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San Diego Spring Break: Urbanist Gone Wild

March 14, 2007 Public Transit, Travel 20 Comments

This week I am vacationing in sunny San Diego for Spring break from graduate courses at Saint Louis University. But I am never fully on break, yesterday I checked out a number of areas of the region and thought I’d share a few with you.

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Above is an on-street motorcycle/scooter parking area in downtown San Diego. So while those on cars must pay $6 to park in the lot behind, those with more reasonable modes of transit were able to park for free. Really small and light scooters, such as my Honda Metropolitan, would still be vulnerable to theft if left in the above area not locked up. Still, this is a highly effective use of space.
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Adjacent to a major trolley line is a small parking lot with a Flexcar, allowing members easy access to a car for those times they need one.

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San Diego’s trolley system has some interesting differences with say Portland’s streetcar.  In reality, technology these days is developing and blending so quickly the differences between streetcar, trolley, tram and light rail and getting muddied. In the downtown area the trolley acted pretty much like a streetcar, stopping every 4 blocks or so.  However, as I took a suburban line toward Mexico the distance between stations could be measured in miles and the trolley acted more like a regional light rail system.
Above is a trolley with 3-4 cars at their 5th Avenue station.  The first thing you will notice is no raised platform.  The very front door includes a ramp for those needing wheelchair access.  In the extreme left of the image you will see a regular door open with a couple of steps and a final step slides out when the door opens.  Given how the wheelchair requirement is handled as a special case, the remainder of the system is pretty simple.  I did notice people boarding with bicycles or child strollers having difficulty.  Someone with physical disabilities but not in a wheelchair would also have issues with this set up.
Like St. Louis’ lightrail system, this operates on a honor system basis so their are no gates.  Just buy your ticket and board.  Unlike St. Louis, however, you must pay more for the greater distance you are traveling on the system.

When you approach a stopped trolley the doors do not open.  You press a button on the side of the vehicle to activate the door.  Similarly, from the inside when you reach a stop you press a button to open the door you wish to exit.

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I took the above picture while riding their trolley, showing a large area of downtown that has been rebuilt at a high-density residential neighborhood. Being adjacent to their CBD with easy transit access to other areas makes this a desirable place to live. However, I understand developers in other parts of downtown have gone too far and they have a glut of condos, more so in high rises.

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This is just around the corner from the prior picture. In the foreground you can see the track and the yellow “stand behind” line. Here the street width was divided up to allow a single flow of one-way traffic with on-street parking on one side.

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A few blocks away two new buildings surround the existing trolley line. The building on the left is a good 20+ floors while the one on the right is more like 8 floors. Again, cars and rail transit don’t mix here but by creating a narrow space it works well.

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I took San Diego’s Blue Line trolley all the way to the Mexican border. The building in the background on the right is the customs office for those crossing the border on foot or bicycle.

To get to dowtown I took a city bus while runs along a major street just a block from my friend’s house.  I noticed they have several brands/models of bus but most are what we will have eventually, a “low-floor” bus pretty much like those used in our region by Madison County Transit.  In these buses the floor is very low and when the bus stops it lets out some air on the suspension system and the floor is pretty well even with the curb height.  This makes boarding & unboard much easier and faster.  At the rear of the bus you get an area that steps up a bit above the rear axel.  Like the trolley system, you pay more depending upon where you are going.

I’ve got lots more to see while in San Diego including a couple of grocery stores with underground or rooftop parking.


Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    Nice pictures but where’s the GAS stations? How much is gas? If you’re looking for parking lots above grocery stores you could have found them much closer, in Chicago. Have a good time! Our MetroLink should be renamed… how about MetroStink?

    [UrbanReviewSTL — They have plenty of gas stations and other auto-centric development but they seem to realize the value of changing to a more urban model.  Gas is roughly $3.25/gallon at the moment.]

  2. Christine says:


    Say hi to Eddie for me – just talked with his sister yesterday – the weather looks gorgeous.

  3. Brad Mello says:

    Steve — you’re the only person I know that could go to beautiful sunny San Diego and take pictures of buildings. Get to the beach! I was there last week and it was wonderful — be sure to check out the Annie Liebowitz (sp?) exhibit and the San Diego Museum of Art — it was fantastic. If you have your student ID with you they have a reduced admission price, otherwise it’s $10 but well worth it. Balboa park in general is really cool as is the Hillcrest neighborhood, be sure the check it out and enjoy! Brad

  4. Kevin says:

    Be sure to enjoy a yard of beer at O’Hungry’s in well preserved Old Town for me!

