Surveys show young people in San Diego are doing more driving, not less. But the jury’s still out on whether that means they don’t care about transit, or whether the city’s just not meeting their needs.

Here’s Republican Councilman Scott Sherman earlier this month on a city proposal to create a new urban village near the Grantville trolley stop in his district:

“We’re kind of at a transformative stage, where the younger generation is used to using mass transit,” he said. “People’s attitudes are changing, and we’re getting to a point where we can take advantage of it.”

And here’s Democratic Councilman Todd Gloria — at the end of his stint as interim mayor — on the San Diego he expects to see in 20 years, according to San Diego Uptown News:

“(San Diego will) be a city dependent on public transit, biking and walking, in order to get gas emissions reductions,” he said. “Millennials typically don’t seem to be interested in a 1950s idealized version of life. They want urban settings, access to mass transit, the ability to bike to places and I’m hoping to put into place policies that will help make that so.”

Statements like these aren’t new. Four years ago, Elyse Lowe, then executive director for transportation advocacy group Move San Diego (she’s since been hired by Mayor Kevin Faulconer as a deputy director of Development Services), offered one of her own, opposing a regional transportation plan that she said didn’t focus enough on public transportation.

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“In order to attract the quality workforce we desire in San Diego, young qualified professionals want thriving cities with transportation options that serve them 24-7,” she said.

That’s the gist: There’s a particular type of growth young people want, and if we’re going to be successful, we need to give it to them.

Not everyone agrees.

Former Councilwoman Donna Frye, for instance, suggested a closer look.

“Many people seem to think the younger generation is using more mass transit in San Diego, and because of this, more density is OK,” she wrote in an email. “I am not sure where folks are getting this information.”

She’s right: The evidence doesn’t support the idea that young people in San Diego are abandoning cars.

CityLab last month pulled together Census data on the share of young adults who commuted by car in a handful of cities from 2009 through 2013 and compared it with the same rate back in 1980.

That young-people-are-driving-less dynamic happened in nine cities. San Diego wasn’t one of them.

In fact, of the 25 largest metro areas, San Diego had the largest increase in the share of young adults who commuted by car.

Nearly 76 percent of young San Diegans commuted by car in 1980; now nearly 85 percent of them do. Six other metro areas also saw an increase.

By that measure, it’s pretty clear that whatever desires young adults express about rejecting their parents’ suburban preferences haven’t translated to behavior changes in San Diego.

And that’s the best concrete data we have that speaks to San Diego specifically. Beyond that, we’re left wondering if San Diego somehow bucks the national trends.

But Colin Parent, policy counsel at transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, takes a different lesson from those numbers.

To him, national polls (here and here and here and here, as examples) that show young people are less attached to their cars and like living places they can walk or take transit to their jobs or restaurants and cafes, combined with data showing the increased share of young San Diego car commuters, shows the city has failed to deliver.

“The polling stuff is very relevant because it speaks to how preferences don’t match up with actions,” he said. “You could have people say they want to live downtown but they don’t, is it because they don’t really want to, or because they can’t afford it?”

The polling isn’t universal, though: a recent one from the National Association of Homebuilders found two-thirds of 20- and 30-somethings eventually want to own a home away from a city center.

Parent says thinking of an urban-suburban, car-transit split misses the point. After all, suburbs aren’t all the same. Some are more walkable than others, some have enough transit that you can reduce car trips even if you still own a car.

Parent says there’s plenty of evidence outside of polls that show San Diego’s Millennials feel the same about smart growth as young people across the nation: prices and rents are getting pushed up most in dense, walkable neighborhoods — and not just places like downtown and North Park, but also in the more walkable, transit-centric parts of suburbs like La Mesa.

“San Diego is absolutely not unique,” he said. “Just looking at rent levels, you can see that the more walkable, transit-oriented communities are more attractive, people are trying to move in, and they’re driving up rent. Market forces show there’s a growing preference for these kinds of communities.”

