributed to this column.