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‘It’s the Kind of Transit System That Ordinary San Diegans Would Freely Use’

Alan Hoffman has a plan for public transit in San Diego that’s unlike anything the region’s planning agency has in mind.

The transportation consultant and lecturer at San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs has spent years working with citizens and other planners designing what he calls The Quickway Proposal.

It uses tunnels, bridges and other separated pathways – “quickways” – for buses, light rail, traditional subways and street cars to keep them completely separate from road traffic.

Hoffman himself says there’s no chance it will become a reality anytime soon.

But the proposal imagines what public transit in San Diego could be: more stations where people want to go and faster travel times. He even claims it can even be built and operated for less taxpayer money than the current plans in place.

Hoffman sat down with me to explain why he thinks his proposal is so much better than San Diego’s current transit system, and pointed to characteristics of successful public transit systems all over the world he believes we should take into account.

What is the Quickway Proposal?

The Quickway Proposal is a proposal for a more effective, affordable, faster rapid transit system better matched to San Diego and San Diegans and our core values. So, it’s the kind of transit system that ordinary San Diegans would freely use to a far greater extent than they would our current or planned transit system.

What were some of the key characteristics of the plan that you think make it so effective?

The way traditional transit planning is done, they start off with something called a “corridor,” some kind of long thing – Mission Valley they considered a corridor. So they planned a trolley through there. They said, “So, we’ll run it here. We’ll hit the stadium, Fashion Valley and that’s great.”

But it turns out that in Mission Valley, which is our region’s second largest office market, all but a couple of office buildings aren’t within walking distance of a trolley station. So between the Mission Valley West and East trolley projects we spend three-quarters of a billion dollars building light rail through Mission Valley and you can’t get to your office job.

So what we did was we started off by saying not corridors, but what are the actual destinations and what are the likely origins? And then we said, “OK, the stations – the places where people want to get to – we have to place them where people want to go.”

And the way you do that is through the use of grade separation, which means you’re taking a vehicle completely out of traffic. So those are what quickways are. Quickways are transit ways, literally two-lane roads, but they either go under or over traffic and pedestrians.

Let me give an example. Where is millennial-central today in San Diego? Probably North Park. Right now there is no rapid transit station in Hillcrest. There’s none in La Jolla. There’s none in North Park. You can’t get to the places that people want to get to. So, we have a station right there, underground at 30th and University. In that case, it’s a tunnel section.

What other cities’ transit systems did you draw inspiration from?

One of the amazing things that has been happening in the past 15 years globally is cities, rich and poor, have been developing rapid transit systems – some using trains, some using buses. There is no direct relationship between the mode and the success of the system. So I’m mode agnostic. I care if it works and how do you know if it works? If it’s thronged with people.

I’ve learned from dozens of cities from around the world, but one of the big lessons was Brisbane, Australia. It was Brisbane that really developed the quickway concept. Their ridership numbers are astounding. From 2003 to 2009, in a six-year period, they had a 60 percent increase in the use of transit in the city. Almost entirely due to their quickway network.

They are operating at a more than 90 percent fare box recovery, which is a fancy way of saying it’s some of the most cost-effective transit ever developed in the world. In San Diego, our light rail gets about 45 percent, roughly, of its operating costs from fares people pay. So imagine doubling that – what that does for the taxpayer, letting the taxpayer off the hook.

And this is a key lesson that if you invest in an infrastructure that is decided to radically reduce travel time, two things happen: a lot more people show up   and the cost of providing service drops precipitously because the single biggest cost factor is time.

What is lacking in San Diego’s current public transit system and its future transportation build-out plans that make it ineffective in your opinion?

I think there are several different things. I describe transit systems in terms of three dimensions because we’ve learned through a lot of research that these are the three variables that determine whether someone will use transit. We call them network structure or connectivity – where can you go to and from? Then there is what we call system performance or time – how long is it going to take me to get from where I am to where I’m going? And the third is the customer experience – what do I encounter with the transit service?

Let’s begin with the last one: the customer experience. If you’re riding transit in San Diego and it’s raining, you’re going to get wet. The stations and the stops do not shelter you sufficiently while you are waiting and while you’re trying to access the vehicle. To me, this is a deal killer for a lot of people. You’re not going to be fully protected from the sun either. There are safety concerns – it’s open. People tell me in focus groups they’re concerned about who might be there waiting to jump them or something. So the customer experience, I find, is often lacking.

We also build the light rail where it is politically easiest to build, which usually means alongside freeways or in other places where there is historically very little market demand for people wanting to live and work there. Then we come around and say, “Now we want to develop density, a lot of housing around these stations.” So in other words, we don’t want to serve the city we are, we kind of want to go into the places where people don’t want to be and say, “Let’s try to force development around there.” Well the market doesn’t want that. I’m very well aware of the need to match transit and land use planning, but you don’t do it by putting the transit in places where the market isn’t going to want to go.

In the Quickway Proposal, there is a lot of emphasis at trying to reach riders at different socioeconomic levels – since right now San Diego’s ridership is mainly low-income individuals. What are some ways to do that and why is it important?

A household that earns $80,000 a year in San Diego is not wealthy. A household like that is strapped because housing costs are so high they don’t have a lot of money left over for transportation. Yet we require that they have multiple cars to get around. Giving people more access to more of the places they’re likely to go and make the time it takes for that access competitive with driving. It’s that simple.

Every place in the world that makes transit faster than driving gets more riders. For example, Los Angeles put in place the MetroRapid buses. They only give about a 15 percent speed boost and on average you’ve seen about a 15 percent rise in ridership. But once you get closer to the automobile, the change is no longer linear. You suddenly are doubling or tripling the number of people riding transit because now you’re time competitive.

I once joked to a colleague of mine in Atlanta – for a project I worked on there – that too many people treat transit systems the way they treat sewage systems, meaning it’s designed to move a certain amount, but no one is thinking about the fact that transit is actually a competitive service that can and does compete for riders. And then a week or two later, she sent me an e-mail with a link to an article in the Atlanta paper about someone they were interviewing who served on the board or whatever, and he said, “You know, you have to think about transit systems like sewage systems. You have to design for the capacity for everyone flushing during the Super Bowl.”

That’s not how you design the kind of transit system that ordinary, everyday, middle-class people would use, in addition to people who are wealthier or more economically stressed. If anything, people on the lower end of the economic scale need faster transit more than anyone. And the reason why is simple. For those who are transit dependent, many of them work not one job, but two jobs. They don’t have time.

The Quickway Proposal claims to be less expensive than current transportation infrastructure plans in San Diego. How does it manage that?

I think it does it because though we have 10 to 15 percent underground, the dirty little secret of the Regional Transportation Plan is that it’s going to require quite a bit of underground and elevated as well.

So the way we do it is once you build a bunch of expensive tunnel segments, most of what connects it is relatively inexpensive. And then a lot of different services get to use it and branch out, so that’s essentially how it comes out. Our costs estimates aren’t 2015 costs, though, and it’s very hard to predict what construction costs are into the future.

But even if our plan costs 50 percent more than we’ve said it will, then it just ends up costing what the current plans do and we still end up producing more results, likely a lot more ridership. I’m estimating that we’re probably close too doubling transit ridership per dollar invested.

What are the chances of implementing a project like this here?

Zero.

No one in San Diego, or very few people who are influential, have stepped forward and said, “My God, this will solve a lot of our problems. We should do this.” So it’s an issue of institutional culture in our regional go-along to get-along culture.

But just to be realistic, at this point, I want to show San Diegans what they’re not going to get. Because here’s the kicker, they could get it if they wanted it.