A Better Transit Network in San Diego

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Transit, Urban Design

(Original Post: https://sandiego.urbdezine.com/2019/01/26/walkable-transit-san-diego/)

At last week’s State of the City address, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer enthusiastically stated, “I want to radically overhaul the system itself. The bureaucracy has been set up to empower anti-housing forces that delay or deny projects at every tum… We need to build more housing near employment centers and transit.”

This is a rejection of our long-standing, auto-oriented, one-size-fits-all approach to city making. Fortunately, in 2008, our City of Villages plan began to shift the standards of new construction of private development from single-family, single-use land use outcomes towards more mixed-use buildings and blocks filled with offices, shops, affordable housing, and market-rate homes. This proclamation officially transitions San Diego from focusing on suburban outcomes, as we have for the past 60+ years, to building within our urban neighborhoods.

Now it’s time to do the same for our transit services.

With the Mayor’s emphasis on using transit to connect our employment centers to new housing construction, it is time to shift our transit modes from its one-size-fits-all, over-reliance on Light Rail Transit (LRT – The Trolley) to a mix of transit modes. The problem today is that our Trolley acts like Commuter Rail by linking downtown to Santee and the border, as well as acting like a Streetcar by linking downtown’s Little Italy to Gaslamp. No matter where it is in the city, the trolley stops every 15 minutes at over 56 stations. Plus, it is limited in its ability to climb hillsides to access and serve the neighborhoods and districts located on our mesas.

With its one-size-fits-all use, our Trolley does not really perform to its fullest LRT function, nor is it capable of being a true Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Streetcar. LRT is a fixed-rail system intended to serve city-to-city, such as connecting Chula Vista to La Mesa to Santee. BRT is intended to serve community-to-community, such as North Park to City Heights to Rolando. And, Streetcars are intended to serve neighborhood center to neighborhood center within each community, such as from North Park’s 30th street from Adams Avenue to Upas.

Our city’s new Rapid Bus service is essentially an Express Bus, or BRT-Lite, that flows with traffic, stopping at streetlights, and merging with all traffic on the freeways with 15-minute waits between buses. We do have a short segment of BRT, but it is located on a half-mile stretch on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest. And, we have one historic Streetcar circling a downtown loop on our LRT tracks. These limited modes are our best opportunity to quickly expand access to our city with cheaper and lighter forms of transit.

We need a mixed-modal, walkable to/from transit network to compete with the auto-oriented infrastructure we’ve built over the past 60+ years. It is easier to drive a car around than to take transit because we purposely designed and invested to do. San Diego needs to add BRT on major corridors and local neighborhood Streetcars to connect our mix of surface street buses and fixed rail trolley network.

Since 2013, San Diego has been a member city of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), who state in their Transit Street Design Guide (Island Press, 2016, page 178)  “Cities with both buses and a dedicated right-of-way rail system (LRT) have historically structured the former (bus) as a feeder service to the latter (LRT). Bus Rapid Transit can be used to upgrade new parts of the network into trunklines… Streetcars and Buses can also form a multi-hub network.” Just last month the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department stated that it, “is allowing the incorporation of NACTO design concepts as presented in the Urban Street Design Guide (Island Press, 2013),” to plan and design projects. These new rules will permit more dedicated BRT and Streetcar lines throughout the city.

The hierarchy of San Diego’s full-range of public transit service modes are as follows:

  • Heavy Rail (Amtrak) – Connects San Diego to Los Angeles and the nation a few times a day;
  • Commuter Rail (Coaster) – Connects three coastal cities at peak hour times;
  • Light Rail (Trolley + Sprinter) – Connects Santee, San Ysidro to San Diego (with a new line up to University City next year) and Oceanside, San Marcos to Escondido with frequent stops every half-mile or more. Our bus networks feeds into our main LRT lines;
  • Bus Rapid Transit – Easily retrofitted into our wide streets with dedicated bus lanes, separated from traffic, and given priority at intersections to be competitive timewise with local car trips. These connect our canyons (Mission Valley) to our mesas (Clairemont Mesa and Rolando);
  • Express Bus (Rapid & Breeze) – These run faster schedule by not making as many stops as than normal bus services between the same two commuter or destination points on quicker routes;
  • Local Bus – The bulk of our transit service with stops every quarter-mile throughout the city;
  • Streetcars – Modern and historic cars that run on rails that usually flows with traffic on main streets and connects neighborhood to neighborhood;
  • Shuttles (Paratransit, Flex & Lift) – Connects people with daily service and those of us with physical, cognitive, and visual disabilities throughout the city.

