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How Cycling Can Solve San Diego’s 'Last Mile Problem'

In a Q-and-A, San Diego State’s new professor of urban design describes why he considers cycling the missing piece in the region’s transit network.

Earlier this summer San Diego made waves in the niche world of urban planning by hiring Bill Fulton, a rockstar among sustainable growth experts, as its new director of planning.

Now another national planning expert has stepped on the scene: San Diego State University hired Bruce Appleyard as its new professor of city planning and urban design.

The sudden wealth of well-known planning thinkers comes as the city and region continue conversations on how best to handle the expected surge of growth over the next 40 years.

Fulton is best known for writing the textbook read by all first-year planning students in California, and for his role transforming Ventura as its mayor before moving on to a national group advocating for smart growth. Appleyard is best known for his work on active transportation and the positive effects cities see when they provide transit and cycling-related infrastructure to their residents.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Appleyard’s work, and that of many of his colleagues, “stands on the shoulders,” he says, of his father’s 1981 book, “Livable Streets,” which played an influential role in describing the ways people’s behavior relates to the activity on the streets around them.

I sat down with Appleyard during the first week of classes at SDSU to talk about whether he plans to involve himself in San Diego’s planning dialog, how cycling infrastructure can improve the lives of the city’s residents, and why discussing transportation changes can engender such adverse reactions.

Can you describe the goal of the national transit and livability study you’re involved in?

It’s a national study on transit corridor livability. We’re looking at huge samples of transit corridors across the country, looking at different aspects of quality-of-life factors and what sorts of strategies we can employ to make these things better. It’s taking into account environmental sustainability and quality-of-life factors, and the ability of people to pursue a better life and what type of access there is to those opportunities.

Is there a broad takeaway that cities can try to implement?

Absolutely: Provide easy access to transit opportunities, or readily available opportunities without having to rely on an automobile. Be able to walk, bike, take transit and have those everyday opportunities available to you in easy form, and cities can see multi-dimensional benefits from having both the transportation and land-use integration that allows ease of access to opportunities.

Transit in San Diego has a reputation for being inaccessible; mainly that it requires a car to make use of the trolley.

The bike-transit-bike trip, when you start factoring in the time and what you pay to find parking, it actually can be reasonably competitive with an auto-trip, even in San Diego. San Diego has a wealth of freeways, but when you think about the need to find and pay for parking, it helps the bike-transit-bike trip be more competitive with driving, plus you get exercise, you have a lighter footprint on the environment and with the smaller space you’re taking up on the road, you’re not adding to the congestion of the road.

Is there another city you think San Diego, because of geographic similarity or something else, should try to emulate in terms of transit?

Yes, and I think they have in many respects. Portland’s been a good example. San Diego has done a good job at initializing the foundation for a transit system, and starting to look at bus rapid transit, to sort of expand the network of rapid express transit.

What do you think of the bus rapid transit plan? It has plenty of critics, many of whom dislike that its capacity relies to some extent on widening freeways.

All of these things help make a connected network that people can look at and start using on a more regular basis. I think the bike-transit-bike connection is really important. I lived for a while in Portland, Ore., where it rains all the time. Compared to Portland, it doesn’t rain here. There’s no real excuse to not bike. We’re a region of canyons and mesas and coastal plains. We have these very — we’re a region of corridors. So we need to think about how to make all these different corridors function for all these different modes better. We have a tremendous freeway network, and now we need to start augmenting those options for bicyclists, and of course, transit riders and pedestrians.

SANDAG’s long-term plan does rely a lot on widening freeways. How do you think that plays into what you describe as making the rest of the transit system as functional as the freeway system?

With all these things, you need to focus on what’s happening at the end of the project, whether it’s building a light-rail line or a freeway. One of the problems we’ve had in this country is we don’t do a good job of coordinating our land-use planning and our growth with our transportation investments. So, if we don’t have this coordinated land-use planning that integrates with our transportation planning, what happens is, we don’t optimize the return on our investments.

Two local examples that spring to mind are the BRT construction along El Cajon Boulevard, which is going through an area flirting with downzoning the area in its new community plan.

Driving is incredibly inefficient in so many ways. From space consumption, from energy consumption, you have to move this multi-thousand-pound vehicle down the road, and it takes up a lot of space when you need to park it or when it’s in motion. People often try to downzone, or increase off-street parking requirements, but the footprint that a cyclist, or a transit rider, or a transit line take up are so much more efficient for an urbanized area. You’re bringing up a great sort of basic corridor example, where the BRT provides a very efficient way of moving people in a narrow amount of space. But they should think about how the BRT is going to get people up and down that corridor to different businesses or schools or homes and things like that, and think about actually really intensifying that corridor.

The other thing that came to mind is the Mid-Coast Trolley extension, running along I-5. El Cajon Boulevard is already a pretty dense area, but that area isn’t really at all. The transit stops there then could have the effect of changing those neighborhoods in many ways.

