San Diego's 5 Big Moves
Rapid growth, changing demographics, traffic congestion, and unyielding environmental impact deadlines—these factors are driving a concerted regional initiative that combines creative planning; collaboration; and smart, digitally enabled transportation management.
By Antoinette Meier | Director of Mobility and Innovation, San Diego Association of Governments
The San Diego region has a well-deserved reputation for being a great place to live, thanks to our beaches and parks, our mountains and open spaces, our diverse communities and people, and our vibrant binational economy. Our great pride in this region, and our desire to protect it, are driving forces behind a far-reaching transformation of our transportation system — one that will offer everyone faster, equitable and cleaner mobility choices. The San Diego Association of Governments is at the forefront of this transformation.
Right now, our region’s transportation system is out of balance. Travelers can get to most places at least twice as fast by car as they can by transit. Years of auto-oriented planning and development have created an overreliance on the car and a complex set of socioeconomic, environmental, public health and safety impacts that would be very difficult to address if we were to continue with the status quo. Importantly, many major technological leaps and new diverse private service providers are reshaping the industry. These advancements present opportunities to make public transportation better, but we run the risk of exacerbating our current challenges if we don’t plan proactively for technology by developing policies that guide it to serve the public good.
As we look forward, we also acknowledge several factors that impact our long-term transportation plans. Among them are:
Tight government budgets and a funding approach that relies too much on gas tax revenues can barely support the operation and maintenance of our existing transportation system, let alone pay for new infrastructure and services that future generations will need.
An additional 300,000 people will call our region home by 2050. We are already facing a housing crisis and many roadways are already highly congested during peak periods. Expanding roadways and allowing for sprawl development far from transit is not a viable long-term solution for accommodating such growth.
About 17% of the population in this region will be over the age of 70 in 2050, which demands that we plan now for a transportation system that will meet the needs of seniors.
In addition to these factors, transportation planners face more daunting challenges. Like the rest of California, the San Diego region is not on track to meet our state’s critical climate goals. Car traffic, as measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are trending in the wrong direction. For this reason, the state put forward more aggressive targets that challenge planning agencies to go further to address climate change: specifically, to achieve a 19% per-capita reduction in GHG emissions by 2035. If our regional plan does not meet the target, we risk losing vital federal and state funding, which makes up about two-thirds of transportation funding in the region. Beyond the risk of losing funding, we understand transportation’s role as the largest contributor to pollutants that lead to climate change and poor air quality. If SANDAG were to do nothing, air temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, and the people who live here will experience more devastating wildfires and floods.
Integrating Mobility in 5 Big Moves
As the agency charged with guiding this region’s transportation strategy and investments, SANDAG late last year announced a multifaceted vision for how people and goods could move with greater ease and efficiency in the coming decades. The vision is coming to life in the form of five key strategies for mobility, collectively known as the 5 Big Moves. The vision synchronizes the 5 Big Moves to deliver a fully integrated, world-class transportation system.
The five strategies are interdependent and the success of one depends on the success of the others. Here are snapshots of each strategy, with some background and rationale for each:
1: Complete Corridors
Enabling a Multimodal System
The first strategy is to create a regional network of Complete Corridors on our major highways and roads. These corridors will serve as the backbone of a multimodal transportation system, supporting our Flexible Fleets and Transit Leap strategies. Complete Corridors will help us provide a balanced mix of safe and efficient options for traveling, whether these involve moving freight, taking transit, driving, ridesharing, using bikes, or walking. Technology is the key to ensuring that these travel modes work together and can respond to changing conditions by using real-time information.
Key elements of Complete Corridors are managed lanes, active transportation and demand management, transit priority (to boost adoption), high-speed communications networks for real-time data sharing among vehicles and infrastructure, active curb management, and broader support for electric vehicles (EVs).
Having more electric vehicles on the road is not the answer to reducing roadway congestion, but it will help to advance us toward our GHG emissions targets. We are seeing more EV models being introduced every year, and adoption in California is particularly robust. So, part of our strategy is to support the expansion of EV charging infrastructure, such as public charging and hydrogen fueling stations, to sustain the momentum of mass EV adoption.
2: Transit Leap
Attractive Alternatives to Driving
We know that we cannot meet our mobility or environmental goals without reducing vehicle miles traveled. Yet, by today’s projections VMT could increase by 24% by 2050. This means that we must give people attractive, convenient mobility options that can compete with their private automobiles.
If residents have a viable alternative to driving, they will embrace it. We’ve known this from years of public outreach, surveys and market research. Residents consistently tell us that they would like to take transit, but they don’t have a viable option today. Transit currently is not fast enough or frequent enough, it doesn’t go where people need to go, and it is not well suited to the people who rely on it most. Here are some key findings:
- Only 5% of people and jobs are within 10 minutes of transit
- Only 8% of people have access to transit that provides late night and early morning service, which is when people in many service industries (e.g., hospitality, healthcare) require such service
- 20% of transit riders do not have access to a personal vehicle
- Transit riders’ median income is $18,000, which means that rideshare alternatives tend to be out of reach financially
We are committed to creating a better alternative. Our Transit Leap approach is designed to create a complete network of fast, high-capacity, high-frequency transit services that connect major residential areas with employment centers and attractions throughout the San Diego region. The main components of this strategy include commuter rail, light rail, high-speed trains for regional journeys, rapid transit, which is truly rapid due to dedicated travel lanes and upgraded local bus and microtransit services.