    This article relates to: Community Plans, Land Use, Neighborhood Growth, News, Public Transportation, Share

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    L B
    L B

     Has anyone here even taken the bus/trolley? I ask you to take 5 minutes to map your route from home to work through public transportation; not only will it take much longer, but the $70/month bus pass costs more than I pay in gas/month to drive 24miles per day round trip to work and home. WTF?

     Again, has anyone here even taken the bus/trolley? 40% are homeless, 50% are bitter blue collar workers making minimum wage working 2 full time jobs to cover the cost of living here; 5% are SDSU students heading down town to work part time or returning to their dorm after binge drinking in PB; 3% are international visitors heading to sea world shocked at the high population of homeless people in one location; 2% are untreated schizophrenics who break my heart. These are  my observations from riding the bus/trolley for 5yrs. 2 hrs/day one way to work. it's miserable.

    The average person in SD is NOT going to take public transit in these depressing conditions when they have the luxury of choosing to drive their car with privacy, blasting their music to relive their frustrations of bumper to bumper while sipping starbucks and chatting over their earpiece. 

    We clearly need more affordable housing ASAP, but positioning it in areas close to public transportation is not going to work out well; it will simple make horrible traffic even more unbearable. SD has become LA, folks.

    I hope whomever is planing and developing in what little acreage we have left is wise enough to build infrastructure like wider roads an access FIRST to help redirect traffic congestion. 

    If you look at google maps traffic like i have for the past 2 weeks you will see that the worst congestion is:

    AM -805 north from 8 to sorrento valley

    -5 north to UCSD which happens to be SD's 2nd largest employer next to the Navy with over 86,000 people commuting to campus daily (wow)

    PM- 805 south from carmel valley to the 8

    -5 south to the 8

    all else is mostly clear. that tells me we need new infrastructure to support a new hyway alternative to these routes ASAP! 

    Any suggestions?

    Sharon Gehl
    Sharon Gehl subscribermember

    Millennials may want to live in walkable communities like Uptown, but some of the locals who live in single family homes want to keep new people from moving there. In response the City is proposing lowering densities near commercial centers, jobs, and public transit in Uptown in their new community plan. Is the City serious about their Climate Action Plan, creating a “City of Villages”, and increasing the housing supply; apparently not if someone might object .

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Anyone ever take public transportation to Costco?

    Nobody likes to drive because it takes too long, but people choose to drive because the bus takes longer, much longer. People choose to drive in bumper to bumper traffic because its faster than the bus.

    Frohman subscriber

    @Sean M Not everyone has to make a long commute. Short car trips within one's own community are also a drag and add to congestion (e.g. trips to grocery stores, school p/u and drop off). In such cases it is not mass transit, but alternative modes of transportation that need to be encouraged. That means providing better infrastructure and safer environments for the under 1 mile trips that people could do on foot or by bike.  Not possible everywhere of course, but there are plenty of places it could and should work.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Fair points. I support encouraging alternative modes of transportation but I do not support removal of auto lanes and parking spots. The trend of relegating half the road off limits to automobiles inconveniences far more people than than it benefits.

    Dylan Mann
    Dylan Mann subscriber

    The quality of San Diego City schools is another part of this equation. As a young adult, it's much easier to get housing near where you work when you only have yourself to worry about. When you have kids, you have to get them in the best school for them. There are some good SDUSD schools, but there are a lot of low-performing school too. Discerning parents have to navigate SDUSD and consider outlying school districts to find the right school for their kids and tend to make choices about where they live based on where they want their kids to go school. That is why lots of folks move to Poway and Carlsbad. People will drive long distances if they need to in order to make sure their kids have the best education possible.

    Dylan Mann
    Dylan Mann subscriber

    "Young adults are driving more, not less." A big reason is that MTS is very slow. There are only 6 express routes and the Trolley covers a limited area. I am in my 30s and I have kids. My wife and I share one car, which we mostly use for carting kids and groceries around. I commute by bus, Trolley and bike, which I was trained to do during my years at UCSD and SDSU, where it's so hard and expensive to park. But, I am lucky to be able to use the fastest transit options. Most San Diegans aren't so lucky; they need cars everyday, all the time. If the regular buses had fewer stops, transit would be a lot faster and more useful for busy young adults. But, that would mean seniors and disabled folks would have to walk farther b/t stops. Maybe they could alternate express with regular routes, based on time of day.

