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How Can Private Industry Help With San Diego’s Mobility Goals?

How Can Private Industry Help With San Diego's Mobility Goals?

GUEST:

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS

Transcript

City officials acknowledge the need for safer bike lanes and more reliable public transit if San Diego hopes to reach its goal of drastically reducing car dependence. But private companies can also help along the city's mobility goals by subsidizing car-free commuting.

Philip Salzmann describes the length of his bicycle commute to work with the precision of a true engineer.

"Usually 34 minutes," he said after a recent morning ride to work. "I have an electric bike, so it takes pretty much the same time all the time."

Salzmann lives in Cardiff and works as an engineer in the instrumentation department of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-based drug company with a research facility in Torrey Pines. The consistency of those 34 minutes is one of the main reasons he has mostly given up driving to work.

"Traffic was getting too much for me," Salzmann said. "Sometimes for 10 miles it would take — not always, but sometimes — an hour… I thought a lot about how to beat that system, and biked a few times, but I was too lazy. But then I got the electric bike, and now I can do it 90 percent of the time."

While Salzmann didn't start biking for the sake of the environment, he does feel good about reducing his own carbon footprint. And Vertex makes it easier, offering showers, indoor bike lockers and a $20 monthly bike repair stipend. Employees also get a fully subsidized public transit pass.

Vertex's incentives to get to work without a car are not just regular employee benefits. They're part of a transportation demand management program that helped ease the approval of the company's new research facility, currently under construction about a quarter mile away from its current home.

"Being that there is a limited amount of space for (research and development) in San Diego, we make the most of every square foot," said Jason Moorhead, a vice president for the building's developer, Alexandria Real Estate. "We need to offset some of the impact that comes from traffic, which is simply our tenant employees getting to and from work."

Streamlined approval

The new Vertex facility, branded Spectrum IV, was approved by the City Council last October. It was one of the first new commercial developments to use the city's Climate Action Plan checklist, which aims to help streamline approval for more sustainable projects. The climate plan requires the city to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, in part by getting more people to bike, walk or ride public transit to work.

One sustainability measure not included in the Spectrum project is "unbundled parking" — a practice by which landlords separate out the cost of parking from the rent of a home or office space. It's meant to encourage building smaller parking lots and discourage driving by making tenants more aware of the hidden costs of "free" parking.

In the week following Spectrum's approval, city planners issued a memo saying if all new employment centers unbundled the cost of parking, the city could reduce its citywide vehicle trips by 2.6 percent — a small but not insignificant step toward the city's transportation goals.

But that figure depends on how hard the city pushes developers to follow those new practices. Moorhead acknowledged that it was not common for developers to charge tenants separately for parking spaces.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

A man walks through a large employee parking lot at an office park in Kearny Mesa, Feb. 28, 2017.

Lead by example

Much has been made of San Diego's need for transit-oriented development — building dense housing and commercial space along public transit corridors. The keys for unlocking that kind of "smart growth" rest in the hands of city officials in charge of land use and zoning policy.

But Nicole Capretz, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said the city's climate plan cannot succeed without the buy-in of private industry.

"I actually think that those companies that are truly embedded into the community actually feel a broader purpose, and actually feel that it is part of their role to ... help reduce our carbon footprint," she said.

Not all employers have the resources to offer the kinds of biking and transit subsidies that Vertex gives its employees. Capretz said the city needs to talk with those companies about what they can do to encourage their employees to forgo driving. And, she said, the city can always lead by example.

"I'd love to see the mayor ride his bike to work once a week," she said. "Something that, again, sets the right tone and signals a cultural shift, and signals that we are all in this together, and we all have to do our part."

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