El Cajon Boulevard has a ways to go before it becomes the transit corridor planners envision.

Now close to a year old, the Mid-City Rapid 215 hasn’t made taking the bus any easier, keeping the boulevard car-centric and thwarting its future as a dense urban village.

The new transit line isn’t much faster or more dependable than the regular bus it replaced, leaving the boulevard community grasping for the transportation solution it was promised, even while it undergoes a development boom.

The Rapid project, which took a decade to develop, was meant to follow the bus rapid transit, or BRT, model. Initial plans promised a dedicated lane for buses and transit stops with ticketing machines that would speed up the boarding process. Instead, it has a dedicated lane for a short stretch, but shares the road with other cars for most of its route.

“We had envisioned the (Rapid 215) being much more rider-friendly, fast, than it actually is,” said Beryl Forman, marketing director for the Boulevard Improvement Association. “What they proposed in the beginning was not what we got.”

The 215 bus, which travels from SDSU to El Cajon Boulevard and through Balboa Park to downtown, has been on time 83.6 percent of the time on average for the nine months it has been operational, according to MTS figures. That means the rest of the time, buses left their stops at least five minutes later than scheduled.

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The 15 bus, which ran on El Cajon Boulevard before the Rapid routes came online, was on time 84 percent of the time in 2013 — about the same as the Rapid 215 buses.

But reliability is a major selling point of BRT lines in the first place.

“It is especially important that BRT service be reliable. … The service standard for schedule adherence is often higher for BRT than for conventional service,” the American Public Transportation Association wrote in its “recommended practice for BRT service design.”

Each of the other four routes in the Metropolitan Transit System’s BRT network are significantly more reliable than Mid-City’s line. The others stay on schedule between 88.8 percent and 96 percent of the time.

Reliability issues are partially due to complications with SANDAG’s traffic signal priority system, meant to allow buses running behind schedule to keep green lights on a little longer. SANDAG says it’s still tweaking the signals along the boulevard, and the Rapid 215 buses’ on-time percentage has increased consistently, albeit slowly, since they began running in October.

Timeliness of Rapid 215

Community pushback kept the Rapid 215 from getting its own lane to boost its speed and reliability, including skepticism from the Boulevard Improvement Association itself.

Arnold Torma, a traffic engineer for transportation consultant the KOA Corporation, said El Cajon Boulevard has too many lanes for the cars it carries — meaning it could support a dedicated lane for transit.

He said the boulevard, originally a highway, has the capacity to carry up to 50,000 vehicles per day but now carries only about 19,000 to 21,000 daily, which is why cars can easily get up to 40 mph and above.

“If you were building a street from scratch, and you knew it was going to be carrying 20,000 (vehicles per day), you wouldn’t build six lanes — you’d build four lanes,” Torma said.

The high-speed traffic on El Cajon Boulevard isn’t good news for the Rapid 215. People feel unsafe — the boulevard is one of the eight most dangerous corridors in the city, according to a recent pedestrian safety report — so they’re less likely to feel comfortable walking to and from the transit stops.

Randy Van Vleck, active transportation director for the City Heights Community Development Corporation, said small improvements like curb ramps and crosswalks near Rapid stops would go a long way.

“If we want transit to get more popular, we can’t allow transit access to be a death-defying experience,” Van Vleck said.


If we want transit to get more popular, we can’t allow transit access to be a death-defying experience-Randy Van Vleck, active transportation director at City Heights CDC

The Rapid 215’s early ridership is undershooting initial projections, though not by too much. It’s been averaging 6,508 rides per weekday for the nine months it’s been operational. SANDAG forecast the route would attract 7,000 to 9,000 daily riders by the end of its first year. It could still reach the low end of that estimate by October.

Ridership on Mid-City Rapid 215

Still, the Rapid has attracted only about 18 percent more riders than the boulevard’s original 15 bus. That’s way below expectations, which suggested the route could improve ridership by 27 to 63 percent.

Dave Gatzke, vice president of acquisitions at affordable housing developer Community HousingWorks, said less-than-effective transit on the boulevard is especially worrisome because of the approaching development boom there.

Even if transit improves down the line, he said, the boulevard’s current car culture is affecting its future by impacting new developments as they’re built.