    SDResident subscriber

    I don't hear anything about the affordability of these proposed dense living spaces.  If they are to attract millenials (25-35 year olds) then they would have to be priced below $2K/month since most in that age range are probably making less than $50K per year.  Alternately if you want to provide dense housing for low income people who make up a large group of downtown employees they would have to be significantly cheaper.  Many millenials have either started families or will do so in the near future and most likely won't want to live in a small apartment with nowhere for the kids to play. 

    The other elephant in the room is that  large numbers of folks that work in the city live in outlying suburbs/cities.  These are the folks that are crowding up the freeways and they aren't likely to move into an apartment/condo in the city. 

    Transit will mainly be used by people that cannot afford a car so building affordable housing for them near transit centers might make sense but it would have to be heavily subsidized.  If you are making $30K or less you can't afford an apartment that will cost much more than $1000/month.

    Perhaps a better solution is putting affordable housing close to where the low income jobs are.

    Grammie subscribermember

    Strange, I see no mention of living choices for young working families  with children. Sounds like we better adopt the mandates of China.

    Colin Parent
    Colin Parent subscribermember

    For the record, I have a lot of admiration for Donna Frye, both as a public servant, and as an advocate for transparency and good government.  

    I haven’t spoken with Donna about her views on housing, walkability, etc. So I don’t know whether our views on those issues differ.

    I do feel strongly that local governments should try to meet the desires of their current and future residents. And it is certainly my view that there is a growing number of young people (and older people) in the San Diego region who want more walkable places to live.

    Also, I think it's totally fine to build and maintain places to live that rely primarily on cars. However, both polling and market data suggest that there is a strong demand for more places where people can walk. We can have both. We should allow both.

    Local governments should allow a variety of locations and ways of living. Unfortunately, too many of the current and past rules make walkable neighborhoods, with good access to biking and transit infrastructure, effectively illegal and/ or very unaffordable.

    Colin Parent
    Colin Parent subscribermember

    @Dylan Mann You're probably right. Some of the other commenters seemed to read more into her quote, and I didn't want to join in with that.

    Dylan Mann
    Dylan Mann subscriber

    I didn't perceive Donna Frye's comment as anti-transit. She was merely stating her interpretation of data.

    evonne81 subscriber

    I'm a millennial living in University Heights. All of my friends are millennials. We drive because there is no other realistic option for us. To be honest, the public transportation is so poor it's not even a consideration. None of us likes to drive, which is why we've migrated to these neighborhoods, like Northpark and Kensington. In these areas, we're not burdened with looking for parking when we want to grab a burrito or a coffee. We're not stressed about getting DUI's when we want to go out for a beer. Many people I know live in walkable neighborhoods and then drive to work because it seems like everybody works far from where they live. 

    That being said, it's increasingly hard to afford these neighborhoods. My boyfriend and I just bought our first house in City Heights. We're already scheming on how we can get to our favorite haunts, especially at night, with the least amount of driving. We've talked more about our neighborhood evolving than about public transportation coming to meet us, even though we're only on the other side of the 15. 

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    Andrew for the win.  So much of what we think we know comes from anecdotal evidence (and polling questions written from that perspective) of youth in NYC, Washington DC and to an extent san francisco.  We have really not a clue when it comes to SAN DIEGO millennials  (and 30 somethings).  Donna tells us what one piece of census data suggest.  Another from the census is that far more millenials live in PB/Mission Beach and commute to Sorrento than live in 92101 and make a similar commute.  It could be that, due to self sorting, millenials that want a true "urban" experience end up in NYC and SF and the ones that end up in San Diego are chasing what attracted previous generations, beach, sun, beachtown lifestyle.  We also know that our 20 somethings tend to be more foriegn born and have a higher percentage of childbearing than peers in NYC and SF.

    We so need a public opinion research effort on this because urbanists are making plans and fostering arguments - all underpinned by the assumption that 20 somethings are the same all over the country rather than asking whether people are different and it makese sense to understand those differences.

