San Diego San Diego needs Napoleon III. To be sure, he may have been a bastard. Literally and figuratively. Because of his mother's fondness for recreational adultery, it is not clear that he was, as claimed, the son of Napoleon I's younger brother. No matter. Napoleon III used his purported uncle's fame to get elected president of France in December 1848. Three years later he staged a coup and assumed dictatorial powers, soon declaring himself emperor in a maneuver of dubious legality.
His foreign adventures were disastrous, and he was deposed in 1870. But while in power, Napoleon III launched the building of Paris's now-renowned infrastructure. He created a modern sewage system, parks, and housing for the masses. He built the French railway network and connected it strategically to the city. He widened the streets, creating the great boulevards of today. In 1900, those boulevards made possible the construction of a vast underground transit system, the envy of the world.
"From an architectural point of view, all great cities are created by strong rulers," says Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California State Senate and for ten years chairman of the organization now called the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.
"There is an absolute requirement for political leadership," says Duncan McFetridge, head of Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, the group that recently filed a suit challenging the City's downtown community plan because it relies too heavily on the automobile and ignores the key to San Diego's survival: high-density downtown development served by a transit system.
While McFetridge admires the transportation system of Paris, he is especially enthusiastic about current activities in Bordeaux, France. Back in the 1970s, leadership of this wine-producing metro area of one million people preferred the auto. It didn't work. In the late 1990s, stronger politicians went the tramway route, as other French cities had been doing since 1985. By next year, Bordeaux will have a tramway system that will serve 37 percent of the population in the metro area and 50 percent of workplaces. "In a short period of time they turned away from the chaos of an auto-based system and put in a comprehensive tramway with all the linkages and interconnections," says McFetridge. The first Sunday of each month is labeled "a day without cars" in the heart of the city.
Councilmember Donna Frye, who voted against San Diego's community plan this year, says, "It is more auto-based than transit-based. It is not forward-looking enough to address public transportation." In 2000, according to the San Diego Association of Governments, transit usage accounted for less than 5 percent of trips between home and work.
Mills, McFetridge, Frye, and many others fear that San Diego's transportation network is headed for a crackup similar to the one Los Angeles has already suffered. Road rage has reached epidemic proportions here. But politicians in San Diego, the county's outlying cities, and Sacramento are making it worse. They are pushing for billions of dollars to "relieve congestion" by widening freeways, when experience has shown that this just leads to more housing development far from the city, or sprawl -- and more congestion.
"If you increase capacity of a freeway, that capacity will soon be gobbled up by more growth and development," thus clogging the freeway even more, says Frye.
Mills remembers attending a recent seminar on San Diego's transit inadequacies. A planner from Los Angeles said, "You should learn from our experience," Mills remembers. "L.A. built freeways everywhere it could, supposedly to solve freeway-congestion problems. All that happened was congestion got worse. The freeways opened new areas for development and generated more traffic. Finally we got around to public transit. It would be too bad if you do what we did," said the Los Angeles transportation official.
But the California Department of Transportation plans to widen portions of I-5 and I-805 to 14 lanes at a cost of up to $3.5 billion. The I-5/I-805 merge will be 23 lanes wide. State Route 905 will be made 6 lanes. A widening of I-15 is on the planning boards. It doesn't stop.
The urban area of San Diego is 800 square miles, and one-fourth of that is paved -- roads, freeways, and parking places, says McFetridge. Under the newly approved community plan, the downtown population would grow from 27,500 currently to 89,100 by 2030. But because transit is given short shrift, 62 downtown intersections will operate at an unacceptable level, getting an F grade, says McFetridge.
The writ of mandate filed this spring by Save Our Forests and Ranchlands charges that the community plan's environmental impact report violates the California Environmental Quality Act because it ignores transportation alternatives that would alleviate gridlock downtown and on freeways. Defendants are the City, its Redevelopment Agency, the city council, and the Centre City Development Corporation.
San Diego's plans are auto-based because its societal structure is greed-based. More than half of local councilmembers' decisions are on land-use issues. Developers are the biggest donors to politicians and among the biggest advertisers in the media. Is it any wonder that the Union-Tribune consistently beats the drums for automobiles? Noting that developers pour millions of dollars into Union-Tribune advertising, McFetridge observes, "The U-T wants an auto-based plan, road building."
This year, commenting on Governor Schwarzenegger's proposal for expanded infrastructure, the newspaper complained that Democrats "would take much of the money that Schwarzenegger (and the public in general) wants for roads and devote it to mass transit. This is unacceptable. Mass transit is an important part of the transportation grid, but far more Californians rely on roads."
North American cities such as Portland, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Montreal have been able to get transit systems built and expanded to meet the needs of population growth. "Does San Diego have the political will?" asks Mills. "City council will respond to special interests." So will councils in outlying cities. Mayors are weak.
In May, six national transit experts completed a report on San Diego's public transportation and land-use planning. San Diego's so-called "smart growth" initiatives may be workable, but transit investment should steer growth into smart-growth centers and corridors, said the experts. A vibrant downtown core should be served by a seamless and convenient transit system. The community plan puts too much emphasis on highways. When community planners force developers to put in parking with new condos and apartments, transit use will decline. Thus, instead of telling developers they must provide minimum parking, developers should be told they can't exceed a maximum number of parking spaces.