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    Just a clarification – the “trolley” cars in San Diego are identical to those in Denver and very similar to the light rail vehicles St. Louis uses. They’re all made by Siemens, have very similar electronics and controls, and are the same length and weight. The big difference is, obviously, the use of “high” (floor-level) station platforms here and “low” (curb-level) platforms in San Diego & Denver – the only real difference is in the doors and steps (or not). The obvious conclusion is that these vehicles could be used by Metro here on the proposed new northside-southside alignment without having to invest in new maintenance facilities that choosing true “streetcars” would require. And yes, there’s a whole bunch of good, new, high-quality and high-density redevelopment (albeit, pretty pricey) centered around the San Diego rail system. We just need to figure out how to make that happen here!

  6. john says:

    Probably the only thing that will make it “happen here” is when the the costs of auto-centrism become “too high” for the public. Thus the important question remains: At what price/gallon will the public insist on a better balance between transportation alternatives?

    When will the public insist on more from local leadership? (Answer: Only when the public insist on changing our historical patterns.) Infrastructure spending in the StL area remains auto-centric to an extreme and thus the odds of denser urban development remains quite low. Currently pump prices are not high enough to change consumption patterns but are climbing sharply in what are usually considered low demand months.

    The prices you are now seeing in CA exceed $3/gallon. At some price point the public will have to either make dramatic changes in gas consumption or pinch spending on other items. Is that price per gallon $4, $5, or much higher in your (and others’) opinion?

  7. Kara says:

    You seem to be implying that the general attitude of the public is what leads the way toward such decisions. Studies have shown that Americans have increased their use of public transit over the last couple years in cities that offer it (due of the raise in gas prices). Does the city of St. Louis then need to wait for more public demand or should they just offer it, knowing that people will use it (as gas prices are bound to rise). I think the city should be forward thinking and plan for the need for more affordable transportation now, rather than wait another 30 to 50 years as they seem to want to do. I believe that if a comprehensive system were built in St. Louis, people who don’t currently ride it would start to ride it. People who presently live in some of these other cities with public transit might even relocate to St. Louis as it would become attractive to them.

  8. john says:

    Projects such as these are either supply or demand driven. Leadership could supply alternatives but that is not evident here. In addition, when local leaders attempt to do so the outcome is very disappointing. The poor design of the Metro-extension is obvious and undeniable to experienced transit users. In addition, management of the design/build and oversight functions clearly failed as the project was extremely too expensive ($84 million/mile!), over budget, and late.

    Therefore if not supplied then it is the demand side (ie. public) which can provide the impetus for change. In a democracy this is the way it should occur anyway. When referring to studies be aware that people in StL do have a different attitude towards these things. In addition, simply building more lines that remain underutilized is a recipe for financial failure (which is exactly what is occuring here).

    My question has yet to be answered and public demand will not materialize until the auto alternatives are cost effective. Some cities are fortunate to have leadership with vision and actually incorporate public preferences into planning. Unless you are a large university or corporation, your opinions and ideas about major infrastructure projects in the StL region are likely to be ignored.

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    For a comprehensive system to happen here, the region will need to embrace regionalism. When transit is studied (and advocated for) one line at a time, it’s very difficult to build consensus, that “Yes, this is something I will support with my taxes”. Look at what’s happening here, now. The current “northside-southside” study is limited to the St. Louis city limits – there’s little or nothing for voters in any of the surrounding counties to embrace (“What’s in it for me?”), and it doesn’t even seem to resonate well with many city residents.

    If we believe that we need a comprehensive system, we need to follow Denver’s FasTracks (http://www.rtd-fastracks.com/) model. We need to convince the political leaders (at the state, county & city levels) in St. Louis (city & county), St. Charles, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe & St. Clair counties to actually cooperate on a common goal. We need to develop a plan that connects all counties, has defined lines and believable construction costs. It needs a financing plan that guarantees delivery in ten years or less, with all lines being “equal”. It requires a dedicated tax stream. It can’t include any assumptions that, for instance, a line to Waterloo won’t be built for 20-25 years. Bottom line, it’s all about two critical points, what’s in it for me and how much of a higher tax will I pay to make it happen?

    Finally, we need to create a mindset here that transit is something for people other than the poor and truly transit-dependent. Metro needs to bring back their special bus service from suburban locations to Rams home games. They need to run the existing Metrolink later in the evening and more consistently outside of peak rush hours (for people going to plays, baseball games or just out bar-hopping). And Metro needs to seriously consider implementing “demand-responsive” service in the suburbs* to replace fixed-route buses. Expand the universe of potential riders (even if it’s only a few times a year) and you increase the universe of voters willing to support the system with their taxes. Increase the universe of willing voters and you make it a whole lot easier for politicians, especially those in suburban areas, to embrace both transit and the higher densities they usually bring . . .

