How Can Private Industry Help With San Diego's Mobility Goals?
This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego's biggest contributor to climate change is transportation. This is one of the biggest challenges they want to build housing closer to jobs and increase public transit ridership. Where do they fit into the city's climate action plan? Metro reporter and her will and has more. Reporter: I met the Sorrento Valley coaster station meeting a small group of people that work for vertex pharmaceuticals. They are getting ready for a bike ride to their office in Torrey Pines. It is just after 7 AM. The sun is still coming up and it is a bit chilly I weather. It is a pleasant ride at first. A gradual incline on a protected bike path. Before long we turn onto Genesee Avenue. We will see you at the end. Reporter: it is a lot steeper and the only thing separating us from cars is a stripe of paint. That guy just ran a red light. Somebody is in a hurry. Reporter: the hill is tough and I try not to let on how winded I am when we get to the top. That was not so bad. Reporter: about 20 minutes after leaving the train station we get to our destination. One of the guys in the grip is Philip and engineer for vertex pharmaceuticals. He said he bikes to work almost every day. Traffic was getting too much for me and I thought a lot about how to be that system and I biked a few times but I was too lazy and I got the electric bike and now I do it 90% of the time. He did not start biking to work for environmental reasons but now that he is lowering his own carbon footprint he feels good about it. I feel much better than driving and I know it because when I drive and often I wish I had gone to ride the bike. Reporter: vertex makes it easier for him to bike. To have showers and indoor bike lockers so he does not have to worry about it getting stolen. Vertex also offers a fully subsidized public transit pass. These incentives are not just regular employee benefits. They are part of the sustainability plan that helped lead to this. We took two buildings down entirely, completely demolished them. Reporter: they are getting new office space here in Torrey Pines. Jason Morehead is overseeing the construction for the developer Alexandria real estate. He was also one of the ones on the bike right. We are overlooking the construction site it is a giant mound of dirt, trucks, and bulldozers are carting around the building materials. This area is zoned for scientific research and development. Being that there is a limited amount of space for research and development in San Diego we make the most of every square foot. Reporter: the new building will be denser than for Texas current space. The project got faster city approval because of its sustainability elements. These kinds of measures are embraced by the life sciences industry. The map they are for the most part scientists they understand what is happening with the client's climate and support the efforts that we make to reduce our carbon impact. They have ambitious goals when it comes to transportation. Huge numbers of people will have to switch from driving to biking Waddy -- walking or riding public transit. The nonprofit climate action can be in says the city's climate campaign cannot succeed without the lien of private industry. I think those companies that are truly embedded into the community feel a broader purpose and feel it is part of their role to embrace the goals of the city and actually help reduce our carbon footprint. That being said it is not private industry that is on the hook for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is the city and some employers cannot afford the type of biking or transit incentives that a pharmaceutical company like protects can -- protects can provide. Joining me is Andrew Bowen. Welcome. Glad to be here. That sounded like a challenging right. It was it was 20 minutes on the bike most of it was on the hill but it pales in comparison to some of the bike rides that a lot of these employees do. One guy I know bikes from Carlsbad every day and another said he bikes from about an hour away. These guys are pretty dedicated to the biking. We're able to find out how many employees actually bike to work? The company was not able to give me any hard data. They did not have a companywide mandate survey of all their employees. I can be a tricky thing to measure because somebody made bike to work once a week or switch modes after moving to a new home. They did do a voluntary survey at one point in time and they said that based on that data they can say that on average about 35% of their employees he is alternative transportation and that includes carpooling. You ended your story with a call from Nicole for the city to step up. How can the city help private businesses to encourage employees to get out of their cars? The most direct way they can help with this is to provide the infrastructure that really allows for a safe and pleasant and reliable commute without a car. You heard in that story some of the pretty egregious traffic violations that I was narrating while I was on the bike. There were about five of us in the group but I -- so I felt relatively safe. To really make biking more mainstream I think the city will need a lot more projected claims for example like difficult barriers separate a bicyclist from a motorist. You know traffic measures like narrowing traffic lanes and roundabouts so that it is not quite as dangerous or stressful. Those things improve safety and they also make a bike ride more pleasant and of course the city has a voice and they can use that to advocate for more reliable and convenient public transit. Let's not forget the city itself is a big employer. -- How can they lead by example? They prepare a commuter report that would analyze have the cities on the place with get to work. That has not been done yet and the supplemental measures are only done as the city has the resources to dedicate to them and it would provide a snapshot of how they are doing in-house. They offer partially subsidized transit passes to employees so that is a carrot. So the city employees that work downtown also pay for parking so that it is kind of a stick the employees that do not work downtown like environmental service -- services in Kearny Mesa the is employees get free parking. It is a bit of a mixed bag and the city can also offer things. Can you remind us how much the city commute to work would have to change in order to meet the goals set out by the climate action plan? The goal is 22% RX -- of people living in those areas are expected to bike or walk to work 2020. For 2025 it's was to go up to 50%. What you updates plan all this? It really sets the stage and how the neighborhoods grow and develop their close to job centers and creating mixed-use buildings where employees can walk to their jobs where the background is a lot closer and of course transportation infrastructure and building those protected by claims and traffic quality measures that really slow traffic down and make things safer for people outside of course. The gaps in a public transportation system getting from let's say like the coaster station to where we work for instance so for those companies looking to relocate for example they can try to choose a location that is close to public transit. That is something the city has a big role in and they prefer those developments. Private employers can also become advocates. They can go to city officials and 70 safer facilities. If you want us to get around employees that will allow for that and a big one of course is companies allowing so that might seem counterintuitive for some companies like walk on for example has very bad traffic congestion in the morning and you would think anymore homes close to QUALCOMM and make it worse but if employees are living nearby they would take the cars off the road and no car would be on the road. What do you think are the lessons that other companies coming from the way that protects and other sciences can learn. I got the sense from the employees that I spoke to that they filter company has back. They are offering these incentives -- it helps retain work and it can also build goodwill with the city as I mentioned it can his approval for new development and companies that are doing the right thing by their employees and encouraging things like alternative modes of transportation can get good media coverage. They can get recognition from the city and the broader community that they are doing their part to help the city achieve climate goals. I have been speaking with KPBS Metro reporter Andrew Bowen. Thank you.
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."
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.
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."