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Expanding Transit Access for San Diego Communities

Author: Joe Bettles

Originally posted on the Voice of San Diego Opinions Section.

For the first time since 1940, when the San Diego Electric Railway Company ran its last train on Mission Boulevard, Pacific Beach will be served by light rail with a trolley stop at Balboa Avenue. Residents and visitors may finally have a viable transit alternative that has the potential to transform the landscape of PB. In a recent survey, the San Diego Association of Governments found that 71 percent of current drivers would choose to take transit if there was a convenient way to get from home and work to the station. In order to successfully reduce dependence on cars in PB, officials will need to provide convenient and safe access to the trolley station.

Scooters were promised as the “last mile” solution for the community. Setting aside the apocalyptic fury from many in the community, scooters have shown that there is a real demand for alternative modes of transportation. A sustainability-focused organization, Beautiful PB, found in their annual mobility count that scooter ridership almost matched bicycles in their first year of operation. However, even the most ardent fan will concede that scooters should not be considered the silver bullet when it comes to solving the “last mile” problem. So what is the city doing to ensure convenient access to the trolley station? The answer is, unfortunately, not much.

I was disappointed by the City Council’s lack of foresight on this issue when they unanimously adopted the Balboa Avenue Station Area Specific Plan without raising any concerns about how the station will connect with the community. The plan changes zoning regulations to allow for development in the area but does very little to ensure access to the station. Twenty-six years ago, the Pacific Beach Community Plan imagined that a future light rail station would “provide linkages with convenient shuttle buses or other transit that will service key destinations.” These important linkages seem to have been forgotten in the $2.1 billion trolley extension.

Often the solution to a problem is an idea from the past. In 1982, PB launched a pilot shuttle bus program called the “Sunrunner”. The shuttle ran in a loop around PB and Mission Beach with the stated goal of providing “a viable alternative to the use of the automobile.” While at first, the shuttle focused on getting outside visitors from a parking lot to the beach, it evolved into a community shuttle used by locals.

Today we would call this “micro-transit” and there are many new examples, including FRED, or Free Ride Everywhere Downtown, and the newly opened Carlsbad Connector. Many of these micro-transit solutions allow users to request a ride via an app, similar to Uber. Montreal has taken this a step further by launching an autonomous micro-transit bus that circulates through its downtown. By blending old ideas with new technology, San Diego can just as easily provide convenient access to the trolley station and a viable alternative to driving.

A shuttle system would require investment from a cash strapped SANDAG or Metropolitan Transit System. Some may argue that we should fund transit projects in neighborhoods with more acute needs. However, in addition to reducing dependence on automobiles, shuttles can allow for more equitable access to the ocean for all San Diegans. The City Heights Development Corporation drew attention to the problem of ocean accessibility by taking local kids from City Heights to PB by transit. The multi-bus journey took nearly two hours and highlighted the fact that while San Diego is a coastal community, the beach is out of reach for many low-income families.

Growing up a few blocks from the ocean, I had the privilege of spending my summers at the beach. I believe it should be the right of every kid in San Diego to be able to build sandcastles and play in the waves. With the new trolley stop, San Diego has the opportunity to provide equitable access through convenient transit alternatives for thousands of San Diegans. However, this will only succeed in PB if officials connect the trolley to the rest of the community.

While millennial students, like myself, might be brave (or dumb) enough to ride a scooter down Grand Avenue to catch the trolley, it is not a viable alternative for seniors and families. I urge city hall to build upon the old ideas that have been tested while incorporating modern technology to expand access and efficiency. The elected officials who preside over the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Mid-Coast Trolley extension will be remembered either as the leaders who finally provided a viable alternative to cars or as the ones who oversaw yet another “San Diego Special.”

Joe Bettles is a UCSD Master of Public Policy graduate student and a Pacific Beach planning group board member.


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