Doable Dream

by Carolyn Chase


When you think about public transportation, innovation is not one of the top ten words that will usually come to mind. Public transportation more often conjures up images of grubby buses and potentially unsafe environments. Dan Malcolm, Metropolitan Transit Development Board member from Imperial Beach noted that, "from a public perception viewpoint, our industry ranks in the lowest 50%, somewhere near HMOs."

      But MTDB is indeed using innovative strategic planning and market research while grappling with the number one political conundrum of our region - how are we going to grow without worsening our existing traffic nightmare?

      Hal Martin, City Council member from San Marcos, asked at a recent SANDAG Transportation Subcommittee meeting:

      How can we implement the smart growth policies we've agreed to? How can we increase density and keep the traffic flowing?

      Since just about every project of any size these days is opposed on the basis of traffic impacts, this is not an idle question; it is the leading political puzzle of the day. It was heartening to hear it asked in the SANDAG Board room, if not answered.

      Think about it. How can we really absorb another million people and an estimated 685,000 cars plus the requisite parking? The answer, we can't - not the way we've approached growth in the past.

      Consider what we are facing today -- with increasing numbers of commuters literally trapped in traffic without sufficient options -- and consider how we got here.

      We got here because we grew without any vision. What vision there was, it wasn't one of workability -- or mobility -- beyond a certain point. We have now reached that point. If we stay in our past growth = traffic paradigm, there is every reason to think it will just keep getting worse.

      So what is a viable, workable vision?

      The only way to sanely absorb another million or more people, is to have a vision that is driven by public mobility strategically linked with land use design decisions that support it. This means locating population growth near transit investments so the growth can be absorbed in way so that people are not required to have 2,3 or even 4 cars/household. This also means not making major transit investments in places that are not willing to accept the growth.

      This is a key change from the imbalance of the past that stressed private, car-dependent mobility and random growth choices as the dominant public policy-drivers for our urban form. We are literally outgrowing that approach.

      At least parts of our region are waking up to the fact that we cannot build our way out of traffic simply by adding more lanes and building more freeways. Beyond absorbing some amount of growth, more free lanes also induce more trips, in general and quickly fill with traffic.

      The only real solution is to find ways for sufficient numbers of commuters to be able to opt out of the traffic tangle -- and thereby leaving room on the roads by those who must remain car-dependent for peak periods of use.

      MTDB's Strategic Plan, called "TransitWorks," is mapping out a network service approach designed to match the market needs of San Diegans trapped in traffic.

      MTDB undertook an extensive market segmentation study. This study surveyed almost 1000 county residents. The surveys revealed clusters of market segments (cleverly named: Easy-Goers, Cautious Runabouts, Flexible Flyers, Roadrunners) defined by similar attitudes and travel behaviors. These market attributes determine what a public transportation system must do to get different types of people to use the system.

      MTDB also analyzed the major daily trip patterns that occur in the region and the market segments that predominate in each.

      They then devised four alternative scenarios for MTDB's role in the metropolitan area. These range from doing about the same as they do today to being very aggressive in shaping the area's travel patterns (Basic Mobility, Mobility Plus, Region's Second Car and Transit First).

      Each is based on four parameters: capital funding, operating funding, coordination of local land use measures, and transit priority in local areas.

1 - Basic Mobility - no more TransNet funding (1/2 cent sales tax due to run out in 2007) - transit tries to hold its own - but difficult with rising costs of energy, labor rates; this could lead to shrinking system

2 - Mobility Plus - assumes reauthorization of transit share of TransNet (1/6 cent portion of sales tax) in the county. Change the current 80% capital /20% operations to a 50/50 mix. Implement some land use and transit priority measures

3 - Region's Second Car - much higher infusion of capital and operating funds to provide more services that people need to use the system.

4 - Transit First - highest degree of funding and coordination. Passenger throughput rises more than vehicle throughput.

      Some of the TransitWorks "Lessons learned" are:

  • Market share depends on qualities of service not the "mode" itself.
  • 81% of the region consists of more demanding markets than MTDB has been serving.
  • Design of stops and walking environment is key.
  • increases in frequencies and speed of service produce better gains in ridership than just expanding the system.
  • Importance of minimizing transfers/ need to make them as convenient and direct as possible

      The MTDB Board reactions have been positive.

      Robert Emery, Poway representative stated, "I think we have to look at Scenario 4 to keep this region mobile and moving. Our basic demographics are set with sprawl, but this is a plan that can be overlaid and could work in our area."

      The preliminary cost ranges for the four scenarios were put into context by County Supervisor and Board member, Ron Roberts who called their planning efforts a "Doable Dream."

      Malcolm cut to the chase by stating, "This is about what we can do to make our lives easier."

      The next milestone is the Board's selection of a preferred alternative at its October 26 public meeting (9:00 am/ MTDB Board room, 10th floor, 12th & Imperial/Trolley Tower).

      This important planning effort is key to any real chance of taming the traffic tiger and translating our growing traffic nightmare into a doable dream.