San Diego’s New Plan Won’t Solve Housing or Transit Issues

by on February 1, 2023 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

PL Emerson Project gp 05By Danna Givot / Commentary – San Diego Union-Tribune / Jan. 30, 2023 

In October, as part of its 2022 Land Development Code Update, San Diego’s Planning Department introduced the concept of “Sustainable Development Areas.” Then, at every subsequent presentation, department officials changed the definition, preventing full public understanding and debate.

But the term is important to understand because it is a major housing policy shift by city officials. The general idea is that new high-density housing could be built up to a mile walking distance from bus or trolley stops, instead of the almost universally accepted half-mile walking distance.

This ill-conceived proposal is the result of the city’s effort to correct an existing problem with its flawed definition of transit-friendly zoning — “Transit Priority Areas” that allow high-rise apartments and backyard apartment complexes in areas “near” public transit. Defining “near” as the crow flies ignores the canyons and freeways that block access and result in real-world walking distances up to three miles away from transit stops.

Confronted with that reality, city planners rewrote their definition of transit-friendly development, again tossing common sense out the window. Instead of requiring a direct one-half mile walk to transit, the city now proposes allowing high-density zoning out to a full mile. Say hello to “Sustainable Development Areas.”

The dubious proposition that anyone would walk a mile to and from a bus or trolley stop isn’t the only problem with the flawed idea. This concept would also allow high-density development in areas where transit stops don’t even exist. If our transit planners foresee a bus or trolley stop in operation within 20 or more years in that area, it qualifies for high-density development. So they’re including transit stops that are currently unfunded and might never be built!

Allowing high-density development a full 1-mile walking distance from a transit stop that might not be built for 20 or more years is indefensible and illogical. Instead of encouraging mass-transit use and reducing our dependence on cars, Sustainable Development Areas will worsen urban sprawl and push new housing projects away from our transit-rich corridors. That’s why they are inconsistent with San Diego’s Climate Action Plan and emissions reduction goals based on vehicle miles traveled.

The city’s shift to a 1-mile walking distance to transit also assumes that residents located a full mile from the nearest transit stop would be as likely to use transit as those living a real half-mile walking distance from a transit stop. But professional and academic research confirm what common sense already knows: The vast majority of people will not walk beyond one-half mile — or about 10 minutes — to transit.

When officials from our regional planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, asked San Diegans how far they walked to a bus or trolley stop, 92 percent said 10 minutes or less, which is no more than a half-mile.

Just 8 percent said they walked 11 minutes or more (further than a half-mile).

Another SANDAG survey also shows that walking is by far the most common way for people to get to and from public transit, with 97 percent of transit users walking from their home to the bus or trolley and 89 percent walking home. Driving is a distant second (2 percent driving to and 10 percent driving or being driven home from transit), while only 1 or 2 percent of transit users bike or ride a scooter to or from transit.

The new 1-mile proposal also raises equity issues. Transit is more affordable than other long-distance modes of travel, and low-income households are generally more likely to rely on transit. Twenty percent of people at or below the federal poverty line do not have access to a car, and car ownership rates are even lower for low-income minorities. As public agencies, transit operators must provide reasonable accommodations for users of all ages, incomes and abilities. Locating dense and affordable housing beyond one-half mile from transit presents real challenges for low-income households, communities of color and people with disabilities.

To achieve our transit-oriented development and climate action goals, we must focus on compact areas where density will realistically result in transit adoption. Between now and 2050, San Diego’s population is projected to grow by at least 200,000 people. The closer our new and existing residents are to a major transit stop, the more likely they are to use it. That will, in turn, increase economic development on our transportation corridors and create compact, vibrant, walkable neighborhoods.

The research — and common sense — are undeniable: Sustainable Development Areas will encourage urban sprawl more than a half-mile from transit, and that will increase our auto dependency and defeat any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, slow global warming and improve the quality of our air and our lives.

Danna Givot is vice chair of Neighbors For A Better San Diego and lives in El Cerrito.

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