    Nate Fuller
    Nate Fuller subscribermember

    There's a mismatch in San Diego between where the transit-friendly, walkable areas are and where a large percentage of the jobs are. I estimate 90% of my car use is my daily commute from North Park to UTC. If I had job options downtown or any of the urban neighborhoods I could pretty easily envision going down to one car for my family of four. I wish downtown SD focused more on being a jobs district than an entertainment district. 

    The light rail transportation infrastructure that we do have seems to follow the path of least resistance (freeway right of ways, mission valley, etc). We haven't put the transportation infrastructure in the places that it will really succeed, the urban neighborhoods in Uptown and a link to the airport. Until we're ready to make that investment in that, we'll remain a car-centric city, whether it's by necessity or choice. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Nate Fuller 

    The planned Trolly route to UTC. If in place would you be willing to go park in old town, board the trolly to UTC,, then get to work from there via bike,walking or?

    My guess is with a family of 4 the time element would weigh heavily on the decision.

    We seem to be at a which comes first "chicken or eggs" situation.

    The current layout of jobs/industries clusters in San Diego seems to be set. 

    Appears San Diego is taking the "build it and they will come" transportation stance around these job/industry clusters so if you live in north park but your job skills are needed in UTC seems that is set also.   

    spoonman subscriber

    Donna Frye does not speak for us. Her anti-density policies actually increase sprawl and highway miles driven. Ironically it is her policies that are responsible for these increases in the need to drive....this is because her opposition to housing near employment centers displaces housing, pushing it farther into the "backcountry".

    When will people start realizing that people like Donna Frye, who paint themselves as environmental stewards, are actually promoting development policies that lead to sprawl??

    Everyone in this city should be against sprawl because all those new drivers will have to drive YOUR freeway, past YOUR house out to the new sprawl subdivision to get home from work. Rather than having these new homes in the city near jobs, these new drivers will crowd the freeways. Would you rather fight traffic for 5 miles, or 30?

    Donna Frye's policies are anti-environmental and cater to a select few in her community at the expense of most in the other areas of the county. You'd think that she would realize the effect her policies have on's almost as if she is is on the dole of Beazer, Lennar, or the other sprawl builders.

    Better quality housing near transit is the future that many here have commented that they want. Is anyone listening? Donna Fried...are you listening?

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    Donna Frye questions whether young people are embracing transit, and uses it as a reason to oppose density: “Many people seem to (incorrectly) think the younger generation is using more mass transit in San Diego, and because of this, more density is OK.” 

    This implies mass transit usage determines whether we can increase density.  The actual reason for increasing density is to provide housing for the region's projected growth and large number of millennials living at home.  Transit-oriented density is a sensible way to accommodate that growth while increasing economic mobility.

    Ms. Frye's alternative is to prevent any new housing in central San Diego, which results in more sprawl, environmental damage to remote habitat, increased pollution and greenhouse gases, and higher transportation costs.  Using Census transit data to oppose increased density (while MTS reports record ridership) shows liberal NIMBY politicians like Frye and Ed Harris will resort to any trick in their attempts to stop new housing.  Their actions are hypocritical, self-serving and completely contrary to progressive values.

    Rachel Laing
    Rachel Laing subscribermember

    This is such a classic case of data not telling the whole story. The question we should be asking is why young adults are using their cars, not simply assuming it's by choice.

    When the transit network is so poor that taking transit means spending four times longer (or more) commuting, that's not a real choice. Not being willing to to commit to an hourlong, bus-train-bus-walk commute to get to work doesn't mean they'd rather travel by car.

    We need to consider as a region how much we want to base our policies on the opinions of change-averse people who are committed to a paradigm the next generation of workers are clearly rejecting across the nation.

    paul jamason
    paul jamason subscribermember

    @Rachel Laing Excellent point on the state of our transit network.  My commute from Kensington to the Kearny Mesa job center is 10 minutes by car but well over an hour by bus. There is no rail or express bus service up I-805 from millennial-heavy North Park to job centers in Sorrento Valley.  Decades of freeway building and widening at the expense of mass transit have given us one option for commuting: sitting in lanes that fill with traffic as soon as they're constructed.