New buildings still require developers to provide a certain amount of parking, making them more expensive and difficult to build. But if the Rapid 215 were fast and reliable, that wouldn’t be as necessary, Gatzke said.

“When I look up in Seattle and Portland, there isn’t one parking space per resident, and people don’t care, because they have other transit options. Those cities have gotten there,” he said.

“I do wonder if we’re going to end up with a lot of empty parking spaces in these buildings we just designed ten to fifteen years from now.”

Some improvement is on the way: SANDAG is set to spend another $56.3 million — more than the entire initial budget to build the rapid bus line through Mid-City — in federal and county funds to improve two transit stations at El Cajon Boulevard and University. They’ll feature signs telling riders when the next bus comes, elevators and bus shelters. That project is slated to be completed in 2017.

Photos by Jamie Scott Lytle.

    This article relates to: Government, Must Reads, Public Transportation

    Written by Zoe Schaver

    Zoe Schaver is a 2015 summer reporting intern for Voice of San Diego. You can get in touch with her with comments, questions or offers of free food at 619-550-5672 or by email at zoe@voiceofsandiego.org.

    Franz S
    Franz S

    Why are they complaining when it isn't reaching the projected ridership? Of course it's not. It doesn't even look like a real BRT then why are they projecting real BRT like ridership growth? This is what you get when you half ass something.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    For those who are regular , or at least frequent users of transit, at, what multiple or fraction of transit fare would you be willimg to pay for a different public transportation system that:

    On-demand in the same vehicle takes you directly to your desired destination in about half the time. Vehicle sharing would be expected with typically 2 -3 people would be expected. Energy and emissions would be no morethan transit.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Franz S @Walt Brewer 

    Of course I there are high activity concentrations  at both ends to generate the volume. Like Manhattan, other dense points in large eastern cities, and bridge concentration into San Francisco.

    San Diego only comes close with the trolley to/rom Mexican Border, a very successful operation. Principally used by non drivers, like much of  mass transit.

    But trolley has been tripled in length since that original line in 1981, and all the addition caries only 25% more than the original, and uses three times the right of  way compared to a freeway measured in daily passenger[mules.

    If we are going to run expensive experiments like this me or the newly approved University Ave, will City/SANDAG insist on before/after performance records for the roads, impact on business, accident rates including mew parking, etc, etc,?

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    I've been a regular rider of the 215 since it's beginning as it's one of my connecting options to the Rapid 235 which I use for my commute.  

    What's going well with the Rapid 215:

    - Frequency of service

    - Long hours of service

    - Reliability and speed of service outside of peak weekday daytime hours

    - Size and comfort of buses

    What needs to get better:

    - Dedicated lanes are needed along El Cajon and Broadway.  The service will continue to be slower than necessary during weekday daytime hours and less-reliably on-time than necessary until these shortcomings are addressed.  

    - Payment before boarding and all-door boarding as on the trolley.  Dwell time at stops needs to be reduced for faster end-to-end run times.  Muni in San Francisco is doing all door boarding even without payment before boarding by having card readers at all doors.  Only those paying cash need to board by the driver.  Why can't/won/t MTS do that for all bus services?

    - There's little evidence that the promised signal priority is working as intended (stretching of adjusting the timing of signals when the bus is running behind schedule).  That needs to change.  

    - Properly working electronic schedules at the stops where they exist.  It's usually a crap shoot whether they'll be working or not.  For any particular stop, they'll be out of service for weeks at a time.  For example, for the schedule display for the eastbound service for the stop at University and Park, that sign probably hasn't been functioning at all for more than about 25 percent of the time since the service began.  I've noticed similar issues for the electronic displays for other Rapid services as well.

    What was promised was a form of Bus Rapid Transit.  What was delivered was slightly better than a limited-stop service.  There really needs to be some political leadership to make this service as good as it can be.  Instead we get smiling politicians (Falconer, Gloria, etc.) wiling to show up for ribbon cutting ceremonies, but unwilling to do what is needed to make the service really excellent.

    To address some of the other comments, I find the spacing of the stops and locations of the stops to be about right, especially when coupled with the existing local services (1 north of University and 7 south of University).

