The buses in San Diego are not very good.

The busiest urban lines average about 10 mph. The 215 Rapid bus, which runs from SDSU to downtown mostly along El Cajon Boulevard and is intended to be faster and serve fewer stops than a regular bus, falls short of true bus rapid transit standards, and averages only 12 mph. It’s not much faster than a cyclist.

So how can San Diego improve its bus network, so people who rely on it get around faster?

Transportation consultant Jarrett Walker has recommended cities around the world lay out their bus network as a simple grid to maximize its usefulness. It allows passengers to get from anywhere, to anywhere, with just one transfer. If the buses are frequent enough, the extra time passengers spend waiting for the connecting bus is not onerous. West Coast cities with effective bus systems utilizing a grid include Los Angeles, Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, Canada.

San Diego does not really have a grid. Instead, it has multiple grids, interrupted by freeways, canyons, rivers and Balboa Park. Major thoroughfares in the urban core deal with constant interruptions. For instance, 6th Street is the last north-south arterial street – or high-volume urban road – out of downtown before Balboa Park interrupts the grid. The next north-south arterial to its east is 30th Street, more than a mile and a half away. But farther north, 30th Street does not extend past Interstate 8, where Mission Valley interrupts the traffic pattern. Texas Street connects the University Heights area with Mission Valley, but it too ends at Balboa Park.

In National City and Chula Vista, MTS’s bus system relies on a more continuous grid. There are freeways and the Sweetwater River, but the arterial streets cross all of them, unlike in San Diego’s urban core. The second busiest bus in the county, however, the 929, transitions from Third Avenue in Chula Vista to Fourth and Highland Avenue in National City, before swerving to serve downtown San Diego. That bus cannot continue north on the same street in San Diego, 43rd, because it is interrupted by Imperial Marketplace and Greenwood Cemetery.


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Thanks to these physical and land-use related barriers, even the buses that do exist cannot perform very well. Cars can avoid grid interruptions by using freeways or turning to a different arterial street, but buses cannot do so as easily. Freeways have no room for local stations, so freeway buses and local buses serve separate travel markets. And turning to a better arterial, such as from 30th to Texas, is easier for a car than for a bus: Buses have to slow down when they turn, and can miss lights more easily if the stoplights are timed for cars.

Even a bus with a continuous arterial in a city is unlikely to be reliable if it faces regular interruptions.

Uninterrupted grids, Walker said, are especially valuable because they can distribute traffic across many parallel streets. In Vancouver, a potential peer city San Diego’s MTS could use as a benchmark, there are no freeways within city limits, and there are many grid arterials for drivers, which are continuous for many miles. Within three-quarters of a mile Vancouver has four east-west streets — 4th Avenue, Broadway, 12th and 16th. The limited-stop buses average 18 mph on 4th and 12th on Broadway, and generally arrive on schedule.

But given its current infrastructure, San Diego cannot hope to emulate Vancouver. Even when there are arterial streets at the right place, the road network dumps all through-traffic on them, rather than dispersing it along a series of parallel streets. Most local buses average around 10 mph, but the segment of the well-used 929 that runs continuously on Highland and 4th, crossing Sweetwater River, only averages 8 mph.

This congestion makes it impossible to run buses reliably.

San Diego isn’t alone. In San Jose, a bus network redesign by Walker’s consultancy is creating many routes that come scheduled to arrive every 15 minutes — but those routes cannot stick to their schedule, because of freeway grid interruptions. A BART extension into San Jose, due to open next year, is also scheduled to run trains every 15 minutes, but the bus-BART transfers will not be timed, because the buses are not reliable enough to make the connection.

Grid connectivity is even poorer in San Diego than in San Jose. That means San Diego needs to look to models outside the midwestern and western United States, where most cities have relentless grids. In the United States, the least gridded major city is Boston. In Boston, buses use arterial streets where they exist, but those are usually short. With slow traffic, the main form of public transit in Boston is the subway. Most buses are subway feeders; they don’t even enter downtown, due in part to its narrow streets. One possible lesson for San Diego, then, is to look to the trolley as its primary form of public transit, with most buses – with the exception of the University and El Cajon corridors –useful primarily as trolley feeders.

