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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.