By Noel T. Braymer
I’ve noticed when riding the Coaster train between Oceanside and downtown San Diego that in the late afternoon the busiest trains are not the ones leaving downtown, but the ones arriving. This goes against the traditional commuter traffic of people working downtown and going home to the suburbs. A major factor since World War 2 in San Diego and most places in California is most jobs now are not downtown. The largest job center in San Diego is in the area around the campus of the University of California at San Diego west of the 5 freeway roughly 14 miles north of downtown. Nearby is University City just east of the 5 freeway and to the north, south east of the 5/805 interchange is Sorrento Valley which are where the heaviest concentration of jobs are in San Diego County. This is also where the heaviest traffic is. One of, if not the busiest Coaster station is the Sorrento Valley station. From the train in the late afternoon south of Sorrento Valley you can see freeway traffic is stop and go southbound into downtown. But northbound traffic out of downtown is usually free flowing. But once you get north of Sorrento Valley the reverse is seen with heavy northbound traffic and light southbound traffic.
Now there are plenty of jobs in downtown San Diego. There are plenty of new high rise office buildings around downtown. But many of the new high rise buildings are residential buildings. Much of the new housing in San Diego is downtown. Not all of it is high rise, but it is high density. What is going on? Well there is the high cost of housing and on a square foot basis high density housing is cheaper than a single family home. But the other factor is increasingly downtown is one of the few places that new construction can be built. Much of this is because of Not In My Back Yard or NIMBY’s: local residents opposing more people and housing in their neighborhood. The main fear of these home owners is the assumption that high density housing will make traffic congestion worse in their area and will lower the value of these people’s property. This is a contributing factor to both the high cost and shortage of housing in California. One of the few places left, at least in urban areas that housing can be built is in old industrial areas which are often next to railroads which are near downtown.
Much of the new high density housing being built in Southern California is along rundown and underused commercial or industrial property near the railroads. This can be seen in many other cities with rail service in Southern California, particularly in downtown Los Angeles. This is creating major changes in downtown with more stores and services for residents. Even more high density housing is planned for downtown Los Angeles. This is being made possible because of the construction of rail transit since the 1980’s in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles Union Station will increasingly be the hub for downtown residents to travel out of downtown without using a car. While owning an automobile was central to living in the second half of the 20th century in the suburbs, it is an expensive liability living in a major city. The new high density housing in California cities will increase demand for intercity, regional and transit rail service.
Now let’s look at the Bay Area which has the greatest shortage of housing in California. There is much talk of people working in the “Silicon Valley” moving to the San Joaquin Valley and commuting by High Speed Rail once it is running by 2025 or so. Given the cost of housing in the Bay Area a person with a good paying job could save money living in the San Joaquin Valley and commuting by High Speed Rail. Where would these people live in the Valley? A good idea would be to build high quality, high density housing in major San Joaquin Valley cities with high speed rail service in rundown areas near downtown and the stations. This reduces the chances that there will be rush hour traffic and parking shortages around the stations in the San Joaquin Valley.
But you don’t have to wait for High Speed Rail. There is already Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) rail service between Stockton and San Jose. ACE is planning to extend and expand service between the northern San Joaquin Valley and San Jose. These efforts include extending service south of Stockton to Modesto and Merced before 2025. Money approved recently in the State Budget for the will make this possible. ACE is also looking at extending service to Sacramento. This would be as a shuttle service using Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains with motors powering each car instead of using a locomotive. This service would run between Sacramento and Stockton for transfers between Amtrak San Joaquin trains and locomotive hauled ACE trains to San Jose.
The employers in the “Silicon Valley” are also planning to help reduce traffic and housing problems in the Bay Area. Google recently announced their plan to move their headquarters from the suburbs to downtown San Jose. It will be next to the San Jose Diridon Station with is already served by Amtrak, Caltrain, ACE and VTA local rail transit. BART will soon be running to Diridon and it will also be a future High Speed Rail station when the first segment is finished. This will both encouraged more people to commute to work to Google without driving and the construction of more high density housing in downtown San Jose.
Not to be outdone by Google, Facebook has single handedly revived plans to rebuild the Dumbarton rail bridge over the San Francisco Bay and reestablish passenger rail service from the east bay to San Francisco. It just happens that the Facebook headquarters is right next to this railroad right of way now publicly owned between the peninsula and the east bay. This is planned to be done in increments and will take at least 20 years or so to finish. But this could mean extending Caltrain from San Francisco to the east bay and ACE service from the northern San Joaquin Valley to the upper peninsula and downtown San Francisco. This should include high density development around the stations to all these rail service both for housing and services for new residents.