Bay Area public transportation activist Elizabeth Alexis, of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, suggests the Zurich model as a way of improving public transit. In Zurich, the emphasis is on keeping to the timetable. When service is reliable, planners can schedule buses and trains with fast connections, so a trip involving multiple transfers may not be any slower than a one-seat ride. In San Diego, this would have implications for transit service in the suburbs around key Green and Orange Line trolley stations. (The Blue Line comes every seven to eight minutes, frequent enough that timed connections have little value, but the other two lines come every 15.)

Timed transfers, however, require more reliability than San Diego’s bus network has today. Achieving this reliability would require giving buses priority in traffic. That means dedicated lanes, especially on the most congested streets, and signal priority at intersections. Neither dedicated lanes nor signal priority is expensive, but both are politically contentious, since they involve taking space away from cars and giving it to buses.

As a solution, Alexis advocates for a way to bypass controversy: Install bus-only lanes on streets that are not yet congested, but that the planners believe will become congested in the future. This could be viable in growing suburbs served by the North County Transit District’s Coaster and Sprinter. A tough political fight is probably unavoidable in San Diego proper.

A less controversial way to both speed up buses and make them more reliable is off-board fare collection, the way ticketing works on the trolley. Though many American cities, such as New York, consider this a specific feature of bus rapid transit, San Francisco recently implemented it systemwide, allowing passengers to board the bus from any door. This has made boarding times both faster and more consistent. It could be an invaluable component of a bus plan for San Diego that emphasizes reliable service.

The street layout in San Diego is unusual in North America, with so many grid interruptions. This means that copy-and-pasted solutions from peer cities up the West Coast may not work as well as they did in their original setting. San Diego’s transit system probably needs to be rail-centric, with buses feeding rail from outlying areas. But the buses can’t just run in shared lanes on a grid, as is the case in many U.S. cities. They need priority on lanes and at intersections, and all-door boarding, to become as reliable as they need to be for a modern transit system.

Alon Levy is a Paris-based mathematician and public transportation policy writer.

    This article relates to: Land Use, MTS, Public Transportation, Transit

    Written by Alon Levy

    18 comments
    Nadine Misiaszek
    Nadine Misiaszek

    I have taken transit in San Diego, San Francisco and abroad.  Yes, the buses are faster, more on time elsewhere for several reasons.  Another significant reason is that, when I rode the bus in San Francisco. for example, I saw no disabled and no elderly.  MTS may not be fast but it does an admirable job for the disabled and elderly.  Unfortunately it takes longer to load a wheelchair or a walker.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Subsidy needed was omitted in my comment about costs using Nat Transit Data base info.

    For the surbsidy average low 3.7 mile bus trip, assuming ave fare is $2, a 37% subsidy is needed just to meet O &M  expense.

    If the ave fare is $1.50, subsidy is  83%

    Source is taxpayers, very few who use bus service.

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    WOW!  Right on Craig.


    And some more elaboration with numbers and sources.

    OK to squeeze a little more out of buses,  and trolleys. But before we spend a lot, look at the tiny contribution they make in an auto/road dominated system. Buses carry a little over 1%of travel including peak hrs. And what value to a mph or two, when autos average nearly twice as fast, real origin to real destination. Add times to and from stations for the bus; and trolley.

    There is a better way. A revolution, driven by electrification and automation is underway. Most important it provides what the Public wants;  on call same vehicle travel direct to actual destinations. This for all, especially non drivers now tied to mass transit. That includes non drivers who now must take mass transit. Uber,etc, can start now with human drivers, at about same total cost as amortized new mass transit. If needed to start, subsidies  as mass transit uses can apply. The mass transit "empty bus" off peak is eliminated.

