San Diego's Journey From First to Worst in Public Transit and What Could Turn it Around

For much of the 20th century, San Diego led the nation in public transit firsts. Unfortunately, the region has slipped to the bottom of national transit rankings. Planning activist Murtaza Baxamusa explains how it happened and the needed reform.

2 minute read

October 17, 2017, 11:00 AM PDT

By wadams92101

San Diego Metropolitan Transit System

Oran Viriyincy / Flickr

Around the turn of the century and up to WWII, San Diego established one of the most extensive streetcar systems in the nation. However, in the post-WWII years, San Diego, like many cities, removed its streetcar system in favor of buses and automobiles, leading to sprawl, pollution, and traffic congestion. Then in 1981, the city was the first to open a light rail system in the post-WWII era. The portion of the system opened that year remains one the most successful in the country for ridership numbers and fare box recovery. 

However, through incompetence and outdated auto-first policies, the San Diego region has squandered its national leadership, writes urban activist and affordable housing developer Murtaza Baxamusa. The region now ranks at the bottom of the nation's 25 largest metro regions for public transit. Even Los Angeles, the much maligned poster child for auto-dependency and traffic, now ranks well above the San Diego region. No mere statistical comparison, Los Angeles and San Diego are historic regional rivals. Though San Diego long ago lost the battle with L.A. for size and economic supremacy, San Diegans drew solace in their lesser degree of sprawl and superior navigability, making for a better quality of life. 

The agency responsible for this squandering of the region's leadership role? The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). SANDAG seemed to emulate the past auto-centric mistakes of the L.A. region. However, recent legislation will reform the agency, though it will be a long road (double entendre not intended) to returning the region to the point where it's competitive with other regions. In the source article, Baxamusa lays out San Diego's example of what not to do, and how the recent legislation (which was still awaiting Governor's signature at the time of writing, but has since become law) will help reform SANDAG.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 in UrbDeZine

Chicago Intercity Rail

Amtrak Ramping Up Infrastructure Projects

Thanks to federal funding from the 2021 infrastructure act, the agency plans to triple its investment in infrastructure improvements and new routes in the next two years.

September 25, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

Google maps street view of San Francisco alleyway.

Ending Downtown San Francisco’s ‘Doom Loop’

A new public space project offers an ambitious vision—so why is the city implementing it at such a small scale?

September 26, 2023 - Fast Company

Google street view of yellow "End Freeway 1/4 mile" sign on 90 freeway in Los Angeles, California.

Proposal Would Transform L.A.’s ‘Freeway to Nowhere’ Into Park, Housing

A never-completed freeway segment could see new life as a mixed-use development with housing, commercial space, and one of the county’s largest parks.

September 26, 2023 - Los Angeles Times

Traffic on the 405 interstate freeway through the Sepulveda Pass at Getty Center Drive in Los Angeles, California

Report: Bike Lanes Can't Make up for New Roads

If California wants to meet its climate goals, the state must stop funding its myriad road construction and expansion projects.

September 29 - Streetsblog California

Late evening view of downtown Minneapolis skyline with stone bridge in foreground

Minneapolis Affordable Housing Project Largest in 20 Years

The city opened its first large multifamily affordable housing complex in decades, but a recent court ruling against the Minneapolis 2040 rezoning plan could jeopardize future projects.

September 29 - Minnesota Public Radio

Close-up of vertical PARK sign on multistory urban parking garage.

NYC Mayor Proposes Eliminating Parking Minimums

Mayor Adams wants to stop requiring off-site parking for new buildings to reduce the costs of construction as part of the ‘City of Yes’ package of zoning reforms.

September 29 - StreetsBlog NYC

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.