Putting up

by Carolyn Chase


My persistent criticisms of the 2020 Regional Transportation Plan has led people to wonder, "what does Carolyn want?"

Aside from wanting substantive responses to my 40 pages of questions on the details of the plan, and a real public process - unlike the limited SANDAG Board hearings - what I want is a mobility infrastructure plan that works better for lower costs. I want a system that is about people and not mainly about cars. I want a system that respects limits for pollution of all forms and tax dollars. A part of maturity is understanding limits and how society and the public sector allocates shared resources for the public good - and what public's good.

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 our region can do. But having read what's available for review and attended many meetings, I cannot bring myself to believe it. Where is the disconnect? Why isn't the plan better? I have now too often seen SANDAG Board members overrule good staff recommendations as often as challenge bad ones. What we don't see is challenges to many of the fundamental assumptions and trade-offs that have led to traffic discontent as a major political and tax-increase issue.

What's the assumption we're working off in planning how to use transportation resources and how to argue effectively for more? It appears to be: let's take the money we have and 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 our transit market share to escape single digit percentages? 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 effective alternative system.

What sort of system could we build that would communicate to even 10% of tripmakers 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
  • 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).
  • The flexibility and affordability of vehicles that run on tires -- while not enjoying the romance of other modes -- is the superior 21st century thing to do.
  • One that builds a system of smaller vehicle services 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.

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 path we're on, 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 L.A. position, or even that of Boston, Miami, or Atlanta.

In fact, Atlanta provides all the lessons other regions should need. A run of a decade or so as America's great success story (near top in every "best list" - Olympics, etc.) they let their land use and transportation chase every developer's whim. With a carpet of cul-de-sacs (the most anywhere) and roads all over the region, they have the longest commutes anywhere. 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)?

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:

  • Shift 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 Boards and staff of SANDAG, 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."

(This column is based on notes from a speech by Curtis Johnson, the Citistates Group, at the annual SANDAG Board of Directors retreat in February 2000.)