San Diego Pledged To Shift Away From Cars. So Why Is It Still Widening Roads?
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
Photo by Andrew Bowen
It's a sunny afternoon and crowds of high schoolers are hanging out at Fair@44, a brightly decorated plaza on El Cajon Boulevard wedged between the San Diego neighborhoods of City Heights and Talmadge.
In the corner sits Ana Rivera's Puerto Rican and Dominican food truck, Jibaritos de la Isla. Business has been good in the five months since Rivera moved to this location. But sometimes she fears for her customers' safety.
"There's been a lot of scary accidents where people have been very, very injured," Rivera said.
In one particularly horrifying collision, a car flipped over and Rivera's husband had to pull the passengers out of the wreckage. Another time, a driver crashed into the median on El Cajon Boulevard and was ejected through the passenger window.
El Cajon Boulevard is one of San Diego's deadliest corridors. It was called out in a 2015 report that led to the city's adoption of Vision Zero, a program that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025.
So Rivera was shocked when she learned the city is planning on widening the boulevard with a new right-turn lane for westbound motorists approaching Fairmount Avenue. The project would also shrink the size of the Fair@44 plaza. Construction could start as soon as next month.
Advocates say it's yet another example of how car-centric planning has quietly continued in San Diego despite years of commitments from city leaders to cut back on car dependence by making streets safer and more oriented towards pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. Chief among those commitments is the city's 2015 Climate Action Plan, which legally binds the city to cut back on driving by prioritizing less polluting modes of transportation.
In some ways, the widening of El Cajon Boulevard is a relic of old city planning. It's long been on the wish list of the volunteer Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group, which last voted to request the right-turn lane in 2015, arguing it would improve traffic flow. City traffic engineers then added it to the neighborhood's "unfunded needs list," and in 2018 they made it a condition of approval for an affordable housing project on the same block. The cost of the road widening was tacked on to the 195-unit development, which is a joint venture between Price Philanthropies and Chelsea Investment Corp.
A similar story is playing out across town in Bay Park, where crews are putting the finishing touches on the $2 billion Blue Line trolley extension connecting Old Town to University City.
Whittney Beard lives a short walk from the Balboa Avenue station that's set to open in November. But she's troubled by the dangerously fast vehicle speeds on Morena Boulevard, the main road leading to the station.
"If you just kind of walk this road, there's literally no (trolley) access if you're not in a car," Beard said. "It's very dangerous and it's not good for the community."
Beard has been organizing neighbors to demand traffic calming, sidewalk improvements and protected bike lanes on Morena Boulevard. During construction of the trolley station, the road was narrowed to one lane in each direction — a design Beard said felt much safer.
"Traffic got a little congested for like two weeks," Beard said. "After that it was pretty smooth sailing, but the traffic was much slower."
The road was returned to four lanes when construction ended, and travel speeds are now sometimes faster than on the I-5 freeway that runs parallel.
The re-widening of Morena Boulevard was also a result of years-old plans. The regional transportation planning agency SANDAG is building the trolley extension, and its 2016 construction permit from the city required it to return the road to pre-construction conditions. City officials now say they are evaluating alternative designs that can improve pedestrian and bike access to the station.
Colin Parent, executive director of the nonprofit think tank Circulate San Diego, said he was "surprised but not shocked" to learn of the road widenings.
"Adding an extra lane, expanding the road capacity, is oftentimes the first instinct of a traffic engineer," Parent said.
The Climate Action Plan and Vision Zero are not "are not self-executing policies," Parent said, and the goals of those larger plans still haven't been fully incorporated into other city documents like community plans and street design manuals.
"A lot of cities, including San Diego, haven't caught up to the value statements that their elected officials have signed onto," Parent said.
Parent added that the city had to find a balance between redoing its old plans while not letting that work delay important projects like the trolley extension through Bay Park or the affordable housing project on El Cajon Boulevard.
Rivera, the food truck owner, has not given up hope that Mayor Todd Gloria will intervene and stop the El Cajon Boulevard widening project.
"It's something that we're not going to be able to reverse in the future," Rivera said. "We need to be thinking more, how we can reduce the traffic and reduce the speed of the cars. I think adding a lane isn't going to do that. I think adding a lane is just going to add more traffic, more cars, more accidents."
Gloria has not yet committed to halting the project, but his press secretary said in a statement to KPBS: "Like other issues we've inherited from the prior administration, the city needs to look back at this project and make sure it is consistent with Mayor Gloria's goals."
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