The hierarchy of San Diego’s full-range of private mobility modes are as follows:

  • Shuttles (Airport Shuttles, Van Share) – Connects people with daily service and those of us with physical, cognitive, and visual disabilities throughout the city.
  • Bicycles & Jitney facilities – Connects people up to three to five miles comfortably at a slower speed;
  • Pedestrians & scooter facilities – Connect us up to a quarter to half mile distance at a walkable pace.

To support our Mayor’s vision for San Diego, we need to build a more sustainable transit network that focuses on connecting job centers to neighborhood centers with BRT and interconnecting Streetcar lines. Our zoning requires our new housing to be constructed as mixed-use and accessible by pedestrians. The new BRT study investment our City Councilmembers, Georgette Gomez and Chris Ward, announced this week is the right start to building the right mix of transit types to connect new housing with job centers.

 

Beach Density

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

San Diego’s Missing Middle

The Bay Area’s housing disaster tells San Diegans that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is not an option. We have to decide whether we want more neighbors or to pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure.  The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers. Fortunately, we have a housing model that fills the ‘missing middle’ that more responsibly grows our city.

San Diego’s beach areas are home to our most vehemently defended neighborhoods. It’s healthy, outdoor-oriented lifestyle, when coupled with parking constraints, begs people to walk and ride bikes year ‘round. Our beach density model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. While housing prices are very high in the beach areas, this is mostly due to its finite land availability and layers of regulatory constraints, but those are lessons to be learned. Our beach density’s real value to the rest of San Diego is found in its mixed-use walkable urbanism pattern/model that creates more housing and economic development opportunities.

SouthMission

South Mission Beach’s Gentle Density (Image Creative Commons)

The best places to test this middle ground housing model would be any neighborhood in and around our existing Urbanized Areas. Such as, Southeast San Diego, Golden Hill, South Park and along our major corridors, such as El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, and Bay Park, City Heights, and the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove, and National City.  Hurtles to allowing for this gentle uptick in housing would primarily be our citizen’s natural ‘fear-of-change’ reflex, which is why using a local model makes sense (as opposed to an imported Portland or Vancouver model). This is somewhat due to our quality of life being ‘precariously’ high, as our home values are a major part of our personal wealth. Therefore, we are very leery of any change that may affect any of that value. 

Another issue will be found in unbundling the many layers of inconsistent development rules and regulations. Today’s zoning rules are based on a 1960’s suburbia building model while Pacific, Mission, and Ocean Beach areas were built in the pre-zoning traditional neighborhood era. In addition, outdated traffic calculations are still in use to measure and mitigate for new housing wrongfully giving us suburban infrastructure facilities and financing estimates. Finally, we would need SANDAG to allocate meaningful funding of pedestrian and bicycle facilities to improve our sidewalks, street trees, lighting, bike lanes, cycle tracks, and transit stops.

The benefits of urbanizing ‘elegantly’ are more urban housing choices with healthier lifestyles that lead to less demand for new suburban housing in the back country, and a spreading-of-the-wealth as local land owners will build most of these units, as opposed to international developers, ensuring that rents are recirculated within our economy. With average lot sizes in traditional San Diego neighborhoods ranging from 5,000 to 6,800 square feet, five (5) units on these lots on a typical lot would support regional transit service, neighborhood scale shops, restaurants, and professional office. And, assurances in maintaining the beloved character of mixed-use walkable places will be found in making any deviations from more precise zoning rules impossible.

Our city is in desperate need for ‘attainable’ housing and our beach density model provides the most fitting solution. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, we can all enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle the beach model provides us.

4 Square - 3

2.1.2 - 5

2.2.1 - 3

Wide Variety of Design in a Narrow Range to Respect Neighbors Privacy (Images by David Saborio)

UPDATE (12.28.2015): How to Allow for Beach Densities:

  • Eliminate off-street parking minimums (Transit/Bike/Walk);
  • Eliminate minimum lots sizes and minimum lot dimensions;
  • Up-zone any parcel that allows a single family house to 2-5 units;
  • Covert per unit development impact fees to per SF impact fees and eliminate development impact fees in the places where you want development;
  • Take Main Street back from the State DOT. (increased revenues from getting on-street parking back and taming the overly wide arterial will more than cover the increased maintenance costs);
  • Amend your adopted fire code (zero lot line for sideyard setbacks);
  • Adopt City of San Diego endorsed NACTO Street standards;
  • Allow for self-certification by Licensed Architects. Building permit issued by the Architect with required notification of the municipality to keep the assessor’s records current.

“Just Get the Ground Floor Right…” Modernisms Last Stand

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It was Luxembourg’s Leon Krier whose transformative polemic in the 1970’s and 80’s shaped America’s New Urbanism of the 90’s and 00’s and our reformation of traditional mixed-use, walkable, urbanism today. I’ve watched my city take baby steps from outlawed urbanism (’60s single-use zoning), to downtown sub-urbanism (’80s drive-thru Jiffy Lubes), to ‘safer’ Vancouver urbanism (’00s single point towers surrounded by suburban townhouses). And, over these 40 years this one truth has been drummed into our downtown urban design consciousness, “just get the ground floor right” and everything else will be fine.