    Earlier  Comment:

    "Urban transportation revolution due to electricity and automation, has been  cited at least since Fall 2016. But  system synthesis as presented here ignores traveler demands that do not match the smart growth template. After about 30 years, and many $billions, there is failure to to demonstrate the smart growth core; meaningful auto to mass transit transfer. Example: In San Diego, while mass transit absorbed 1 million daily pass-miles, autos absorbeddaily nearly 40 million. It illustrates the demand for on-call personal same vehicle travel direct to actual destinations. On-call service, (aka "Uber"), by competing companies operating in several cities, with needed  door to door capability. Thus  overcoming mass transit "first/last mile" access deficiency. And can meet the public demand, as do nearly 90% of travel, now with auto access, for flexible service to all travelers, especially non-drivers, now dependent on mass transit.

    Thus an equality for all pragmatic long term Plan:

      -Uber, and competitors become 24/7 Regional Public Transportation. The transfer can  start immediately with human drivers, with increasingly very efficient autos  to meet energy and emissions standards.

        -Mass Transit provides capacity augmentation on some very active corridors during peak periods, and for high attendance events. It is relieved of its off peak wasteful heavy vehicle service.

        -Ancillary service, walk, bike, etc, are encouraged to the degree they are travel  cost-effective. Vehicle sharing encouraged.

        -"Sprawl", density, etc., are public opinion decisions. Not determined  separately by transportation, or negative or positive rules for their operation.

        -It appears total costs, including capital, are similar for new mass transit, and Uber,etc.  Operating subsidy for declining  mass transit becomes available for new start-ups if needed, including fare adjustments.

        -Despite sharing, Uber,etc.,  Region  VMT may increase, and in some dense growth areas road and or guideways increase. Vehicles built to demanding Region efficiency specifications will be used by all. High value land les used for parking will be available as Uber,etc., increase.

    This Plan's primary advantages:

       -1), Role change for Auto/highway and for mass transit allow them to help each other provide superior service, rather than compete.

        -2), Challenge to meet stiff GHG and environment standards, and decide role of self-driving autos is high quality design engineering. Ned for unusual community design, and negative means to punish auto ownership and use are eliminated.

       -3). Pragmatic changes provide data and experience as  a basis for introduction of new designs."

    Brief comments about Nat. Transit Base data;

    Values do not include time and cost getting to/from the stations.  (Mass transit troublesome first/last mile. Plan now would spend $40 billion for mass transit to reduce rider time to work 5 minutes)

    Values are based only on ops. and maintenance. No capital.

    ((each boarding on $2.1 billion Mid Coast Trolley cost about $6-$8 to amortize capital over 50 years.)

    Let's look ahead, not behind.

    Adam Burger
    Adam Burger

    As a member of the project team that worked on redesigning the transit network in Santa Clara County, where San Jose is located, I would like to correct the statements made in the article about transit performance in San Jose as well as clear up some misconceptions about transit stated by the author.


    The transit network redesign in Santa Clara County has not yet been implemented so the notion that "routes cannot stick to their schedule" is fiction.  The blame that is placed on "freeway grid interruptions" does not make sense.  Crossing a freeway does not impact the on-time performance of transit.  It's true that signalized intersections that may be present at onramps and offramps can introduce volatility into the bus' schedule, but they are no more impactful than other signalized intersections along the route.  Furthermore, transit agencies are continually evaluating their routes for on-time performance and adjust schedules to keep them realistic.


    Freeways can be harmful to transit in that they create barriers to permeability that often make walking routes to access transit stops indirect and long, which is a disincentive to ride transit.  Perhaps the author meant to note that infrequent freeway crossings leave transit agencies unable to operate a perfect grid of evenly-spaced north/south and east/west crosstown routes.  This is true in most cities, including some with very effective transit systems, like San Francisco, where the frequent crosstown routes make all sorts of jogs and detours along their way.


    The author is also incorrect in stating that buses will not be timed to the BART schedule.  Rapid routes in San Jose will be timed to the schedule.  Other connecting routes operate at 15-minute or better frequencies and will require average waits of 7.5 minutes or less, at which point precise timing becomes less relevant.


