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6 Months In, San Diego’s New Rapid Bus Line Boosts Ridership But Not Speed

Bus wait times are displayed at a new Mid-City Rapid bus station April 6, 2015.

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Bus wait times are displayed at a new Mid-City Rapid bus station April 6, 2015.

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Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Photo by Megan Burks

James Smith, camera equipment in tow, boards a San Diego city bus April 6, 2015 to get to his television and film class at San Diego City College.

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Transit riders and business owners doubted the bus line could bring the same convenience and vibrancy a trolley would.

Transit riders who wanted another trolley fought the Metropolitan Transit System on its newest rapid bus line. Now the line from San Diego State to downtown is six months old, and it seems riders have changed their tune.

MTS says ridership on the Mid-City Rapid 215 line has increased about 16 percent since last year. It carries more than 7,000 riders along El Cajon and Park boulevards each day.

James Smith is one of those riders. He takes the route to television and film classes at City College.

"The trolley is cool, but I kind of like the fact that they have the 215 because it has moved the pace along," Smith said. "But you gotta have the local stops because sometimes it's a long walk between stops."

The bus line is one of five new rapid lines designed to boost transit use in San Diego with youthful branding, roomier buses and quicker service.

But Mid-City Rapid hasn't delivered on speed. It averages 47 minutes at 7 a.m. and 51 minutes at 4 p.m. That's about 10 minutes slower than the 38 minutes planners initially estimated. And it's slower than the 15 bus, an older line serving a similar route.

Part of the problem is traffic signals aren't yet synchronized to move buses more quickly down the road. David Hicks, a spokesman for the San Diego Association of Governments, which planned and paid for the project with funds from the region's TransNet and the Federal Transit Administration, said the lights should be synchronized in the next three months.

Still, many passengers said they were happy with the new services, saying the trip time felt about the same or shorter at certain times of the day.

And Beryl Forman, who heads the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association and frequently uses Mid-City Rapid, said the new line is contributing to a renaissance along El Cajon Boulevard.

New shops, restaurants and a night market have come to the boulevard in recent years, while older businesses have joined in beautifying the busy thoroughfare.

"The more good things happening here, the better for business," Forman said.

Forman said businesses are looking for ways to capitalize on new foot traffic around the improved bus stops. And the City Heights Community Development Corporation secured a grant to improve the built environment near the 43rd Street stop.

Down the road in Hillcrest, business owners were more skeptical of the line. Construction crews carved out a separate lane for the buses, significantly changing the flow of traffic and look of the street.

A representative from the Uptown Planners Board, which led much of the opposition, could not be reached for an interview. But Big Front Door owner Steve Riley said he's happy with the outcome. He said the change brought more lighting and parking to his section of Park Boulevard.

"But it's not about us. It's about getting them down there," Riley said, pointing toward City Heights and then toward downtown.

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