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By Noel T. Braymer

I generally try to avoid road travel when traffic is heavy. I recently drove my car on an early Monday morning and I was in for a shock. Most of the day, traffic on the route that I took would be free flowing. But on this typical work day morning traffic was congested most of the 6 miles from where I live to downtown Oceanside where I was headed. Needless to say traffic on the 5 freeway was already congested which is common much of the time now. For years efforts to expand roads to relieve traffic congestion have only resulted in making congestion worse. More roads causes people to drive more. For many people affordable housing means longer commutes to their jobs. Longer car trips adds to the congestion slowing traffic down for everyone. So how does public transportation fit into this? Not very well. On September 1st both the North County Transit District (NCTD) and Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) buses will be raising their fares to cover some of its funding shortfalls. In the case of the MTS, it has roughly a $10 million dollar deficit now.


A San Diego MTS bus at the transit center at University City not far from the campus of UCSD

From the times I have ridden local bus and rail transit in San Diego County, rarely is there standing room only. What is missing is service on the buses with better connections to the County’s Light Rail and Commuter Rail services. This would make commutes faster and easier if more people had access to job centers from where they live in San Diego County by transit. Raising fares often does more to reduce ridership, than it does to balance budgets. As it is there are plenty of empty seats much of the day on both NCTD and MTS buses. Getting more people on transit can reduce the congestion on major roads and freeways particularly during peak periods. One can say that the joint MTS/NCTD regional day pass is the best deal for riding both NCTD and MTS bus services. The price only went up from $5 to $6 for use on both services. For 30 days of travel the pass price comes to $23. But to get more passengers, better marketing and service to jobs and housing will be needed.


A Sprinter DMU train arriving at the Vista Transit Center roughly half way between Oceanside and Escondido.

Hassan Ikhrata, the Executive Director of SANDAG, the planning agency for San Diego County is calling for shifting more travel out of cars and better utilization of roads for people on bikes, scooters and buses. This may be years in the making. Most of SANDAG’s efforts right now are focused on creating a transportation center near Old Town with direct connections to the San Diego Airport terminals. What is being looked at is a major redevelopment plan to include new housing and office space as part of this expanded Old Town Transportation center. This would be a first step in reducing distances people would have to travel to commute or shop. It remains to be seen how this can be replicated in other places in San Diego County. One asset this new Transportation center would have is connections to the 10 mile, $2 billion dollar extension of the Blue Trolley Line between Old Town San Diego and the area around the University of California at San Diego. UCSD is already a major job center, while the area in and around downtown San Diego increasingly is becoming more residential with new high density housing.


View from UCSD looking towards University City in the background and construction in the foreground of the Trolley Blue Line elevated section at UCSD.

Two major freeway corridors in San Diego County are along the coast on the 5 freeway and inland North San Diego County on the 78 between Oceanside and Escondido. There is local rail service parallel to both freeway corridors. But expanded rail service is needed to attract more riders. The Coaster trains are mostly commuter rail service with most service during rush hours with some mid day and weekend services. Millions have been spent to allow more frequent Coaster and Amtrak rail services in a few years. This can be combined with more development near stations to increase ridership. With more frequent service will come increased ridership and less traffic problems along the coast. The NCTD Sprinter service has Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains running every half hour most of the day. The distance between Oceanside and Escondido is just over 20 miles and the running times is just under an hour. Much of its ridership is from students attending Cal State University at San Marcos and Palomar College in San Marcos as well as travel to the beach at Oceanside.


NCTD buses at Vista Transit Center connecting with Sprinter DMU trains.

Traffic on both the 5 and 78 continues to get worse. Faster and more frequent service is needed to attract more riders on the train. This can be expected in a few years on the Coaster as several track projects are completed by 2021.  This will allow more trains to be run during the day which will attract more riders along the coast for local service. The problem on the Sprinter is most of the line is single track. There are 3 long sidings which allows service every half hour with 15 station stops. More and slightly faster trains can be run with more double tracking. There is little sign of this happening soon since of course there are budget shortfalls. The 78 is congested and getting worse. More frequent and slightly faster Sprinter service would attract more riders combined with dedicated connecting bus service.


NCTD Coaster Train at the downtown San Diego train station. The tall buildings by the station are all residential.

The key to getting the most out of public transportation is service to areas with housing, jobs and high levels of activity such as education or shopping. Transportation centers are critical to attracting ridership near housing and jobs as well as connections to other transportation services. Frequent and quick service attracts riders. This can include use of bus only lanes in urban areas to insure reliable bus service. What we can’t depend on is the building more and wider roads which only cause people to drive more, instead of going someplace with housing or services a short walk away.


A San Diego Trolley at the 12th and Imperial station which is a junction of all 3 Trolley Lines, Blue, Orange and Green. At the edge of downtown San Diego even more high density housing in the backgrounds. All photos by the author.