The Road to a Car-free San Diego

Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

Curbed recently published a great article by James Nevius titled “How To End Traffic“, which gives great examples of five major improvements that US cities can make to reduce car traffic, and thus reduce commute times, emissions, and traffic related deaths:

  • Make streets multimodal
  • Implement congestion pricing and/or limited traffic zones
  • Eliminate street parking
  • Boost transit options
  • Reclaim plazas and other public space for people

As someone who has lived all over San Diego County, including downtown, I have pretty strong opinions on how the city is doing on these suggestions. In my opinion, San Diego is only making progress on two of the five items in the checklist: multimodal streets and boosting transit options. These may not be explicit goals of City Hall or the Mayor’s office just yet, but they absolutely should be if they plan to meet their explicit goals:

  • Vision Zero: zero traffic related fatalities and severe injuries by 2025
  • Climate Action Plan: eliminating half of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2035
Make Streets Multimodal

A lot more needs to be completed, but with the partial implementations of the Downtown Mobility Plan, Bicycle Master Plan, bus/bike lane on El Cajon Boulevard, and various other projects, progress is being made on multimodal streets. Unfortunately the city is currently projected to be underfunded for capital improvement projects by more than two billion dollars within the next five years. With many multimodal projects categorized as “discretionary”, the city council and advocates will need to fight for continued funding.

Boost Transit Options

Huge strides being made with the Mid-Coast Trolley, recent Blue Line frequency increase, and possible “Grand Central Station” with an airport connection at the SPAWAR development. Decades of sprawl has created many dead zones, but I think transit is one of San Diego’s potential strengths.

Eliminate Street Parking

This is where SD is actively going in the wrong direction. In most plans, parking is actually being increased (via angled parking, etc.). I wish I could force everyone to read Donald Shoup‘s The High Cost of Free Parking, because it’s insane how we subsidize precious public land for free or cheap private vehicle storage. San Diego has to do better here. A good starting point would be to increase street parking costs to a market rate.

Congestion Pricing and/or Limited Traffic Zones

San Diego is completely lacking congestion pricing or limited traffic zones. Downtown has all the density, transit connections, and (seemingly empty) parking garages that make it a perfect fit for either. To get downtown, you can take the Coaster from the northwest, the Rapid bus from the northeast, or the Trolley from the east and south. You can even take the ferry from Coronado! Once in downtown, the bus, trolley, and (eventual) bike lanes can get you close enough to walk. There are enough ways to get in and around downtown (especially by car) that the city could start limiting traffic on just about any street without blocking major access.

Colin Parent, a La Mesa City Council Member and Circulate SD Executive Director, has called for closing Broadway to car traffic, much like Market Street in San Francisco. This kind of change would be transformational, but sadly, way too bold for the current leadership and constituency. But just limited traffic on streets that are already packed with pedestrians, trolleys, and buses would be a boon to safety and tourism. Which brings me to…

Reclaim Plazas for People

There are a couple great projects in progress here: Normal Street Promenade in Hillcrest & The Gaslamp Promenade. There are so many more possibilities throughout the city, which is why Chris Ward calls for “expanding this model into a Council Policy“. In Little Italy, Piazza della Famiglia is a proven success which needs to be replicated.

There is a lot of potential in San Diego to be excited about and I appreciate the work thus far of representatives like Chris Ward and advocacy groups like BikeSD, Climate Action Campaign, Circulate SD, and others. I have hope that people like Chris Olsen, Wendy Wheatcroft, and Todd Gloria can win their respective races and continue to push the city forward on mobility.


Follow me on Twitter if you want to stay up to date on San Diego urbanist news. Check out this list I maintain of major development projects in and around downtown: SD Dev List.