    *http://www.rtd-denver.com/ —> “Special Rides” —> “Call-n-Ride”

  10. john says:

    ^Jim, agree with virtually every statement especially the “need to convince political leaders…to cooperate on a common goal”. However such a demand driven approach gets often hijacked here for numerous reasons. A regional perspective is needed in order to correct obvious and onging problems.

    As someone who has used mass transit for over 20 years on a daily basis in other cities, I find the StL system unusable. The route designs are illogical for me and other members of my family as it is for many other potential users we know. Consequently the system fails to attract our dollars, support, and is not even close to being “demand-responsive”.

    An area like StL, with so many governmental entities, can only be made cooperative by leaders who can communicate with a clear and convincing vision. However there seems to be little hope of such as our leaders have chosen to increase the number of units and complexity of our political machinery. Just look at the disaster that is to be created by the New I64 because of the lack of cooperation between the major players involved: MoDOT, MetroLink, EWGC, City of StL, Richmond Heights, Ladue, Frontenac, Town & Country, and other unmentioned nongovernmental entities.

    Until the cost of auto dependency becomes “intolerable”, I see little hope of change for the StL region. Therefore my question remains: At what price/gallon will locals determine intolerable and demand change?

  11. LisaS says:

    What’s interesting about San Diego as an example is that they didn’t wait for the market to demand the trolley and the downtown development to begin work on it. About 10 years ago, a good friend of ours lived in San Diego (well, really in one of the northern suburbs, but anyway …) I remember we went downtown and saw the new condos under construction, wondering who on earth would buy a home in such a deserted place. We saw the beginnings of the construction of the trolley system, and our friend scoffed at all of it.

    Six years later, we went back for me to present a paper at a conference. We stayed off-site, and I used the trolley line to traverse back and forth from our hotel to conference activities. Downtown was actually populated, even after dark. It was neat to see the progress.

    Why have I typed all this? I guess as a response to John^. One of the reasons the St. Louis metro area is so stagnant is that our politicians take reactive positions, like waiting until the demand definitely exists to consider building a feasible mass transportation system. And we, the citizens, let them. We don’t push them to think about the future in any kind of visionary–or even proactive–way.

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    From what little I know about Metro, it’s governed by political appointees who need to advocate for the areas they represent. There is no unified funding source – projects are built based on who provides the bulk of the funding (why we have light rail in less-dense parts of Illinois instead of more-dense parts of Missouri). Several counties (St. Charles, Madison and Jefferson) who should be part of a regional transit system are not. (“If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.”) And like St. Louis city politics, part of deciding where under-performing bus routes are kept is based on political realities, not functional analysis.

    The two “dirty little secrets” with most transit systems is that every trip is highly subsidized with tax revenues and that suburban areas generate more in taxes than they receive in transit services. That’s why Metro needs to look at the “bigger picture” and make transit more attractive to the suburban user. This includes providing more express bus service for daily commuters that’s competetive time-wise with driving. It means bringing back bus service to Rams games. It means making light rail functional for evening users (service every ½ hour or less isn’t acceptable). And it means doing this even if it means cutting back on traditional, local, urban bus service by 5% – 10%.

    The current situation is not sustainable. As the metro area continues to sprawl, a smaller percentage of the region’s residents are paying for the existing system or funding new growth. Without service to the new suburban employment and retail centers, the existing system becomes more and more irrelevent to more and more people. And without the additional revenues these suburban areas would generate, even at the current paltry ¼% sales tax rate, the existing system will continue to face “death by a thousand cuts”. As city dwellers and “urbanists”, we may not like what the suburbs are, but we are dependent on their taxes to fund a coherent and comprehensive transit system, and the ONLY way we can make this happen is by meeting their very-different transit needs.

  13. john says:

    As admitted, “we don’t push them” is exactly right. Why? Because of COSTS! Compare real estate prices in San Diego to StL prices and that will largely explain why density works there and is not as economical here.

    Clearly PRICES in the marketplace made their committment to mass transit and density logical. In StL these conditions don’t exist. Simply supplying mass transit doesn’t create demand…just look at the lack of ridership here (please don’t inundate me with the numbers as I know them). But even worse, trusting our transportation leaders to make good design decisions is a mistake. Even proponents (like me and many others I know) of mass transit will not use Metro-system as it is designed here.

