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KPBS Midday Edition

San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump

Cars drive by an empty bench at a bus stop on Imperial Ave., Aug. 28, 2016.
Richard Klein
Cars drive by an empty bench at a bus stop on Imperial Ave., Aug. 28, 2016.

Most effective transportation policies are highly unpopular

San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump
San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump
San Diego's Public Transit Growth Hits Speed Bump GUEST:Andrew Bowen, reporter, KPBS News

This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Every year more people in San Diego are driving to work in a for the last year if you are already in public transit. This is bad news for the city. San Diego has a climate action plan that expects thousands to ditch their cars for greener transportation. KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen takes a look at why the trend is going the wrong way. Reporter: every morning thousands of San Diego inspected twice how will like it to work? Will I drive a car pull? Will it take a bus or trolley? For most of us the choice is easy driving is faster more reliable and more convenient and with low gas prices is often cheaper as well. If gas prices were twice as I am sure it would be a different story. Reporter: Paul Jablonski as CEO of the Metropolitan transit system in the last fiscal year they measured a 4.3% drop in ridership. That's a loss of nearly 4 million passenger trips over the previous year. He says there are probably several reasons why. Uber and Lyft are competing high employment and low interest rates mean that more people can afford cars. As housing prices skyrocket more people cannot afford to live close to where they were to. -- Work. There are more cars in the red they're traveling more and riderships are down. It does not take much to draw that conclusion. Reporter: well most of us would rather drive that comes at a cost. There is more traffic congestion and that makes for my air pollution and MTS is getting less fair revenue which means less money to improve services. San Diego City Councilman and MTS board member David Alvarez says this is cause for concern. The system is important to help us function as a society in general. Secondly as we see the problems and the reality of climate change trying to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation costs we need to look at alternatives. Alvarez says the city is already paving the way for more transit ridership by encouraging housing and commercial development around bus and trolley stops. We are at a Crosspoint in San Diego were all of these goals have sort of come together. Reporter: but the city has already measure the effectiveness of its high density growth plans and neighborhoods like Northpark and Hillcrest and found that they will get some people out of cars but not enough to meet the city's goals. What else can I do? I would be remiss not to a mention that people respond to price. One of the most effective ways to curb driving is to simply make it more expensive. You cannot force people to take one particular mode of transit so it is either a stick or a carrot. You can raise the price of driving by making gasoline more expensive or harder to get. That is all sort of a stick approach. People do not necessarily like it but will encourage people to stick to transit because it becomes expensive or difficult to do other things. Is a double whammy they can take money from gas to give a lower transit. Lower fares increased frequencies California does this to an extent with its cap and trade system which charges companies for pollution permits. San Diego has its own goals and will likely need their own solution. Some that they say work best are unpopular. Neither politicians or voters have shown any appetite for raising the cost of driving. They're working on increasing ridership with the limited resources they have. They admit this can only go so far. I think that given where we are with ridership revenue on sales tax revenue and where we are right now we will not see a lot of added service on the Street. As the climate plan expects to triple the Sheriff public transit riders in the next four years critics say the city is already lowering expectations. Officials believe the climate action plan is a mandate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by any means. If the city finds another way to get there that can fill the transit goals and still claim success. Andrew Bowen joins us now. The climate action plan is always described as ambitious but it seems from your report that the public transit part of it is virtually impossible. How did city leaders think that they were going to increase public transit used -- usage so much it is short of time. The main tactic that the mayor has taken so far with the community of a process. We talked about it a lot on this show. It involves increasing. The goal is to create more opportunities for people to live and work near public transit. These things can take decades. -- They said it is not enough to just create my house in around public transit. We have to add service if we are hoping to achieve these goals. There's a plan to extend the trolley but it will not begin until -- they said that the city has not been taken a serious leadership role they will have to take a more serious approach in the future. There's a new bus route with the Mesa border crossing. A lot of ridership There also some increases in routes and the city area and a lot of the routes that are seeing more ridership are rapid routes. So limited stops and that's what we could possibly see more of in the future for MTS. I want to talk more about the carrot and stick approach if it happened -- to get people out of their cars. The stick approach would be a local gas tax or fees for parking or miles driven. Do you know of any cities in California that have tried that? Many cities already have what's called the parking occupancy tax. In LA it is 10%. In San Francisco it's 25%. This is essentially a tax that the city assesses on private parking operators for whatever revenue they get this has already been discussed and proposed by the independent budget analyst in the city of San Diego. It is a way to get more revenue and sort of help close this big infrastructure deficit that we hear a lot about. It has not really been discussed on a policy level the city can also just raise the price of public working to a rate that is more reflective of the actual demand. San Francisco a few years ago implement a dynamic pricing in the city so meters are more expensive in areas where there is a high demand for parking and less expensive in areas where there is a low demand and that has the dual benefit of both increasing the efficiency of your parking resources and also increasing revenue. I also want to mention bowler -- Boulder Colorado they have a carbon tax which works out to be a carbon tax on 30 energy and gas and they are using it for climate friendly projects like public transit. This is not entirely just in the idea phase that is being done in other cities. So far in San Diego nobody has taken these ideas and pushed them in public policy discussions. That is what you are saying. Not that I'm aware of. Much was made at the time of these climate action goals when they were approved that they were legally enforceable. Does not mean the city has to reach the goals that set for public transportation? It depends on who you asked. The city believes that the only enforceable part is the greenhouse gas emission reductions. There are many ways to get there in the plants. There's 100% renewable energy by 20 25. There sees transportation goals which we are talking about. Each of those individual methods to get to the greenhouse gas reductions is not enforceable according to the city. Environmental advocate for the transportation goals would not be in the climate action plan if they were totally irrelevant to the overall goal. The reductions were meticulously quantified but we saw recently with the greenhouse gas emission inventory that the city just put out last year that the 2020 goals for reducing emissions were met even before the climate action plan was signed. A lot of activists are somewhat worried -- they are glad that we are ahead of schedule but they are also worried that maybe the making investments in public transit and the urgency will be lost in the city will not really take this climate plan seriously. Even if we do meet the overall goals what are some of the cons of not reaching the public transit goals. There's a quality-of-life aspect to it. Many people in San Diego would like to take a bus or trolley to work but they simply don't have a choice. It is so inconvenient. It takes a long time and getting to work is not the only transportation that we need. It would really take a citywide serious and expensive investment in public transit and without -- if the city chooses not to necessarily he could find another way to get a cost to that as well. They have been speaking with Andrew Bowen. My pleasure.

