San Diego Trolley Green Line. Credit: MTS

Here’s another installment of the series in which STB writers travel around to other cities and make wild generalizations about their transit and land use. This post will arbitrarily grade San Diego’s better-than-I-expected transit system.

San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) offers bus, light BRT, light rail, and heavy rail commuter service. It’s one of the older systems in the country, operating continuously under various names and owners since the 1880s, when horse-drawn streetcar service came online.

My wife grew up in San Diego, and her whole family lives in America’s Finest City. So I visit San Diego frequently, and I’ve thought a lot about San Diego’s sprawling land use and car dominance.

Land Use: C-

Like other Sun Belt and Southern California cities, contemporary San Diego is built for cars. However, as with Los Angeles, San Diego’s nearby big brother, San Diego does have several walkable, dense urban villages.

Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and Hillcrest are all comparable to dense West Coast neighborhoods like Ballard, Alki, or Capitol Hill, respectively. The large mesa east of downtown is a lot like North Seattle. It features crisscrossing boulevards; reasonably frequent bus service; a major university, San Diego State; and streetcar suburb-era single family homes punctuated by walkable urban villages. Unfortunately, the transit there leaves a lot to be desired, as I explain below.

San Diego also features a thriving downtown. Gleaming residential high-rises abound, and they’re new: Downtown’s full-time population grew by 97 percent between 2000 and 2017. There, the Trolley’s three lines run as a loop circulator tram with its own right of way, and buses abound. On weekends and for events like Padres games or Comicon, a heritage trolley contributes additional circulator service.

Sprawl around Interstate 805

But that’s just a small portion of the much bigger picture. San Diego sprawls over 372 square miles, an area even larger than New York’s 302 square miles. San Diego’s 1.4 million residents would only amount to 16 percent to New York’s population of 8.6 million. The City of San Diego’s 2016 population density ranked below places like Anaheim and Las Vegas.

Basically, beaches and historic center aside, San Diego is all ‘burbs.

Mode Share: D+

By raw numbers, San Diego has strong ridership. The San Diego Trolley, the city’s light rail system and transit backbone, had a ridership of more than 37 million in 2017. That’s about 65 percent more riders than Link in the same year.

Systemwide, San Diego ranks a respectable 13th in U.S. weekday boardings even though the metro area ranked 17th in U.S. estimated metro area population in 2017.

Here’s the rub. I recently made a two week long visit to celebrate Christmas and a wedding. During that time, we were mostly driving—cars are, by far, the dominant mode in San Diego. I walked and bussed when I was getting around on my own on a handful of days. When I’d mention walking or busing to friends and relatives, I got confused and/or concerned reactions along with an offer for a ride.

That’s because driving a car is the default for most San Diegans. The 2017 American Community Survey estimates that nearly 85% of San Diego county residents commute by car.

This is because transit is always slower than driving in San Diego. The city shares LA’s spread out design, but not the congestion that belies central LA’s surprising density. There are almost never traffic jams in San Diego: the freeways are vast, plentiful, and always moving.

When driving becomes to be painful and frustrating, cities often gain transit mode share. That’s the phenomenon behind Seattle’s recent, national-trend-defying transit ridership growth. In San Diego, driving is free and easy.

But there are those high ridership numbers. It’s a paradox: San Diego has high raw rider numbers, but a low mode share for residents. Therefore, a large number of riders have to come from out of town.

They do, sort of. A large portion of MTS riders cross the international border from Mexico every day, and ride the Blue Line Trolley from Tijuana into central San Diego.

Transit Centers: B-

San Diego’s transit centers are a mixed bag. I started and ended my trips on the Trolley system at the Old Town Transit Center, a major bus transfer point and a Coaster commuter rail stop.

Old Town Transit Center’s bus stop. Credit: Peter Johnson

The Old Town Transit Center is marooned far from the dense, populous neighborhood, Point Loma, that it’s closest to. It’s on the wrong side of Interstate 5, and very close to the massive clover junction of I-5 and Interstate 8. I reached the transit center via a slow-moving local bus route, which struggled through freeway on- and off-ramp traffic without signal priority. The transfer environment was fine, but probably would not have felt safe at night.