    Placing the cart before the horse will only create more financial woes which will make the public hate mass transit even more. I doubt that StL real estate prices will ever be close to San Diego’s but don’t give up hope because you still have gas prices heading higher. Those higher prices may create demand that currently doesn’t exist…that is your best hope. What is that price?

    [UrbanReviewSTL —  Correct, land prices are quite a bit less overall.  However, within our region we can capitalize on our core and re-zone the property to much higher densities and add in high quality density.  It is not necessary to have a full 16-county region of high land prices to justify a 2-5 mile streetcar/tram/trolley loop.]

  14. Jim Zavist says:

    One other thing – Metro needs to simplify its fare structure. The current, non-discounted fares are:

    $1.75 – single bus ride
    $2.00 – single light rail ride
    $2.25 – bus fare + “multi-use” transfer
    $2.25 – two-hour pass (I’m not sure what the difference is)
    $3.50 – two-hour pass if you start at Lambert Airport
    $4.50 – one-day pass

    This makes transfers a 50 cent proposition, each way, which makes little sense IF your goal is to create a transit SYSTEM! As the region continues to sprawl, transfers become a much bigger part of any transit system’s functionality. We can no longer count on a hub-and-spoke system to meet most people’s needs. It should be a seamless issue to get on a local bus in your neighborhood, transfer to an express bus or a light rail train, then to transfer to a circulator bus or streetcar to reach your destination. Just go the a flat $2.00 fare good on all modes for a two-hour window, with the option of buying a $4.50 or $5.00 pass that’s good for 24 hours. In other words, make transfers “free” and not a psychological barrier to using the system!

  15. Jim Zavist says:

    “Build it and they will come” does not work, by itself, in transit. “Upzoning” to higher densities will not work, by itself, to spur high-density development. Both tactics create the opportunity, but without market demand, little or nothing significant will happen, at least in the short term.

    To grow transit ridership, you need to figure out where the potential riders are, where they want to go, and what will pry them out of their cars. Some simple answers are time and money, hopefully with as little inconvenience as possible thrown into the mix. Light rail doesn’t fight highway congestion, so it should be faster IF it follows a straight line and doesn’t have too many stops. Paying for parking and paying $3, $4 or more per gallon for gas makes transit more attractive, especially if you’re going more than a few miles. But the real deal killer can be too many and/or stupid connections – it simply takes too long (2-3 times as long) many times to use transit than it takes to drive door-to-door.

    Can St. Louis make it work? I didn’t think that it would in Denver, but it happened in spite of the western mindset. Why did it happen? Because their transit agency is both larger (incorporating a much larger portion of the metro region) and because it’s more responsive to meeting the needs of all riders, not just “traditional” ones (the ones standing on street corners waiting for a bus). It also works becauase they have a much larger budget, thanks mainly to a sale tax that’s four times higher (1%, versus ¼% here). Bottom line, it is all about money and meeting the needs of the market . . .

  16. rand in san diego says:

    Some San Diego perspective on your photos, comments? Beginning last year we started getting newer, lower trolley cars that are more easily accessed. For now, they predominantly are used on the newly opened green line from Old Town thru San Diego State to east county. Much of the new condo building you have photographed has been development spurred by the new ballpark (Petco) which is less than a block from the trolley line downtown. The ‘glut’ of condos downtown are high rises more to the west. Downtown San Diego is becoming more a place to live than a place to work. The buildings with the trolley running between them is a single development still under construction. The buildings were designed with the trolley being moved to where you see it in the photo. Prior to last month the trolley’s path was around the buildings to the left.
    Hope you enjoyed San Diego.

  17. Jim Zavist says:

    Cause and effect is difficult to prove. Many people claim that Coors Field spurred the rebirth of Lower Downtown (LoDo) in Denver. I’m sure it played a part, but I believe a booming economy and changing tastes also played a big part, especially on the residential component. That’s why the BPV folks are more focused on retail and office – there may not be enough demand for more residential in downtown St. Louis,

  18. Jim Zavist says:

    Another thought – what effect does the shift from downtown as the business core to a residential enclave do to taxes and transit? Businesses are net tax generators, residences are net tax consumers. A loft is, what, 800-2,000 square feet? An office cubicle is, at best 100 square feet. How many people live in our loft-conversion buildings versus how many worked there? If you cut a building’s population in half, you cut the number of potential transit riders in half, as well. San Diego and Vancouver are making up this difference by building multiple, new, dense, multi-story residential structures. We’re not. We may eventually, but how do we bridge from the present to the future without “breaking the budget” and without seeing Metro slowly fade away? Sure, residential use beats vacant and boarded up, but how do we make our core more attractive to businesses of all types?

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