Car Redux

by Carolyn Chase


f you drive down La Jolla Hermosa Blvd., you can't help but notice how extremely wide it is - like, really, really wide. Why in the world is it so wide? Well, it turns out that it used to be called Electric Avenue and La Jolla, yes La Jolla, that bastion of the BMW and Benz, had streetcar service.

From 1894 to 1949, streetcar service connected downtown San Diego to various neighborhoods including La Jolla and other key population centers - as well as to Coronado via a ferry connection because people were dependent on community systems to move about. Most importantly, employers needed a way to move large numbers of people to work when there were no other individual alternatives.

Around the world, where streetcar or trolley systems have been maintained, they are now practical backbones for getting around. But the San Diego Electric Railway Company went out of business in 1949 and the tracks were subsequently paved over.

Why would you ever tear out such infrastructure? What were they thinking?

They had fallen in love with the car: the 20th century epitome of personal freedom and convenience. Why would we ever need a trolley, if everyone could afford a car? And this vision has come to pass. And it has been good.

The freeway systems of California - like just about everything else in California - are world class and built in the utopian dream of personal wealth and freedom sustained by growth plus roads. Unfortunately, in Southern California, this dream started breaking down seriously a few million cars ago.

We are now in that difficult time of these systems where we are reaching the capacity limits and there's no place else to go. Anyone can buy a car and add it to the system, and most people simply have to. All of our systems are so totally car-oriented that we are trapped. The mass transit systems that could alleviate the pressure were taken out long ago and it now expensive and difficult to get approvals, rights of way and operations funding.

Nowadays, we have to ask the question: are public transit systems important enough for current and future residents to use and pay for? Or are the cynics right when they say you'll never get Californians out of their cars? One friend of mine put it more specifcially: "you will never get north city residents out of their Beemers."

But not everyone has a Beemer. At some point, the Beemers have to realize that community transit benefits them by getting the rest of us off of the roads so that they can use their luxury liners above 35 mph.

Getting cars off of the roads - reducing traffic congestion - means designing communities so that people can live their lives with having to own, feed and maintain a car. This is currently, painfully, obviously, not the case in 98% of San Diego county - or much of anywhere else in Southern California.

Growth-oriented planners are looking to increase densities around transit lines as the way to absorb population growth. Many immigrants to San Diego have lived in cities where they used mass transit. and they would today, but can't. The theory goes that if more people live near enough to a transit route, enough of them might choose to stay out of their cars. The more people who move about via public transit, the more people who are not adding cars to the freeways. They are also people who are producing less pollution.

How can mass transit systems ever compete successfully against cars? How can we increase the number of people choosing to take transit?

Like most things, there are the main axes of viability: convenience, time, and money. While there are many factors, proximity equals convenience. Can you get where you need to go, from where you are? Then, what about frequency of service? How long do you have to wait before the next ride comes along vs. how long does it take to get there by car? This is where congestion comes in. How much does it cost to park the car vs. taking transit?

Developers can help by designing communities where pedestrian walkways, bikeways, electric "cartways" and higher density development serve a town center which provides vanpool connections to regional transit. Transit corridors on all of the big highway projects and development projects is key.

You're never going to overcome the convenience of cars in general. The question is what role transit should play and how to keep systems in balance. Right now it seems we are reduced to waiting until the traffic congestion becomes so much more unbearable that political heads must roll. But people are seeking and finding other ways to stay out of traffic.

Telecommuting and shopping via the internet is beginning to take hold. Transit can be a viable alternative for travelers even if not the primary mode for day in, day out commuting. Besides streetcars, does anyone else remember the Sears catalog? Milk delivery? I think more and more we will be going back to reconstructing these systems because they served people.

Cars serve people too, but what's more important? Somewhere along the line, when we fell in love with what the car represented and the desire to own one, and the freedom that represented, we forgot that transportation was about service, a means to an end, and not an end itself.