    Only a small handful of transit systems--those that are completely separated from auto traffic (such as subways) or those with very small service areas, low levels of traffic congestion and a singular transit hub--are good fits for a highly-timed system as endorsed by Ms. Alexis.  In urban areas like San Jose or San Diego that contain many transit hubs, multiple transit operators and where transit must use congested roads, the timing strategy is simply impossible to implement.  A superior strategy for moving people quickly in large urban areas is to establish a network of crosstown routes that operate frequently.  This minimizes waiting times and maximizes mobility.  This is the "frequent grid" concept that Jarrett Walker endorses.


    Adam Burger

    Senior Transportation Planner

    Valley Transportation Authority

    Patrick Flynn
    Patrick Flynn subscriber

    Using the MTS Trip Planner (https://www.sdmts.com/schedules-real-time/trip-planner), my daily commute from North Park to Downtown would take 45 minutes on the bus, including 1 mile of walking and a 25 minute bus ride with 22 stops.  That compares to an average car trip of less than 10 minutes.  With planned density increases coming for North Park, we need a real plan for mass transit, and if we're going to get serious about it, we need to start talking about shutting down some streets to cars entirely and have them dedicated to rail, bus, cycle, and pedestrian.  Let's stop pretending that we can plan mass transit around cars.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    I'm not sure what is meant by the concept of the "Grid".  In my opinion the routes always go across many communities.  I'd rather see reliable buses in every community that essentially stay in that community and only a few inter-community buses that can get you to other neighborhoods.  Take the 27 in clairemont.  Now why it turns onto convoy then travels on CM Blvd into Santee is beyond me.  We need a couple of clairemont buses solely for getting around clairemont.  Perhaps something like the 27 is still okay in that it gets you to PB or Santee but we have no other bus line in clairemont dedicated to this community.  Depending on where I want to go I might need a transfer or two just to get to some location within the same community that I started in.  So why bother?  I can easily drive and get anywhere in clairemont by vehicle in 10 - 15 minutes.  If you want to reduce cars on the road and fill the buses then make them more convenient for all trips including short ones around the community.  I'd happily buy a monthly pass and use the bus on the weekends for going to the store, going out to eat, and many other things if it was reasonably quick at getting me where I need to go.  Last time I tried taking a bus into PB it broke down.  That was the last time I tried that.  What a waste of time.  The 27 getting around clairemont is used and has a good amount of people on it when I've tried to use it.  The problem is that it is only useful for getting to a small number of destinations. The ONLY reason I'd ever use the bus in clairemont is to avoid drinking and driving when going to Society Brewing or a few other destinations that happen to be on the 27's route.  

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @shawn fox Yes, Clairemont could use a couple of SuperLoop routes. Then the 27 wouldn't need 4 bus stops in front of Home Depot slowing down that bus route for everyone.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    In places where bus-only lanes are not feasible, install "queue jumper" lanes at intersections, with traffic signal priority. These are short lanes that begin just before the intersection and end just after, so they take up very little land compared to a true bus-only lane. When traffic is backed up at the light, the bus will enter the queue jumper lane. Then the traffic light in the queue jumper lane turns green and the other lights in the same direction will stay red for a few seconds so the bus can get ahead of traffic.

    Another way to speed up buses is to not have stops every 1/4 mile. I would be willing to walk another 5 minutes if it saves 20 minutes on the bus!

    todd bradley
    todd bradley

    If SANDAG followed the public's requests for trolley service instead of the rapid bus, that wasn't needed (there already was a bus on the same route that goes just as fast as the rapid), maybe we wouldn't be in this mess. SANDAG bullied there way through public meetings, never addressing the issues or the fact this wasn't needed. When they came in and told us"we have a budget we have to spend, or funding will be cut next year." this whole project should have been scrapped. Not only has the bus service lagged, but traffic patterns are now completely disrupted, And the streets, that now handle the redirected traffic (Lincoln St.), can not handle the amount of increased traffic. Anyone who has waited in line on Lincoln and Washington know what I'm talking about. How about our city planners and SANDAG get off their asses and actually do something to make this city better and stop wasting funds and energy pasting these band-aids on the city. 