    Yet somehow the SANDAG 2050 plan focuses on freeway widening before mass transit expansion.  SANDAG continues to rack up legal expenses for a plan which has lost twice in court for its excessive greenhouse gas emissions.  While our contemporary cities provide real options, there has not been (and still isn't) a concerted effort to provide viable mass transit in San Diego.

    Joey Peterson
    Joey Peterson subscriber

    Count me in the millennial who hates driving but has no choice group.

    Jeremy Ogul
    Jeremy Ogul subscribermember

    The San Diego of 1980 is very different from the San Diego of 2009. There was a lot of suburban development between 1980 and 2009, and much of that suburban development is poorly served by public transit. If a greater percentage of young people are commuting by car in 2009, perhaps it is because a greater percentage of young people have no choice but to commute by car. Those numbers really don't say anything about what millennials want. 

    spoonman subscriber

    @Jeremy Ogul Well said. The increased sprawl in recent decades is responsible for the increased need to drive. Ironically, Donna Frye and her anti-density policies (which actually increase sprawl) are responsible for the increased need to drive.

    Eric Spoerner
    Eric Spoerner subscriber

    So I'm a millennial, a North Parker, and someone who highly values the whole walk/bike/transit paradigm.

    Based on those CityLab data, I'm part of the "driving more" crowd because I use my car to commute to work.  Why do I do that?  Because my job, like so many good jobs for young people, is most definitely not in North Park, or anywhere remotely close.  It's in Carmel Valley, which has no mass transit connectivity to speak of.  In my day-to-day life, my car is used ONLY for commuting to work.  Of course this is anecdotal, but I know a considerable amount of people in the same boat.

    It's not that we choose to use a car to get to our jobs. It's that we NEED a car to get to our jobs.

    William Schneider
    William Schneider subscriber

    @Eric Spoerner Eric explains my exact situation - live in North Park, work in Sorrento Valley. If I could ditch my car, I would in an instant. On weekends I barely ever get in my car, unless I have to go to Mission Valley. By the time this city does anything substantial about our mass transit needs, I'll be retired...

    msginsd subscriber

    @Eric Spoerner It's not just about jobs.  The Zuma apartments on Montezuma Blvd is a great example.  Some nutball decided that the place didn't need parking spaces for all of the residents because it's within walking distance to SDSU.  Like, students don't ever need to go anywhere else and don't own cars, do they?  So now what has happened is that the residents are asking the city to allow them access to the neighborhood parking permits because they need somewhere to park their cars.  Over at that obscenity on El Cajon Blvd called BlVD63, despite the shuttle to campus, students are still filling the streets with their parked cars.  And that place has a four-story parking garage.

    This is how so-called "urbanists" fail.  They are so myopic they purposely ignore the fact that lots of people in San Diego need or want to travel outside their walking and biking range and public transportation will likely not be a viable alternative to owning a car in their lifetime.  That's the reality. 

    The "urbanists" should be all over the idea of getting rid of Qualcomm stadium and putting up a huge low-income housing project.  It's next to the trolley, right?  And with so many stores and restaurants in the valley, nobody would ever want to leave.  Until the next 100 year flood anyway. 

    Eric Spoerner
    Eric Spoerner subscriber

    @msginsd @Eric Spoerner Slow down, dude.  I was just pointing out how the data were a flawed metric of personal preference.

    This screed is funny, though; you're the one who can't imagine an alternative to the status quo of ubiquitous car ownership emerging in a "lifetime", yet somehow urbanists are the myopic ones?

    Eric Spoerner
    Eric Spoerner subscriber

    @William Schneider @Eric Spoerner Honestly I'd be content at this point with a way to ride my bicycle into Mission Valley without putting my life in danger. Much cheaper than a new trolley line.

    Frohman subscriber

    Nearly half of car trips are under 3 miles. If we adopt planning principles that make those trips viable by other means (walk, bike, shuttle) we reduce trips and increase health benefits. We need more housing closer to employment corridors and more amenities near those homes.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @msginsd Aren't the students partial owners of the streets in the neighborhood where they want to park?