    SDResident subscriber

    For those needing to transfer to another bus arriving late to the transfer point means that you most likely missed your connecting bus and will now need to wait for the next one which may be anywhere from 15 min to an hour.  You can't expect to increase ridership on transit if it doesn't get where its going on time.  This is often a problem as there is usually little time to catch the next bus.

    Jennifer Reiswig
    Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

    I ride transit daily and have no car. I really want to support MTS and the very hard work they do trying to sell transit in this city. But this was just so poorly executed when it got down to the ground.  The dedicated bus lane on Park was completely unnecessary. The only reason there was room to build it is that there's no traffic on that street, demonstrating that it wasn't needed! It also closed off cross-neighborhood traffic on Polk, which was a useful way for locals to avoid the big congested streets. They could have created that lane with paint only and left Polk alone. The bus lane made several intersections more dangerous - I've seen cars mistakenly turn down the bus lanes, and several of the barrier posts have obviously been crashed into.  

    On El Cajon Blvd itself, a lot of what is making this area exciting is the food and shopping for neighborhood people. But the 215 stops are far apart, and don't necessarily line up with the locations people want to go to. Pancho Villa supermarket? No stop. World Foods supermarket? No stop. The 215 and the slow-bus route 1 don't share many of the same exact stop locations - often they are across a street from each other, so if if you're a little old lady with your buggy, you've gotten on the 1 with your cart because it's closer to the store you're shopping at, and you're going to stay on it all the way home even though it's slower.  I really do like the bigger buses, and it's working out nicely to have more capacity on Park Blvd to and from the zoo for tourists. But it's obviously not really rapid, nor does it really work to supplement the slow-bus route. 

    It's been frustrating. 

    Franz S
    Franz S

    @Jennifer Reiswig The dedicated lanes were supposed to be on more parts of the service until it was killed by NIMBYs and short-sighted business interests who balk at lost parking (oh the horror). The farther stops are intended like that because the service is designed to be fast and frequent. You can''t do that with closer stop spacings.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    It's crazy-making to read about people who think transformation occurs overnight. Rapid, convenient public transportation along major urban corridors is essential to our future as is well articulated by the BIA in their comments about the disconnect between our parking requirements and availability of public transportation. 

    Although hard to discern in detail, the Timeliness table suggests that by June (last month), on time performance appears to have risen to about 88% even though the article doesn't acknowledge that. Leaving a stop up to 5 minutes late doesn't faze me at all. Take an earlier bus if 5 minutes is going to make you seriously late for something.

    Ridership will increase as gas prices rise and people become more accustomed to the availability of public transportation. Getting that dedicated lane in place will make a huge difference and the lack of it is not the fault of MTS, it's the fault of community members who have opposed it.


    hockeysuit subscriber

    @Judith Swink I think it would be instructive for VOSD to dig into the evolution of this project, which clearly does not deserve the "BRT" label.  Did MTS cave too easily to business interests?  Did pressure come from a disgruntled Quickee-Mart owner or a business association representing a hundred dues-paying members? Did community planning groups weigh in? Perhaps some political leadership could have made a difference.

    If shortcomings in the process can be identified, maybe we can get better transit projects and safer streets in the future. Or, is parking-over-transit just too ingrained in our planning culture?

    Jennifer Reiswig
    Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

    @Judith Swink I would bet a nickel that a good piece of the increase in timeliness was due to rerouting off the 163. I was skeptical about that part of the new route, but it's turned out that Park is quite a bit more predictably smooth than the 163. 

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    You may well be right. SR163 isn't always congested but when it is - at usually predictable times - it's awful. I didn't know it had been a part of the route and it makes no sense to me that it would have been. Where did the bus get on & off the freeway?

    Jennifer Reiswig
    Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

    @Judith Swink It (the former route 15) used the 163 between City College trolley and Washington St. The new route 170 duplicates part of that for folks in the Uni Heights area who need to get downtown. 

    Dean Plassaras
    Dean Plassaras

    o.k. but it runs faster than the Chargers though!

    tarfu7 subscribermember

    "Community pushback kept the Rapid 215 from getting its own lane to boost its speed and reliability, including skepticism from the Boulevard Improvement Association itself."