Old Town pedestrian underpass, to traverse the Coaster’s tracks. Credit: Peter Johnson

Downtown, the rider experience is pretty good. The same is true in the fairly dense neighborhoods east of downtown. There, I found the experience to be similar to using Portland’s system, with at-grade stops and platforms at similar height to the sidewalk. Passengers walked across active track mid-platform without an afterthought.

Downtown San Diego’s 12th & Imperial Transit Center, where all three Trolley lines converge. Credit: Peter Johnson

Wayfinding for Trolley lines was solid. Transfers between trains are easy and well-marked. Most of the time, center platforms allow passengers to stay put and wait for the right train to arrive.

Bus transfers were more confusing. I didn’t see any signage directing me towards bus routes or bus-only destinations, and had to wander around the City College Transit Center to find the correct BRT line, which stopped on the other side of the block—several BRT-branded stops were in the vicinity, creating confusion. While wandering, I missed a bus, and had to wait about ten minutes before another arrived.

Route 215 BRT stop. Credit: Peter Johnson

The Trolley doesn’t run anywhere close to San Diego’s weirdly small and centrally-located airport, which is only about 2 miles away from downtown. Unfortunately, the airport’s closest Trolley station is about the same distance from the air terminal, at about 1.7 miles. A pedestrian would have to navigate busy streets and several large parking lots to make the trip.

The most interesting transit center I encountered was at the Blue Line’s terminus at the San Ysidro Border Crossing. (More on that in a later post.) Tens of thousands of commuters from Mexico traverse the border on foot every day, and ride the Trolley into the center of town.

Trolley Right of Way: B

San Diego has done a solid job giving the Trolley its own right of way. At no point does it share track with car lanes. However, it does run at grade for significant portions of the system, particularly downtown, which means the Trolley must cross busy intersections. The train does seem to have signal priority, but on my downtown trips, it did have to wait a few times for the light to change and crossing bars to drop.

Elsewhere, the Trolley enjoys elevated grade separation reminiscent of Link, and even a subway station at San Diego State University. The Green Line is almost entirely grade separated, running through the densifying Mission Valley area at elevation.

The Green Line’s subway stop at SDSU. Credit: Peter Johnson

A major, largely elevated extension of the Blue Line is underway to UCSD in La Jolla. UCSD students and faculty will enjoy a one seat ride to the Mexico border when it opens.

BRT: C

My experience on the Route 215 “BRT” line was frustrating. The 215 doesn’t have its own right of way, as far as I could tell, for any of its length, except for a handful of island platforms in the middle of busy arterials. The 215 definitely doesn’t have signal priority, waiting in long light cycles. There wasn’t any offboard payment option.

Route 215’s terminus at SDSU Transit Center. Credit: Peter Johnson

As far as I could tell, the only thing that made the 215 anything like BRT was branding, inaccurate real-time arrival information, and upgraded shelters at stops.

It’s a shame, because the part of town that the 215 serves is densifying and could turn into something like near North Seattle. Several walkable neighborhoods, and major draws like Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, museums, and SDSU, could be knitted together quite easily by high-quality bus service. At present, the 215 is just not as good an option as driving.

That’s how I’d sum up my experience on MTS. The Trolley is a high-quality service, but the limitations imposed by sprawl and mediocre bus service mean that transit will probably remain a last resort in San Diego for a long time.

20 Replies to “San Diego Transit Report Card”

  1. San Diego is “terrain challenged” like Seattle. Having said that, I’ve never understood why a Balboa Park/ Hillcrest (noting the hospitals nearby too) was never planned. I’ve read of an interest to eventually build a surface streetcar line through Balboa Park but not connect to Hillcrest.

    It probably is the reticence of building subways there that drives the light rail development. There seems to be a tacit assumption to avoid boring subway (the good exception being the subway detour into SDSU).

    The 112K daily ridership it has will easily be passed by the time East Link opens in 2023. The 2025 Link system (six years away) will carry around 170K to 200K. ST2 Link will be much more valuable than San Diego’s system (with ST3 Link being less so except for SLU and Seattle Center getting served).

