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.

Dreaming About My Next Car

I must be crazy, because I just bought a mint 2009 GTI and I’m already dreaming about my next car. I know exactly what car it is already and in fact, I already made a website about it. Yeah that’s right, its a Fiat, its Italian, it has less horsepower than my current car and my 300ZX, and its a little round. But for some reason that little “clown car” (as Karen calls it) just really hits the right spot for me. I know it looks a little like a miniature Beetle, or a suped-up Smart Car, but I can’t help myself. Something about it just makes me grin when I look at it. Now I won’t be settling for the base model Fiat 500 when it comes to the US, because I’m crossing my fingers that the Abarth version makes it to our shores. That hot little hatch packs at least 160HP, lower suspension, bigger rims, better tires, and has the looks to match all that performance. I just think it would be a really fun car to drive. I’m not looking for the fastest car or the best drifter or even the absolute best looking, it just has to be fun and exciting and a little unique. That little Fiat definitely fits the bill. If you think I’m crazy, just watch this Top Gear and try to tell me I’m wrong:

VW GTI

Well I didn’t get a new car, but we did! Karen put her name on the loan and on the title, so its only fair that she gets to call it “ours” and drive it as well. We found a mint 2009 GTI with only 18,000 miles in Black Magic Pearl. Its in great condition and is a blast to own! Obviously it doesn’t have the same power as the Z, but because of smaller size and weight and because of the 2.0T TSI engine, it has much more torque on instant demand. In the Z power would slowly build before coming on like a tidal wave, whereas in the GTI its there as soon as you press the pedal. Instead of feeling like you’re being pushed by a freight train in the rear-wheel drive Z, it feels like you’re being dragged forward in the front-wheel drive GTI. Aside from the performance, the GTI is better in every way. More comfortable, better sound system, safer, feels smaller (not sure if it really is), brighter headlights (Xenon!), backseats, bigger tires, better gas mileage (like 10 more miles per gallon), quieter, and of course the automatic is a million times better to drive in traffic.

Pictures to come soon.

Party like its 1991!

I’m finally moving into the new millennium by buying a car built in it. I’m downgrading from two turbos to one, removing six cylinders and saying goodbye to two hundred horses in the process. But I’m also losing some weight and girth, and gaining a lot of “practicality”. Yes, I’m giving up the third pedal. Unfortunately I’m committed to commuting for the foreseeable future, so I want a car that’s comfortable to sit in and easy to drive, especially in the hell of stop and go traffic.

That doesn’t mean I’m throwing in the towel and moving one-step closer to a minivan! No, not yet. I won’t have more than two doors (and no the hatch doesn’t count) and my wheels will still be at least seventeen inches wide. My new car will even have a sport mode and “flappy pedals”. It has launch control. I can turn traction control off. The muffler still growls on occasion. I will still beat most people off the line. I will own the hottest of the hot hatches!

The real reason I’m selling my car is that I can’t stand it any more. I love the car on Sunday afternoon, with the t-tops down and the wind in my hair. I love it on Monday night when the traffic breaks up early and there’s plenty of room to put the throttle down. But for 90% of the time I’m in the car, I hate it. I hate going sideways over speed bumps and still scratching the bottom, I hate feeling every pothole and dip in the awful roads here in Austin, and I hate clutching and feathering the throttle a hundred times on my way to work. I’m tired of the creaks, the leaks, the bumps and all the worry the comes with having a nineteen year old car.

So for now, its time to party like its 1991 and enjoy the Z while I still have it.