Just over a year after the passage of San Diego's Climate Action Plan, the city's goal of dramatically shifting its residents' commuting habits away from cars and toward public transit is slipping further from reach.

The Metropolitan Transit System, which operates buses and trolleys in most of San Diego County, logged 4 million fewer passenger trips in fiscal year 2016 compared to the previous year — a drop of about 4.3 percent. Ridership for the current fiscal year, which began last July, is also down. The trend extends to North County as well, where the North County Transit District estimates its ridership loss at around 3.7 percent.

San Diego is far from alone: Low gas prices and increasing competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have put a damper on public transit ridership in nearly every city in the United States. In addition, high employment and low interest rates have allowed more people to buy cars, and sky-high housing prices have forced many to live further from their jobs, making the convenience and speed of driving one's own vehicle all the more attractive.

"There's more cars on road, they're traveling more, and our riderships are down," said MTS Chief Executive Officer Paul Jablonski. "If gas prices were twice as high, I'm sure it would be a different story... It doesn't take much to draw that conclusion."

But while many cities are losing public transit riders, few have committed to such ambitious goals of public transit expansion as San Diego. The city's climate plan foresees 12 percent of residents who live near a public transit stop taking the bus or trolley to work by 2020 — a tripling of the share measured in the plan's baseline year of 2010. By the plan's final year of 2035, the public transit "mode share" is meant to grow to 25 percent.

MTS-Ridership-Graph-WEB-FS.jpg

MTS ridership has generally trended upward since Jablonski first took the helm at MTS 13 years ago, reaching a record high of 96.7 million passenger trips in fiscal 2015. He said he hoped the current downward trend could be reversed soon, but that meeting the city of San Diego's transit goals could not be achieved with a "laissez faire" approach.

"Those numbers are very aggressive, and it's going to take aggressive action to get there," he said. "We're going to have to add service."

San Diego missed the latest opportunity to add public transit service with the failure of Measure A, the countywide sales tax measure placed on the November ballot by regional planning agency SANDAG. Environmental activists were divided over whether Measure A was a good deal for public transit, and revenue projections from the tax were likely overstated. But supporters insisted the tax was still MTS's best shot at growing its budget.

Now, with fewer fare-paying passengers and lackluster revenue from the county's existing local sales tax, Transnet, MTS is seeing its budget tighten.