    1. The 112K daily ridership it has will easily be passed by the time East Link opens in 2023.

      Definitely, and probably will be passed when Northgate Link opens. In terms of ridership per mile, Link is much better than the San Diego Trolley, and that will likely continue with Northgate Link and East Link. The main reason the Trolley carries more people is because it is longer (and has a lot more stops). As Link shrinks that gap, it will overtake the other system (mainly for the reasons mentioned by the author — San Diego sprawls like crazy, and their overall transit system is weaker).

    2. Al S., I don’t think you mean that San Diego is “terrain-challenged” in the same way as Seattle, because I don’t think anyone is calling for a subway.

      Yet. Because question on my mind is how long the surface of that space of desert can be kept habitable. I’m reading that the city’s chief water source is the Colorado River. Which has been getting what kind of stewardship lately?

      But with the mining and excavation equipment available to us, I don’t see why San Diego can’t remain a thriving metropolitan area with a great deal more sustainable development pattern, increasingly well-served by possibly the world’s greatest subway system from the mid 21st century on.

      Paleontology’s on my side, isn’t it?

      Mark Dublin

      1. “Terrain challenged” is merely a reference to its steep hills and ravines. It’s not flat like Chicago or Dallas or Toronto, or gently rolling hills like many other US cities. That’s partly why their rail lines go where they do — just like Seattle. That’s all.

  2. I was in San Diego myself a couple years ago, and did have a chance to try out the transit system. I was staying at a hotel across the street from the Fashon Valley transit center, a couple miles north of downtown and Balboa Park, so my transit activity centered around there. I never had a chance to ride the rail system, but I did try out the buses several times.

    One trip where the bus worked quite well was from my hotel to the Hillcrest neighborhood. It was pretty much get on at one stop, get off at the very next stop, with about 1.5 miles of nonstop freeway in between. The whole ride took about 5 minutes. The only catch was that, due to the 30-minute frequency, it was sometimes still faster to walk – the entire walk took about 25-30 minutes.

    One trip where transit was an utter failure was going between Hillcrest and the airport. On the street grid, Hillcrest to the airport was a fairly straight shot, but the transit system won’t let you get in or out of the airport without taking a grand tour of downtown, even though downtown is completely out of the way. Between the bus stops every block and the forced transfer between two 30-minute routes, the end result is a trip that takes close to an hour on transit, but only 10 minutes by car.

    Considering that Hillcrest is a pretty dense neighborhood, that the entire drive to the airport is just 4 miles, and you don’t even have to take the freeway, this felt like failure of the transit system not to run a Hillcrest->airport bus.

  3. “Tens of thousands of commuters from Mexico traverse the border on foot every day, and ride the Trolley into the center of town.”

    Kinda sounds like El Paso’s BRT. Thousands of molly maids off to serve the “wealthy” west side residents.

  4. For a city largely void of big congestion problems, I’m surprised you didn’t mention frequency. That is where our transit system has improved the most over the last few years. Link is fast, but mainly Link is frequent. Express bus service to the airport was often faster, and even today, a lot of riders have faster alternatives to Link, but still use Link because it is very frequent. For example, imagine I want to commute from 65th and 25th to downtown. If I time it right, the 76 is way faster than taking the 372 and transferring. But I need to time it right. In the evening, I’m not trying that game at all — I’m taking Link and then transferring to the 372. In any event, the vast majority of transit ridership takes place on the bus, and the buses, for the most part, haven’t gotten any faster. What has changed — and probably played the biggest part in our increased ridership — is that they are a lot more frequent. Folks don’t look at you weird when you say you want to take the bus into some place like Ballard because they understand how frequent the bus is. Cars are still the default, but since half hour bus service no longer is, more and more people are taking the bus for trips that don’t involve downtown.

    From what I can tell, bus service is more like Seattle’s old system. The new “BRT” only has buses every 15 minutes (Seattle has dozens of routes with service equal or better than that). It isn’t clear how often the train runs, but from what I can tell, it isn’t that frequent either (not as frequent as Link). We have a lot of flaws, but it looks like San Diego’s biggest isn’t lack of speed, but lack of frequency.

    1. I just received an ad for the Digital Signage Exposition aimed at the transit industry.
      https://www.digitalsignageexpo.net

      The ad is long on nonsense infotainment passengers don’t need, but says nothing about products that actually provide useful information to transit riders. It’s another example of an industry providing products to to the transit industry who never have to suffer through the results of using their products.