Leon Krier's Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

Leon Krier’s Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

So, we’ve stopped clipping the traditional, walkable, grid with new freeway off/on ramps. We are returning fast, one-way streets leading to those freeways into more humane, shopping promenades. We’ve added streetcars, jitneys, car and bike share stations, and protected bike lanes to help us get around. Small parks, plazas, and parklets spout up in vacant lots and street corners to slow us down and smell the coffee and craft beer. We are seriously endeavoring to repair our urban street pattern with infill redevelopment projects filling in and firming up our street walls as this interface supports the vitality and exhilaration of being downtown.

With this 2-dimensional base being well laid, downtown agencies are successfully getting new developers to build their 3-dimensional building’s ground floors in a more humane manner. The market supports this trend and every project’s ground floor has clear window shopfronts, and detailed transoms and awnings have returned with restrained signage, public restrooms, and shops spilling out onto the sidewalk. And nobody dares to dispute getting this first ground floor layer right. The 2D traditional urban street pattern has crept up to shape the 3D base of new architectural design… again, in a more traditional, humane manner.

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana - Rick Caruso)

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana by Rick Caruso)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal ('39 Expo Futurama)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal (’39 Expo Futurama – Wikipedia Image)

And, here is where we find the last bastion of of the modernist architecture… fighting for survival in the materials, shapes, forms, and style of the building’s upper floors. Garish, look-at-me architecture still reigns in this narrow 25 to 140 feet range above the ground floor.

Seen This Proposed for Your Downtown Yet?

Seen One of These Proposed for Your Downtown Yet? (Image: LA Streetsblog)

I find it interesting that modernism has evolved from being a very big idea, to its ubiquitous mid-century development standard, to its now marginalized position between the ground floor and roofline. I completely agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture fits best in a natural setting, as well with Leon when it sits in juxtaposition to traditional architecture and urbanism.

Bilbao's Big Idea Wasn't,

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It was Learning How to Architecturally Tune a Place to Create Visual and Cultural Complexity! (Image Unattributed)

John Nolen, San Diego’s original urban planner, once wrote in 1907 that city planning finds, “A place for everything, with everything in its place.”  Having been tested and vetted over three generations, maybe modernist architecture has finally found its appropriate place in our everyday life… within a very narrow range pushed as far away from people as possible.

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

San Diego’s Salk Institute

Urban Planning

The Salk Institute is an other-worldly place as I had seen it on posters and calendars for many years before I experienced it first hand. At certain times of the day, nearer sunset, the space can take your breath away. The concrete and granite buildings and plaza are much more transcendental than harsh. The travertine pavers have pulpy texture, and the Roman-esc ‘pozzuolanic’ concrete has a glowing softness too. While mid-day is rarely as nice, the site is never hot due its ocean front location (Mitt Romney couldn’t buy a better lot in La Jolla).

Its power comes from the dynamic tension between its very formal/classical plaza + excellent contemporary architecture + the forced perspective on the mesa edge/ocean natural setting = Wow.

I agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture sits best in nature and this is such a place looking in one direction (but, don’t turn around). Adding the sound of the plaza’s water rubicon/falls, and scent from its formal rows of orange trees, the experience can be sublime… then you get back in your car and drive through suburban office park hell to go home.

If it wasn’t perched on the side of a cliff, I would bet this space would be the only recognizable place to a San Diegan today a 1,000 years from now…

This is inspired by a terrible article critical of ‘placemaking’ written by James Russell (I’m purposely not providing a link as it was simply a hit on Fred Kent’s excellent Project for Public Spaces group) who states that the Salk was an example of a great ‘public space’ generated without public input. Well, it is not. The Salk is a private institution and the space is only open to the public during work hours and patrolled by security guards. This type of semi-private/public space was discussed thoroughly during the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ summer and their squatting protests on public/private Zuccotti Park.

The idea of ‘public space’ is a relatively new with its revolutionary genesis in our country found in Frederick Law Olmsted’s ‘Central Park’ and Yosemite Valley national park plan. Abraham Lincoln appointed Mr. Olmsted to ‘create a place where all men are equal,’ and these very large public spaces are literal metaphor of this very big idea… We are the land of the free.

While the Salk Institute is a powerful place, true public space is decidedly more powerful, transcendental and revolutionary. And from this, I better appreciate why people such as Lincoln, Olmsted, Lou Kahn, Jonas Salk become historical figures as we are standing on the shoulders of giants.