Monday, December 9, 2019

(Trying To) Embrace The Bus

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published Dec. 11, 2019] ©2019

On May 21, 2015 a La Jolla Light article queried why 87% of people who live within a mile of public transit still drive to work.  The answer: they need to actually GET to work.

A letter to the Editor in the San Diego Union-Tribune made a related inquiry:  Do supporters of mass transit use it?  The answer:  We’re trying.

My husband and I are two of the biggest supporters of public transit but have concluded that San Diego just isn’t set up for it to be a successful mode of daily transport, unless you have endless time on your hands and don’t have to get to work by a specific time.  If you have kids or are elderly, it isn’t for you either.

My husband and I had the pleasure of spending two car-less years in Sweden on a work contract in 2005 and 2006 and became total converts to public transit.  It helped, of course, that their system – buses, subways, long distance trains – runs to the minute despite serious weather challenges. 

My husband, for whom a short work week was sixty hours, attempted to continue his love affair with buses when we returned to La Jolla even though the drive was twenty minutes door-to-door and the bus (no transfers) at least sixty.  Sometimes the bus was running so late that he just walked home and drove.  When the route changed to be too far from his office, he was back to auto travel.

Still, the San Diego MTS (Metropolitan Transit System) has much to recommend it:  the buses are clean, the drivers are unfailingly helpful, and at $23, a monthly senior pass is a steal.  Other than one trip when I thought I might be sitting next to the Unabomber’s younger brother, I’ve always felt safe.

At various local committee meetings I’ve attended, the committee members have responded to complaints that inadequate parking is being required for proposed new builds by maintaining that we are headed toward a future of not driving our own personal cars.  I genuinely hope so.  But we are waaaay off from that day. 

Unlike Sweden where bus stops are covered against inclement weather, up-to-date schedules are clearly posted, and a digital readout counts down to when the next bus is arriving, large portions of San Diego are inaccessible by public transit, and the buses are mired in the same traffic as everyone else.  Doing away with transfers a few years ago doubled bus fares, and routes are constantly being reduced, none of which has expanded ridership. 

In Stockholm, buses have a wide center door without steps for strollers and handicapped persons, and the bus itself tilts to allow them easy access to get on and off.  It’s not really fair to compare a much smaller city like Stockholm to the sprawl of San Diego, but the Swedes have made on-time-to-the-minute public transit a major societal priority, including special traffic lanes for buses. 

I’m trying to imagine the average San Diego mom trying to grocery shop, drop off and pick kids up from school, get kids to sports practices and to games all over a huge county, and manage already-tight time schedules on our current bus system.  Even Ubers and Lyfts can’t do the job because of the state-mandated car seat requirements for kids under eight.  (In some cities in the U.S., you can request a car seat at an additional cost of $10 per seat – not feasible for routine transportation.)

As for the recently-passed City Council regulation that would not require parking in new multi-family units that are “near” (1/2 mile) current or planned  public transit, I personally think they’ve lost their minds. Our public transit system doesn’t even access large sections of the city, has little or no service late at night, and limited hours on the weekends.  A half mile is a long way, and that’s even assuming the terrain is flat and you’re not hauling groceries or kids. (I never had to walk more than three blocks in Stockholm to encounter public transit.)  

An article in the La Jolla Village News on November 29 regarding the proposed development on the former 76 Unocal site on Pearl street quoted the developer as saying, “The target market tenant will live and work in the village, with 30% of tenants expected to use ride-sharing services and not own a car.”  Personally, I project that 100% of those tenants will own a car, and will park it on Eads.

San Diego will never have a system like Sweden’s. But it does seem like we need to ratchet up public transit quite a few notches before making regulations that people have to use it. Restore some of the previous routes and schedules plus add some more, especially evening and weekend hours. Some benches would be nice too.

But right now, we’re just not ready for prime time.    


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