President Donald Trump said that there’s a crisis at the United States-Mexico border that only a brand-new wall can fix, and he shut down the U.S. government to make that wall real.
When I visited the existing wall’s busy crossing, the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, on January 5, near the start of the government shutdown, I didn’t see much of a crisis.
What I did see was Mexican commuters crossing the border and getting on one of the country’s busiest rail lines, like they have every day since 1981.
San Diego is a twin city. As you probably know, Tijuana, a Mexican city of 1.6 million residents, is close by. You may not know that TJ, as San Diegans call their Mexican neighbor, is a short Trolley ride away. The Trolley’s Blue Line terminates at the border fence. You can see it from the platform.
That makes the Blue Line something more than your ordinary light rail line. The Blue Line stop at the San Ysidro Port of Entry is the only fixed passenger rail service at an international border in North America. Other systems run close to a border, like Buffalo’s light rail and the streetcars in Detroit and El Paso, but they aren’t essential features of those places.
San Diego’s transit system would be nigh irrelevant without the San Ysidro Transit Center, because Tijuana residents make up a large part of the Trolley’s ridership. They cross at the San Ysidro checkpoint and commute to work in San Diego County via the Trolley. Trolley commuters are a significant reason why San Ysidro is the busiest border crossing in the world. 16.5 million unique pedestrian crossings occured in 2017—and there were 17.5 million Blue Line boardings in the same year
There’s a reason those numbers are similar. 20,000 northbound pedestrians cross every day—assuming 75 percent commuted in, and took a round trip, that would amount for 30,000 of the daily 110,000 boardings on the Trolley system. Another 70,000 passengers cross daily in vehicles, including private Mexican buses, vans, and jitneys—presumably a large number of them board the Blue Line for a ride into San Diego. In 2017, Blue Line passengers accounted for about 48 percent of average weekday boardings on the trolley system, the highest share of the three lines. A large slice of that large slice of riders comes from Mexico.
The San Ysidro Transit Center is one of the few true multimodal hubs in San Diego, if not Southern California. It features MTS buses and Greyhounds, like a typical U.S. train and bus station. There are also dozens of the above jitneys, which charge dollar or less fares to travel between the trolley and the farther-flung West pedestrian border crossing.
Interstate U.S. bus and van lines with Spanish names I’d never heard or read before—El Correcaminos, Fronteras Norte, Costa de Oro—advertize service to pretty much every town and city on the West Coast, including Seattle.
The hub’s amenities are similar to most major rail and bus hubs: several bodega vendors, a McDonald’s, a Jack in the Box. Uniquely, several competing currency exchange windows dot the platform. The border fence is visible, and so is downtown Tijuana, which is on the immediate opposite side of the gate. The U.S. side of the fence is scrubland and strip malls; the Mexico side is a large, bustling city with high-rises.
Visions of downtown Tijuana clash with the double wides, trailer parks, and run down single family homes that the Blue Line runs through in Chula Vista and National City. Sometimes, you get the sensation of riding the train through someone’s backyard. The train runs just a few feet away from some houses and fences, and makes laundry hung out to dry flap as it passes.
On my ride south from downtown San Diego, very American and very Mexican images appeared, and began to blend together. A man dressed as a vaquero was leaning in one corner of the car when we passed the General Dynamics shipyard in San Diego Harbor. So was a uniformed sailor.
When I rode, an under-construction supercarrier hull was visible from the train. Maybe the uniformed Navy officer in the same car was headed there when he disembarked, or maybe he was going to one of the hundreds of ships moored in the Pacific’s largest navy base. That stop is named Pacific Fleet. The Blue Line also travels through high-rise military housing, which is one of San Diego’s better examples of TOD.
The experience of riding the Blue Line is unlike riding any other train line in the United States. Its basic attributes —a publicly-run rail transit line serving immigrants and guest workers from Mexico and Latin America—are offend every aspect of conservative sensibility.
Yet the Trolley operates in the West Coast’s most conservative city, and runs past the largest military base west of the Mississippi. It’s urbanism actualized in one of the most sprawled out regions in the country.
The Blue Line is built from contradictions, but nobody seems to mind. That’s not to say that Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric, the sturm and drang of the shutdown, doesn’t have real consequences. Surely, as government workers who searched for payday loans would tell you, it does
But there’s just too much going on around San Ysidro to stop just because of Donald Trump.