Ridership Rebounding, Public Transit In San Diego Is Having A Moment
San Diego's public transit system has been struggling with declining ridership for the past few years. But recent data suggest that trend may be ending — and a host of local policy reforms may be planting the seeds for stronger transit ridership in future years.
The Metropolitan Transit System announced last month that ridership on the bus and trolley systems had gone up by more than 50,000 passenger trips in the first seven months of the fiscal year, compared to the same period one year prior. The current fiscal year began in July 2018.
The news was far from spectacular — bus ridership, where most passenger trips occur, declined by about 1 percent. But that was more than offset by strong growth on the system's four trolley lines.
MTS CEO Paul Jablonski said ridership has actually increased on the bus routes that saw increased frequency in the system's 2017 Transit Optimization Plan. And he said last October's Free Ride Day saw a boost of about 57,000 passengers — people he sees as a potential new customer base.
"Those are people that have choices now, otherwise they'd be riding" transit more often, he said. "So we think that there's a good market out there for increase, and we need to tap into that."
MTS ridership peaked in 2014 and has been on the decline ever since — a trend reflected in ridership data for large transit agencies across the country. Observers typically blame relatively low gas prices, competition from ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft and increasing rates of car ownership fueled by a strong economy.
A challenge more specific to San Diego is its sprawling land use and pockets of low-density neighborhoods in the city's urban core. Mass transit functions best in compact neighborhoods with large numbers of people able to access it on foot.
Sprawl notwithstanding, local elected officials are increasingly willing to adopt policies that attempt to reverse it.
Chief among those is San Diego's 2015 Climate Action Plan, which requires the city to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. The plan is legally enforceable, meaning if the city fails to adopt policies that help shift commutes from cars toward transit, biking and walking, it could be forced to do so by the courts.
The climate plan is cited as a motivating factor for a number of city policy changes, including a proposal to urbanize part of low-density Linda Vista near a future trolley line and this month's elimination off-street parking requirements for new apartment or condominium buildings within a half-mile of a major transit stop. That reform, championed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer, also puts new requirements on developers to offer their residents "transportation amenities" such as subsidized monthly transit passes.
Faulconer is pursuing zoning changes across the city that aim to increase housing density and building heights near transit stops, and he is taking a leadership role in a plan to improve transit service to the San Diego International Airport. And last year's hiring of Hasan Ikhrata as the new executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments may prove to be a major turning point for transit in San Diego. Ikhrata has suggested the agency's next long-range transportation plan will include massive investments in new and improved transit service.
These are all encouraging signs to Colin Parent, executive director and general counsel for the transportation think tank Circulate San Diego. Parent said policymakers have historically treated public transit like an arm of the social welfare system — an option of last resort for people who cannot afford a car. He said while that role is important, transit should be for everyone.
"Transit is about connecting communities, it's about economic development, it's about helping people get around," he said. "We need to really think about designing our transit system in a way that really helps achieve those goals."
Yet Parent adds there is more MTS and SANDAG could be doing now that would make transit more attractive to a larger number of people — including free or reduced transfers between bus routes. An updated fare policy approved in February also eliminated free transfers between trolleys — something Parent says will discourage occasional riders from experimenting with transit.
"That's a major barrier that needs to be solved," he said. "We also don't have bus-only lanes. We make it so that buses have to muddle through the same traffic that cars do. We can change that."
Two City Council members are changing that, at least on one particularly busy street: Council President Georgette Gomez and Councilman Chris Ward this year convinced city traffic engineers to create a pilot bus-only lane on El Cajon Boulevard. The street serves the 215 Rapid Bus from SDSU to downtown.
Gomez, who last year was elected chair of the MTS board of directors, said she wants to increase coordination between MTS and city staffers to help accomplish their shared goal of increasing transit ridership.
"MTS cannot operate isolated from the city, (and) the city can't operate in isolation from MTS," she said. "We've got to start connecting the efforts, and that's what I'm trying to do."
Gomez also got MTS staff to update the agency's real estate policy with a goal of boosting development on underutilized lots. And she is taking a leadership role in MTS's exploration of a 2020 sales tax measure that would fund road repair, sidewalks, bike lanes and transit infrastructure and operations.
That tax measure, if it makes it on the ballot and is approved by two-thirds of voters, would be a boon for transit in San Diego. But it will be too late to have any impact on the city's 2020 climate goals, which expect 12 percent of residents who live near transit to commute by bus or trolley.
All available data suggest the city will miss that target. It may take years before the policies to allow denser housing near transit stops have a meaningful impact on ridership. Still, Gomez said the tax measure can help create a transit system that is faster, more efficient and attractive to more people.
"We need to improve the system for the current riders," she said. "But if we're to do that, I'm a firm believer that we can attract new riders."