    And there it is. The headline says Rapid 215 isn't as rapid as "everyone" hoped - but who is "everyone"? It looks like quite a few people in the local community didn't really want a fast bus. (At least not if it meant eliminating a car lane.)

    Public transit will never work if we keep half-assing it like this. We get the transit system we deserve.

    msginsd subscriber

    @tarfu7 The article does suggest, without a valid supporting argument, that the lack of increase in ridership is due to the on-time performance, or lack thereof.  Perhaps, as many who live along the ECB corridor know, people aren't clamoring to ride the bus because they need to go places other than where the 215 goes, and therefore they still need their car.

    I always laugh at daily road use statistics, as if traffic is equally distributed across 24 hours.  As for SANDAG projections, yeah, they're pretty much self-serving.  

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    Yes, people who need to go more than one place will always drive their car - that is one consideration of my own on whether to drive or to take the bus (when all I need to do is go downtown & back home). 

    Nonetheless, there are others who only need to go to work and go home, without other stops or home to get the car for errands if they can't do those errands en route on the bus. A personal example is tomorrow when I'll take the trolley because I need only to go one place then home. I will, unfortunately, have to drive to the trolley because it would require 2 buses & a transfer to get from my home to a trolley station. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    17 stops over 9.6 miles is a stop every half-mile, and there's no limited-stop express service. Whose idea of rapid was that?

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann It is limited stop.  Look at the number of local stops served by the 1 bus along much of the same route north of University and the 7 bus south of University.  

    Richard Gorin
    Richard Gorin subscriber

    @Greg Martin @Derek Hofmann

    I use the 215 between University and 35th Ave.  Between the 1 and the 215, there is no time differential -- I can't recall ever passing a #1 when riding the 215 or being passed by the 215 when on the 1.  

    What makes the 215 attractive is the 10 minute headway (vs 15 for the 1), and the covered shelters.  Add those to the other routes I need and MTS would be delivering steak instead of sizzle.  Bus Rapid Transit would be nice; Bus Frequent Transit is a deal-changer.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Richard Gorin 

    I mostly agree.  It would be great to upgrade some of the existing limited-stop services to the level of the Rapid 215.

    However, it have also been good to see the 215 delivered as initially planned.  That would have been a great opportunity to experience a service comparable or better to trolley service in many ways at a fraction of the cost and time to implement.

    hockeysuit subscriber

    "Community pushback kept the Rapid 215 from getting its own lane to boost its speed and reliability, including skepticism from the Boulevard Improvement Association itself".  What is the source of this information?  Can you provide details?  Interesting that the BIA spokesperson quoted is disappointed in the Rapid service.  What did she have to say about the dedicated lane?

    Given the concerns of the stakeholders that are quoted, is MTS doing anything to address the shortcomings of the "rapid" service? Are there other "best practices" for BRT service that MTS chose to leave out of this project?

    Are the city council reps for districts 3 and 9 interested in improving the Rapid service along the ECB corridor?

    Looking forward to your follow-up work on this subject.  Thanks!

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    Congratulations to all that have worked to revitalize El Cajon Blvd.  The BRT phase of bringing rapid transit back to Mid City Heights has been some 70 years in the re-making.  Modern urban living requires a vibrant walk-able and bike-able neighborhood and rapid transit connections to the larger community and region.  

    The Cold War construction of the Mission Valley and Coastal Freeways drained the vitality from the Mid City Heights neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods had been developed on a human scale, with local rail service, before super highways that made cheap suburban lands only a commute away.  As Joni Mitchell sung in Big Yellow Taxi:  You don't know what you got till it's gone.."  https://youtu.be/94bdMSCdw20  Today, people realize that quality of life is not defined by the length of a commute. 

    The City Heights community looks forward to the return of light rail trolley o University Avenue.  Other Mid City Heights neighborhoods will find and advocate for the solutions that best fit their life objectives.  After 30 years of planning the beginning of the first phase of rapid transit, on the SR 15 Archie Moore freeway will assist in a revitalization of our neighborhoods. Perhaps the data that El Cajon Blvd. has twice the vehicle carrying capacity, than need, suggests the opportunity for more transportation innovations (Wider sidewalks, park-lets, bike-ways and more store front parking)

    Please keep up the good work. Let us get Back to the Future.   John Stump, City Heights