The San Diego Association of Governments is poised to vote on San Diego Forward, its 2050 transportation plan, while activists fight to prevent changes making it less environmentally friendly. It is time to rethink what we’re fighting for. San Diego’s transportation plan is far from environmentally friendly. We can imagine something better.

Commentary - in-story logoSan Diego’s transportation plan relies on the best options available when it was initiated. It combines high-density coastal and valley development near existing and newly constructed trolley lines with incentives not to drive (more traffic/less parking).  

But green energy, electric vehicles and the sharing economy are a reality right now. The era of single owner auto-combustion cars is ending. San Diego has an opportunity to not just imagine, but immediately implement a better future, one based on 21st century ideas resulting in immediate emissions reductions at less cost.

Let’s start by thinking more broadly. Automobiles aren’t the problem — emissions are. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, fossil fuel-fired power plants are responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 13 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

Imagine if rather than protesting to save a bad transportation plan, we took on a bad utility decision, the replacement of a zero-emission shuttered nuclear plant with one powered by natural gasInstead, let’s have SDG&E connect our city to the grid by installing highway noise barriers that also work as solar-power generators and smart roads and bikeways that also incorporate solar and other new technologies.

Now imagine if, instead of reducing all parking, we reduced parking for auto-combustion vehicles, partnering with a stand-alone energy storage company to build an electric vehicle infrastructure outside of the grid. Electric vehicle-only parking meter/charging stations would provide incentives for residents to immediately switch to cleaner technology.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Then, imagine if we partnered with an electric car-sharing service so that half of those parking/charging stations had an affordable electric public vehicle available to insured drivers for short errands or trips to a hub. This would radically transform public transportation, as well as provide incentives to forgo private ownership.

Now, imagine replacing emissions-bellowing neighborhood buses with electric vehicle-only ride-sharing services, either on-call or short routes to central hubs. Bus lanes could become bike lanes.

Then, imagine entering into a partnership with the big electric vehicle manufacturers to replace our oversized fossil fuel-powered buses with smaller electric shuttle buses. These could speed from hubs on electric vehicle-only lanes, providing further incentives for private owners to switch.

Imagine – San Diego would not only immediately slash its emissions, it would be the first city to extend the benefits of private automobiles to all of its citizens, regardless of their ability to afford them.

Now, imagine if those partnerships envisioned a conversion to  autonomous technology at a reduced cost as early as practicable. Self-driving cars, out of reach to all but the wealthy, could be San Diego’s public transportation system.

Just imagine – within months, without having to dig one mile of coastline, waste one drop of water or alter the way we live, San Diego could slash emissions and have a radically transformed public transportation system. We could use our transit cards or smart phones to borrow electric (eventually autonomous) vehicles or summon electric (eventually autonomous) ride-sharing services. Electric (eventually autonomous) buses traveling in designated electric vehicle-only (eventually autonomous vehicle-only) lanes on existing highways could speed to further locations.

Now imagine what we’re protesting for – emissions reductions through an outdated, expensive rail system; radical lifestyle changes from an aging, car-centric population; experiments in high-density crowding and untold impacts on a fragile and irreplaceable ecology – all to a great extent zeroed out by emissions gains from a newly built fossil-fuel power plant.

I’m not an environmentalist or an engineer, but I prefer the transportation system of my imagination, one that quickly implements 21st century solutions using existing infrastructures while maneuvering to take advantage of technological developments. Tesla, Google, Apple, Car2Go and Uber are all at our doorstep. San Diego has the opportunity to partner with these companies to develop a convenient and egalitarian public transportation system. Moreover, this system could be primed to bring self-driving technology to all of us, not merely to those who can afford it. Considering the tradeoffs of the current plan, it’s not too late to imagine a better future.

Shannon M. Biggs  is a retired former educator. Biggs’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Opinion, Public Transportation

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    Henish Pulickal
    Henish Pulickal

    I agree that transit lines, rails and expanded highways are absolutely the wrong way to plan for the future.  I also agree that driverless electric vehicles are the most important and disruptive technology currently and will totally change the way we get from place to place.  How can we create support for these more sensible ideas from our elected officials? 

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Agree environmental performance of vehicles for widely preferred on-demand personal productive travel can be preserved as population increases and rules tighten. With harmonious private/government on-call systems,(Lyft, Uber, etc),s as Public/Personal transportation, non- drivers can have the doorstep to doorstep single vehicle service car owners have long enjoyed.