  5. I was in Navy and stationed in San Diego, my biggest complaint was the trolley doesn’t go to any beaches which to me are San Diego’s biggest asset. Rode the trolley to Tijuana several times tho.

    Prob not a military base in the country with better access to mass transit than 32nd Street Naval base which is good for sailors since many don’t have cars and it can help them to avoid drinking and driving.

  6. I’ve lived in Seattle for a little over a year now, primarily getting around via bus. Prior to that lived in San Diego for 17 years. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt there are absolutely traffic jams and they happen regularly.

    The commercial centers of the city are downtown, Mission Valley, and UTC areas, so traffic going to those places in the morning and away in the evening is a mess.

    I-8 heading west from areas like La Mesa and El Cajon in the morning and same heading the other way at night.
    The I-5/I-8 junction you mentioned is terrible as most of the connector ramps are one-lane.
    The I-5 north to I-8 east ramp is comically slow during evening rush hour.
    I-805 heading north from South County is jammed in the morning and jammed in the evening as people head back home.
    The 56 which sort of separates central San Diego with North County sucks both ways in the morning and evening as people are heading west to the 5 or east to the 15 out of residential areas. And again, opposite in the evening.
    I-15 going south in the morning and north in the evening.

    I5, particularly in the summer, is a nightmare from downtown all the way to Oceanside because there is so much beach traffic, especially in and around the Del Mar/Solana Beach area because of the month-long Del Mar fair and horse racing season, as well as Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. Inexplicably, the trolley does not reach any beach areas.

    Don’t even think about driving on Memorial Day, 4th of July, or Labor Day because half of Arizona is trying to get to the beach in San Diego. There is, no joke, as many AZ license plates as CA on those weekends. July and August in general are pretty awful traffic-wise because of all the tourists.

    San Diego is certainly not close to LA traffic but it’s no picnic either.

    1. I split my time between Seattle and San Diego (and pay taxes to both governments). Surface street traffic on Torrey Pines and North Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla is particularly bad and worsening, as UCSD continues to grow. It should improve once the elevated trolley extension to La Jolla is completed. Inexplicably, the trolley does not serve the airport. Like Seattle, San Diego is constrained by its proximity to the ocean. Overall, the traffic is not as bad as Seattle has become over the last few years. Importantly, unlike Seattle, where the goal of road construction is to worsen congestion and punish drivers (I am not kidding), like in most sane places, the goal there is to make life better, not more unpleasant.

  7. One thing not discussed here is the much better longer-distance train schedules for San Diego than what we have in Seattle:

    – Coaster has 11 trips in each direction compared to South Sounder’s 7. That even includes midday and evening trips.

    – The State-subsidized Surfliner has about 19 trips in each direction as compared to Cascade’s 4!

    Combined , it makes for a much better long-distance rail option than what we have.

    Of course, state support of plenty of tracks help — but I envy then having this option. Will it ever be possible here?

    1. The line from SD to LA trails only the NEC in ridership. LA as a connection is a huge difference compared to having Tacoma as a destination.

      1. The fact that the Coaster integrates with the Surfliner along with Metro adds enormous value.

        “The COASTER connects fully with Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner at Oceanside, Solana Beach, and Santa Fe Depot in San Diego, with more limited connection service available at the Old Town Transit Center; Pacific Surfliner service at Carlsbad Village and Sorrento Valley is co-offered with COASTER service on 6 of the 22 weekday Surfliner trains”

      2. Metrolink and Coaster provide a lot of opportunities to do short stop-offs too. I traveled recently from San Diego to Los Angeles and Riverside by train, stopping off in Oceanside, San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana. The weekend Metrolink and Coaster trains are unfortunately very sparsely used.

  8. Many San Diego buses have 15 minute—occasionally better frequencies on weekdays but 30 minutes on weekends. The Trolley is more like 15 on both, but doesn’t go to the beach, the zoo or the airport. The Trolley hubs at Amtrak, a much smaller version of LA Union Station. The Trolley moves at a reasonable but not super fast speed.

    If you stay within about a 3 mile radius of Downtown SD, transit is usable, especially on weekdays. The best ethnoburban eating street has so so transit. Lots of craft beer available in downtown and along 30th Street (main bus route).

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