    Lucas Kurlan
    Lucas Kurlan

    Look at what was done in Curitiba, Brazil, the "Eco-City". Very narrow, long buses, dedicated streets & one-way arteries for cars, turning former "moving parking lots" into pedestrian areas...lots of great great ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRD3l3rlMpo 

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    I would love to see a report on how full theses buses are. They always seem virtually empty to me, giving them a dedicated lane sounds like a poor idea. I like allowing entry from any door , but I wonder how much revenue is lost under this system in SF (probably none, they probably don't collect at either door and being a govmt agency probably don't track it either). 

    If MTS were run like a business they would be able to tell us what the cost per passenger ride was (fully loaded including the cost of vehicles, pensions etc.) ...I wonder how that would compare to everyone sharing an UBER...

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @craig Nelson https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2015/03/why-buses-should-let-you-board-through-any-door-in-2-charts/387739/

    "Muni added a rear-door smartcard reader and hired 13 new fare inspectors to spot-check rider proof-of-purchase. Pre-implementation studies had found fare evasion as high as 9.5 percent; after all-door boarding was implement, evasion was at 8 percent."

    https://www.sfmta.com/sites/default/files/agendaitems/2014/12-2-14 Item 14 All Door Boarding Report.pdf

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    @craig Nelson Giving rapid buses the dedicated lane they were supposed to receive on El Cajon Boulevard (http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/government/rapid-bus-isnt-as-rapid-as-everyone-hoped/) would greatly increase speed, reliability and ridership.  But you oppose a dedicated bus lane because of your anecdotal evidence of low ridership?  Seems like a circular argument.


    People are understandably afraid to ride bikes on San Diego roads designed for fast auto travel.  But I hear the same argument of low ridership used against safe bike lanes - when they are the very thing that would increase ridership. 

    Using your logic, we would never build a bridge across a river because no one swims across it.

    todd bradley
    todd bradley

    @paul jamason @craig Nelson there plan never included a dedicated bus lane on El Cajon. This was one of my major arguments during planning. This bus system was doomed from the get-go. SANDAG was never able justify the need for this. It was always about spending their budget, not about solving problems.

    Peter Peter
    Peter Peter

    Very few realistic solutions proposed in this article. Doesn't read as if the author has spent much time actually riding buses in San Diego. Lots of text talking about a grid system, which is not at all realistic in San Diego, because of geography (so why spend so much space talking about it?). Also, priority lanes are a no go, as 99% of road users are in private cars and this would waste an enormous amount of space.


    But the priority lights are intersections are a good idea: buses can be equipped with GPS, so lights trigger for them as they approach or relieve congestion of traffic in the path in front of them by on-demand prioritization of relieving blocking traffic in their path. The ability to flow through town without regard to traffic is what makes subways so attractive.


    The best solutions would involve more, but smaller buses that go to places people actually want to go to. They can do this by reduce costs by going all automated (MTS drivers are really expensive) and purchasing lighter more-efficient vehicles. Combine this with technology whereby people submit their routes ahead of time and let a pool of public vehicles create on-demand routes based on actual need that hour.


    In reality, though, the pressure for efficient bus transportation is not so great. San Diego is growing, but slowly. Future driving technologies, such as on-demand shared automated cars, are going to further reduce the need for public transportation here. 

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    MTS is already working on a Transit Optimization Plan, which appears to be reasonably well thought out given local constraints:

    https://www.sdmts.com/inside-mts-current-projects/transit-optimization-plan

    Beyond that plan:
    - All-door boarding needs to happen yesterday.
    - Selective thinning of stops would be helpful in speeding up some of the local routes  (non-limited stop routes).
    - Signal priority, which is supposed to exist for the Rapid 215, needs to actually work and be expanded to other higher-frequency routes.

    - The Rapid 215 still needs dedicated lanes on El Cajon Boulevard.

    Trying to route every trip through trolley lines is a non-starter as it would result in longer trip times and a less useful network.  Given geographic constraints, MTS has a reasonably well distributed network with many connection locations (i.e., not a hub and spoke system).  Increasing frequencies and improving schedule reliability would make better use of that network.