Right, they have a lot of park-and-ride lots, but it’s particularly situated for people to be able to bike and get on the trolley. The other thing about the bike-transit-bike trip is that the transit system itself, this also goes for BRT and bus, is they’re terrain liberating: They can get you up on the mesa and down into the canyons, they can help bridge people from one place to another. So the bicycle ride can be augmented to get people from one place to the other, and then it takes care of this “last mile” problem. Right now I know the mid-coast line has park-and-ride lots, but it’s really a flat area, a perfect place for people to ride their bikes. And also there’s the city’s bike-sharing program coming, and the bike-sharing options can really help both ends of the transit line so you don’t always have to put your bike on transit. That actually can be very effective too.

How effective have bike-sharing programs been at changing commuting share nationally?

It’s completely been effective in the places it’s been implemented. Commuters use it all the time, it’s been tremendously effectively in Paris, London, New York, D.C. Sure, it works for tourists, but it gets people that last mile, those last few blocks.

Bike stations and bike parking, they’ve all been very effective at increasing the amount of people who bike to different transit lines.

At the Uptown planning group meeting this week, I didn’t poll the audience to find out how representative this was, but there was a very vocal opposition to bike-related investments, people who viewed it as an attack on their lifestyle. Is there any reason to think that mentality fades over time as bike investments are implemented?

People always have an agoraphobic reaction to change. There’s a fear of change whenever you’re in the marketplace, a fear of the unknown.  And as planners, the public realm is really a perfect arena for a lot of the concerns people have. It is completely right and just for people to come out and raise questions. But time and again, when we make these improvements, people then look back and say, “Ya know, that really worked.” And so there will always be people to object to anything in the public realm that’s changed, and we should always honor and respect those concerns. But it’s really the start of a conversation.

A lot of the concern came from local business owners with parking-related concerns, but there have been many recent studies suggesting an increase in cyclists is a good thing for local businesses.

More people coming by at a reasonable human-scale speed, it’s easier for them to stop, it’s easier to go into the stores and be customers, and studies have been showing this time and time again.

I know there’s a lot of concern about parking, but the big question you need to ask with regards to parking is do you really have a parking availability problem, or is it a parking convenience problem? Can people actually not find parking, or is it just a little bit farther away, but still available? …

We really need to colonize the street with bike infrastructure. And it’s not just about the aggressive cyclists. It’s about getting the people who are concerned.

Well, the aggressive cyclists are already biking, and they probably will be under just about any circumstance.

It gets to a central equity issue. There are people who want to bike, but they don’t have the facilities and they’re scared. This is something the community really needs. I believe there’s a strong indication that there’s a pent-up demand for bicycling, as long as you provide the facilities.

When you say there’s a social equity issue, does that issue track with a certain demographic or population?

There’s concern and growing literature that says oftentimes it’s women that aren’t going to bicycle, and that men are more likely to bicycle in dangerous conditions. So there’s certainly an issue of gender equality. Our children deserve an opportunity to enjoy the streets. The elderly might not bike if they feel unprotected. There’s a growing theory of people called “the interested but concerned cyclists.” If you think about how many people own bicycles, there are probably more people who own bicycles than own cars. Everyone owns a bicycle. These are people who are interested but concerned, and the majority of them are women, so it’s a gender equity issue.

With you and your dad’s book, “Livable Streets,” you’ve been working on this issue for a very long time, but it does seem ideas around walkability and complete streets are very en vogue right now.

It has definitely gained traction. Yes, that’s true. “Livable Streets,” there’s a lot of people who use that book and say they stand on the shoulders of my father, and we’re now coming to realize how to make our streets more livable. It was really a very paradigm-broadening work that my father did, and now we recognize that there’s really only so far we can go on the path that we’re going, and we really need to make the streets more inclusive for all users. I mean, Levi’s is now building pants with a little reflective strip and a u-lock holster.

With the conversation being elevated, you’re upping the bar with the sorts of things you have to disarm. You move up from arguing about whether planning represents market-distorting government control, to whatever the next thing is.

What we’re left with now, with the rise of the greatest centralized infrastructure planning projects that the world has ever seen, is the interstate highway system, our freeways. People complaining about centralized government, they’re really 50 years too late. They really should have talked about what was going on between the building of the freeways, GM, people who want to talk about public-private, centralized government. But really, with all those things, they were addressing what people wanted at the time. And now there’s a desire for us to go back, and retrofit and refashion what we’ve developed. We haven’t reached our maturity of providing all we can provide for all modes and all people.

And I think we need to ask whether a smart-growth agenda is as equitable as it should be as well, and whether it’s meeting the needs of the poor. There are more poor people living in suburban areas that are harder to reach, so we need to think about making sure it’s inclusive. I think we need to be creative in the types of units we provide, and the ways we provide mixed market. Growing up in a society that is ethnically and financially diverse is very beneficial.

What sorts of things can local or regional planners pursue that can aid binational collaboration between the region and Tijuana?

I think we should work with what I’m calling “binational areas of confluence” for business. You could build a business park on the border, where there’s security to get in and out, and you could have it designed as such so the public agencies for both sides, the nonprofit agencies and private agencies, so people could come together and have face-to-face conversation.

Without having to deal with wait times and border issues.

In many businesses you need to pass some sort of security to get in there. And you do the same thing on both sides, so it’s a place people come together and work together. We are obviously tied with the Tijuana River, and we share air quality. We share job opportunities, a workforce. We are a community. We are a binational community whether we like it or not. And if we’re at all to be considered a world city, if San Diego is, it’s because of Tijuana.

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