    But in San Diego Forward about $40 billion capital budget, there is a lavish wide-spread mass transit installation, hoping this time around closer stations, and mass transit oriented community design will attract more walk, start, stop , transfer riders. Even so, mass transits overall ride share is 2.5% despite optimism for 12%peaks.

    Hubs should be avoided when original vehicle is already on the way to reach desired destination.

    So should not SANDAG now evaluate t he future oriented on-call service for at least the same demand, before committing to more and more of the sam

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson


    Do you mean internal combustion? Because spark plugs are required to produce combustion for gasoline-engine cars. Diesel doesn't, but I don't think that's what you were getting at. Or is this a usage I'm not familiar with?

    I do think that self-driving automobiles (and buses, and trucks) will drastically change the transportation grid, and sooner than we think, but they will still produce a less healthy and more environmentally damaging environment than building a city people can walk or bike in would. In a sense they may encourage greater sprawl, as roadways will have an effective capacity increase (computers drive far better than humans, increasing throughput) AND what is now a crappy commute isn't so bad when you can nap in the back seat the whole way. Will this result in what remains of SD county becoming a sprawling asphalt wasteland, like most of it now is? Or will it enable us to build more compact, walkable cores since there's no need for parking minimums? Who knows.

    The Netherlands might be able to show us, though.

    Shannon Biggs
    Shannon Biggs subscribermember

    @Robet Lawson

    Thank you for the correction and for the link to the next generation vehicles in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is also installing miles and miles of solar and piezoelectric streets and bike paths. We could so easily follow their lead.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Robet Lawson A sprawling asphalt wasteland?  That surely is not the San Diego I know.  That kind of hyperbole is what sends people to opposite corners.  

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson

    @Geoff Page @Robet Lawson I suppose it's a matter of taste. I find most of SD county to be a hostile place to walk or cycle due to the wide, fast streets and enormous parking lots. Of course, if you don't walk or cycle you may feel otherwise.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Robet Lawson @Geoff Page I don't think it is a matter of taste, it is one of perception and perceptions are based on a person's previous experience.  Perhaps you would share yours, where have you lived before?  I have lived here since 1977 so that is what forms my perception.  I see a beautiful city that is a wonderful place to live and would not use words like "wasteland" and now "hostile" to describe San Diego.  If being able to bike or walk all the time is so important to you, most of California would not be a great choice to live.  And, it seems to me, the places that are good for that are dense cities with canyons of buildings, which is not better than San Diego with its roads and freeways, to me anyway.   

    Robet Lawson
    Robet Lawson

    @Geoff Page @Robet Lawson I've lived in Dublin (Ireland), Santa Monica, Berkeley, and Sacramento. 

    San Diego has beautiful places. I love my neighborhood, South Park, precisely because the streets are small, parking lots rare, trees abundant, and buildings attractive. Walking around the neighborhood people actually say hi. Sadly, neighborhoods like this are now illegal to build because apartments and stores are made to require lots of parking, and streets are never made that narrow anymore. This is part of why I said SD County, not just SD.

    Of course, there is other beauty as well. Watching the sun set over the water is amazing. Bits of Balboa Park can feel far closer to nature than to the city. Still, most of my experience of SD has been big snout houses with wide streets and driveways, or shopping centers that consist primarily of enormous parking lots with a warehouse in the middle (this particularly describes Mission Valley, which is basically all pavement). I am nearly hit on a regular basis while cycling, and I was most recently honked and screamed at while cycling as fast as I could on 30th street - directly atop the sharrows!!!! If a cyclist is threatened even while riding on top of the little picture of a bicycle, what does that say about infrastructure here??

    Regarding asphalt - there's also the roads themselves - driving up 15 it kind of boggles the mind that the solution to traffic is apparently to try building another freeway in the middle of the old freeway. But hey, if at first you don't succeed...

    Finally, density doesn't necessarily mean canyons of buildings. Manhattan is dense, but so is Dublin, and Dublin has almost no tall buildings, but it has a lot of 2-4 story buildings that are fairly close together - certainly not close enough to feel like a canyon though. Townhouses and mid-rise apartment buildings are not so objectionable, and clustered near transit stations make perfect sense.