"We're probably not going to see a lot of added service on the street in the short term, if things keep going the way they are," Jablonski said.

'We're at a crosspoint'

San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez, who sits on the MTS board of directors, said the drop in ridership should be concerning for everyone — if for no other reason than many San Diegans still depend on it because they can't afford a car.

"The system is important to help us function as a society in general," he said. "Secondly, as we see the problems and the reality of climate change, trying to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation costs, mainly gasoline and emissions from vehicles, we need to look at alternatives."

Alvarez, who opposed Measure A on the grounds that it gave too much money to futile freeway expansions, has floated the idea of asking voters for a more transit-focused tax increase, this one crafted by MTS. The tax would cover the more urbanized and transit-rich areas like San Diego, National City and Chula Vista, while excluding the more freeway-dependent areas in North and East County. MTS lawyers are still researching what legal authority the agency has to levy such a tax.

San Diego has taken steps to increase transit ridership by incentivizing higher housing density and mixed-use development around bus and trolley stops. Alvarez said this serves the dual purpose of relieving San Diego's housing affordability crisis while also encouraging more environmentally friendly transportation choices.

"We're at a crosspoint I think, in San Diego, where all of these goals have sort of come together," he said.

But the city planning department has measured how effective its updates to community growth plans will be at getting people out of cars and into public transit. Each of the four updates recently approved by the City Council is expected to grow transit ridership, but not by enough to meet the city's goals.

A woman sits at an MTS bus stop at 30th St. and El Cajon Blvd. in North Park, June 15, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
A woman sits at an MTS bus stop at 30th St. and El Cajon Blvd. in North Park, June 15, 2016.

Carrot and stick

Good land use planning is critical to maximizing transit ridership, according to UCSD economics professor Mark Jacobsen, but it's something that can take years, if not decades, to take effect. When it comes to shorter-term changes that encourage less polluting modes of transportation, he said one of the most effective policies is manipulating prices.

"It's either a stick or a carrot," Jacobsen said. "You could raise the price of driving by making gasoline more expensive or harder to get… That's all sort of the stick approach. People don't necessarily like that, but it is going to encourage people to switch to transit because it becomes expensive or difficult to (drive)."

Even more effective would be if San Diego used the revenue from the "stick" — say, a tax on gas, parking or miles driven — and turned it into a "carrot" — greater subsidies for public transit that could pay for new services and lower fares.

California is doing this to a limited extent with its cap-and-trade system, which requires polluting companies to buy state-issued carbon permits. But San Diego has its own climate and transportation goals, and will likely need its own solutions. Unfortunately, Jacobsen says, the solutions that work best are highly unpopular. Neither politicians nor voters have shown any appetite for raising the cost of driving.

MTS is using the results of a recent survey of transit riders to determine how it can better serve its customers. The outcome could mean shifting resources away from low-performing routes and increasing frequencies on routes that are actually seeing a growth in ridership. These include express buses, routes serving the city's border crossings and those serving the University City area. Still, CEO Jablonski admits these measures can only go so far.

Environmental leader Nicole Capretz speaks at a rally in advance of the San Diego City Council's Climate Action Plan vote, Dec. 15, 2015.
Claire Trageser
Environmental leader Nicole Capretz speaks at a rally in advance of the San Diego City Council's Climate Action Plan vote, Dec. 15, 2015.

As for the transit goals in San Diego's Climate Action Plan, critics say city officials are already lowering expectations. Recent memos from the Planning Department insist the greenhouse gas reductions can still be achieved through other means. And the urgency of bolstering transit ridership may be waning, after the city's recent inventory of greenhouse gas emissions revealed it had already met its 2020 reduction goals before the climate plan was even passed.

Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said in an e-mail that the climate plan's mobility goals were achievable, but they were "just one piece of the larger puzzle" of reducing the city's carbon footprint. "Focusing on mode share splits or any other target is a case of missing the forest for the trees," he said.

Colin Parent, policy counsel for the transit advocacy nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said making mass transit a more competitive transportation option would improve the city's quality of life, and that it was unrealistic to assume the greenhouse gas reductions could be met without substantial numbers of people switching from cars to public transit.

"I think the (climate) plan was adopted without a complete understanding by everyone at the city about what it would mean for achieving those goals," he said. "There's this consistent idea from staff and others that everything's fine, and they don't have to change how they operate about anything. And that's just not enough."