3: Mobility Hubs
Points for Transferring and Connecting
Across the region, we plan to create a number of Mobility Hubs, which will be a point of convergence for several different travel options, such as walking, biking, transit, shared mobility and others. At one level, these hubs will integrate mobility services, amenities, and technologies to help connect people from their points of origin to high-frequency transit options. At another level, these hubs will offer people on-demand options for making short trips, perhaps of just a few miles, around the local community.
Depending on where a hub is located you might find: bikeshare, carshare, neighborhood electric vehicles, micromobility parking and charging, real-time traveler information, on-demand ridesharing and microtransit. Importantly, these areas will feature smart intersections and other technologies to make it safer for people who walk and bike in these “beehives” of vehicles and activities.
We envision these hubs to be places where people will want to go. There will be restaurants and coffee shops, and other places to hang out. Additionally, these hubs will have facilities where people can drop off or pick up packages, which will alleviate another hurdle for many people who want to take care of errands while also using public transit or flexible fleets.
4: Flexible Fleets
Supporting Mobility in All Its Forms
This element of the 5 Big Moves relates to an “all of the above” approach to helping people get exactly where they need to go, with a focus on bridging the “first and last mile” gaps at the beginning and end of their journeys. We want to ensure that residents can take full advantage of the available shared mobility services—public and private—that let them get to and from public transit options, as well as to make complete trips within their own neighborhoods and communities. In essence, we want to make it much easier not to rely on a private automobile.
As we build out this strategy we are drawing on the availability of many alternative transportation solutions, including micromobility (such as e-scooters and bicycles), ridesharing and ridehailing (such as on-demand car services from Uber, Lyft and others), and microtransit (which involve vehicles that carry a dozen or so passengers and offer rides within a service area, with on-demand or book-in-advance flexibility for riders). Additionally, our plans are factoring in the promise of emerging solutions for Last-Mile Delivery, which we envision to include driverless vehicles, e-bikes, drones, and robots.
We will be the first to point out that the mobility options in our plans today may multiply or look very different in the years ahead. Ten years ago, transportation planners could not have envisioned how quickly app-driven ridehailing services would be embraced by the public and how those services would impact both the public transit model and vehicle miles traveled on our roads. Similarly, just months ago, planners were taken by surprise by micromobility as millions of scooters appeared overnight to both expand mobility options and introduce new complexities to urban safety. Such disruptive innovations will continue to emerge and we intend to integrate them into the transportation system in ways that enhance mobility, safety, and quality of life.
5: Next Operating System
Stitching It All Together Digitally
The brain of our forward-looking transportation system will be a digital platform called the Next Operating System (Next OS). This platform will catalog and share secure data that’s being generated in real time directly from “smart” transportation infrastructure, as well as public and private transportation services, and related resources.
For the traveling public, the Next OS will make possible a new generation of integrated tools with which to plan, book and pay for trips across multiple transportation modes. The idea is to make it much easier and more seamless to travel across the region.
By harnessing the Next OS platform, transit agencies, freight operators and others will be able to monitor their fleet operations in real time, so they can quickly optimize their services and provide relevant information to their customers. Real-time data from high-volume roads will help highway managers dynamically adjust traffic flows by assigning lanes—to transit vehicles or freight trucks, for example—based on current demand or time of day.
Importantly, planners and policy makers will be able to access transportation data and use visualization tools to inform their decisions. Also, the Next OS platform will be open source, meaning that both public and private service providers can use it to create new applications and services.
Unleashing the full potential of Next OS in the coming years will require a new level of cooperation among the SANDAG team, public agencies, transit operators and other industry players. We all will have to move beyond traditional operational siloes and legacy governance models to form a complete regional network of systems. Specifically, this means that we must commit to achieving common objectives regarding user experience, operations and policies — no matter who owns or runs a particular part of the transportation infrastructure.
It’s important to note that the 5 Big Moves are strategies that create a complete and balanced transportation system when they are combined. Complete Corridors are not truly complete without Transit Leap and Flexible Fleet services, the dynamic connections of Mobility Hubs, or the Next OS platform that manages them in real time to create capacity and keep them operating smoothly and safely.
We look forward to seeing these strategies continue to come to life in the years ahead. All of us at SANDAG are committed to working with the leaders of our 18 cities and County of San Diego, as well as with regional, state, and federal partners to move transportation forward both boldly and efficiently. As we proceed, our challenge will be to ensure that our region grows in a way that fuels our economy, preserves our environment, takes everyone’s needs into account, and still maintains our enviable quality of life.
ANTOINETTE MEIER, AICP is the Director of the Mobility and Innovation Department for the San Diego Association of Governments. She leads the development of plans, policies, and programs that create more sustainable transportation choices for the San Diego region. For the past 10 years at SANDAG, Antoinette has led regional commuter services and innovative pilot projects that reduce traffic congestion and improve mobility and air quality. Prior to joining SANDAG, she worked in community and economic development in both the San Diego region and the City of Seattle. Antoinette has a master’s degree in City Planning.
What is SANDAG?
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is a public agency that brings together leaders from 18 cities and county government to make decisions that impact every resident and business across the region. The organization is governed by a board of directors, which comprises mayors, councilmembers and county supervisors from each government being represented.
A key focus of SANDAG’s work is to plan, design, build, and fund transportation initiatives in the region. Significant funding for these initiatives comes from a half-cent countywide sales tax, which voters first approved in 1988, and which in 2004 they voted to extend for another 40 years.
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