When NIMBY attacks mass transit in San Diego

by on June 6, 2011 · 4 comments

in Economy, San Diego

"Rapid Transit in San Diego": An original 1886 horse-drawn trolley and its driver participate in a parade celebrating the groundbreaking of the Panama-California Exposition Center in 1911.

by Lucas O’Connor / Two Cathedrals/ June 3, 2011

Rapid transit received an angry NIMBY attack today over at the Reader, essentially complaining that transit is tied to density and that adding infrastructure actually takes space. It’s a lamentably familiar complaint that for things to change, things must actually change, and obscures the actual issues being faced as San Diego tries to improve transit, connect neighborhoods, and reclaim the budget from life-support.

The harsh criticism of plans for rapid bus lanes and particularly of Councilman Todd Gloria seems not only misguided but mostly beside the point. Criticizing the elimination of medians and addition of additional travel lanes is fine as far as it goes, but the author votes in favor of Mid-City Rapid Transit. While bus lanes may not have been the imagined result, the addition type of any rapid transit requires… space. Would a streetcar or trolley line added to existing streets be more pedestrian friendly than bus lanes? No, it’s still new transit-travel lanes that would have to be crossed.

But that’s more to do with unrealistic expectations. Transit sounds like a good idea until it actually has to exist, and then it’s an un-friendly eyesore in the community. Objecting to the parking-centric transportation development in District 3 lately is reasonable, but explicitly at odds with the supposed subject of the piece — improving access to the community that does not require parking. Fewer people driving through the community, for whatever reason, is also going to reduce the congestion that makes roads less safe for pedestrians and bikers. An argument that improved mass transit is going to increase traffic implicitly argues that the transit will fail in its purpose — yet the author does not actually make this argument. Rather, just objects to the transit that was supported in principle will actually occupy physical space.

More sadly, it also laments the prospect of density in thinly-veiled class terms, fear mongering around developer plans to “turn Park Blvd into another ghetto of 7 story affordable housing projects” with no regard to historical preservation. I’m sure I’m fast gaining a reputation as an anti-preservation shill for developers here, but the language here is classically pretentious NIMBY protectionism. It’s vitally important that strong, existing communities be able to protect and retain their character. But the notion that working class people and density are the enemy — especially against the backdrop of advocating for more rapid transit — is gross and ridiculous. At a time when it’s desperately important to find ways to reconcile the need for more density while retaining San Diego’s heritage, demagoguing like this is specifically the problem.

And let’s be entirely clear: Density is the only option. The suburban ideal of fifty years ago is simply non sustainable, and even if short-term necessity demands a fiscal focus on pensions, the long-term viability of San Diego’s budget relies on building a more robust tax base rooted in density. Combine that with the knowledge that renting is smarter than buying in San Diego and the mounting evidence that housing is a far cry from the good investment they’re cracked up to be, and we need to be discussing how to re-imagine how San Diego’s communities will work on a fundamental level. Sprawl isn’t working, relying on home ownership, especially as the foreclosure crisis cruises through its fifth year, clearly isn’t a viable strategy.

Adding density means dealing with developers. And especially in the lean years that will be coming, the city will have less leverage than in the past (whether the city used that leverage responsibly in the past is a different story). That means that smart growth and responsible density infill is going to rely more than ever before on community participation. And that means that not just the city’s long-term health, but the long-term ability of San Diego to function at all is up for grabs.

Either the community responsibly demands a place at the table that involves a real discussion of how to integrate density and smarter transit programs, or developers and other private interests will co-opt the process entirely. This can be a community-driven process, but only if we drop the hyperbole and invective and get down to seriously engaging in how to do this right.



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Cohen June 6, 2011 at 11:39 am

Density indeed is the only option. San Diego is out of space to grow, and now the only option is to go UP, as in high density housing. Short of developing Balboa Park for more single family housing, there are no other options. And along with density comes an increased need for public transit.

The trouble is that while the trolley is great, people don’t like taking buses at all. There’s a very negative stigma attached to municipal buses (some would say with good reason), and the truth is that if you’re traveling across town it’s a very slow and inefficient way to go time wise. A trip that would take you less than 20 minutes by car will take well over an hour by bus the way the transit system is currently set up. Trolley lines cut that down a bit, and they’ll draw many riders who would ordinarily not use a municipal bus, but they’re much more expensive to build.

The bottom line, though, is that San Diego is changing and growing, and it’s about time that we changed and grew with it. It’s the only way to save our city from becoming a total nightmare.


Frank Gormlie June 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm

One hundred years ago in San Diego, robber baron John D Spreckles owned the mass transit of the city, his electrical street car company. When the Wobblies (IWW) began organizing the Mexican street car drivers, Spreckles got pissed off, and convinced the city council to ban public speaking throughout downtown – and sparking San Diego’s Free Speech Fight. The Labor Council and the OB Rag – among others – plan on commemorating the 100th anniversary of this event.


Wireless Mike June 6, 2011 at 7:14 pm

It should be noted that much of the San Diego Trolley runs on railroads once owned by John Spreckels. The San Ysidro line was built on the San Diego & Arizona RR, which continues through Mexico, re-enters the US near Campo and winds down Carrizo Gorge to the Imperial Valley. Most of the Santee line follows the old San Diego & Cuyamaca RR, which ended north of Lakeside, near San Vicente Dam.

Besides owning those and other local railroads, Spreckels owned the streetcar lines, including the No. 14 that ran down Bacon Street and up Santa Cruz Avenue in OB. At their height, streetcars ran from downtown to OB, Point Loma, Mission Beach, La Jolla, Mission Hills, Balboa Park, Normal Heights, Kensington, North Park, City Heights, Logan Heights and 30th Street. The streetcar system was privately owned, but an integral part of San Diego’s infrastructure until it was sold in 1948. Tracks were torn up, rights-of-way were sold off, and the green streetcars were replaced by green buses. If the streetcar system had been preserved and expanded as the city grew, it could have become a world-class public transportation network. But no.

Spreckels also owned the old Coronado Ferry (from Pacific Highway to Orange Avenue), and the Coronado Railroad (now the bike trail on the Silver Strand and the wide median on Orange Avenue). His home is now the Glorietta Bay Inn, where he reportedly had a tunnel to the Hotel Del Coronado so he could spy on his employees there.

If you used public transportation in San Diego in the early 1900’s, you probably paid money to John Spreckels. If you ride the trolley blue line or orange line today, chances are you are using his railroad’s right-of-way.


Frank Gormlie June 6, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Wireless – great history, dude. Thanks for adding to our understanding of our past.


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