Beat the Streets
TRACY STOTTLEMYER RECLINES in her chair and slides on her headphones. It’s Wednesday evening, and instead of staring into a sea of red brake lights on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush hour, she’s gazing out the window as a huge amber sun dips into the Pacific. It’s just another workday commute for Stottlemyer, who uses the Coaster train to travel between her Sorrento Valley office and Encinitas home. Her typical commuting scenario begs the question: Why would anyone be subjected to San Diego’s notoriously congested roadways when there are more efficient, enjoyable and sanity-preserving alternatives? It’s a question an increasing number of San Diegans are asking themselves.
According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), three out of four county residents (74 percent) drive to work alone. Just 21 percent use an alternate mode such as carpooling, public transit or other means, including bicycling or walking. The remaining 5 percent work at home. Recent SANDAG-commissioned public polls identify traffic congestion as the region’s number-one issue. The overall traffic situation is only worsening, and the pace at which an adequate infrastructure is being built makes the bumper-to-bumper southbound lanes of I-15 on any given morning feel like warp speed.
San Diegans are fed up and desperate for solutions. Last year, more than 67 percent of San Diego County voters agreed to extend the halfcent sales tax, known as TransNet, to add $14 billion to fund transportation projects throughout the region. But as long as resident travel keeps outpacing highway construction and transportation funding, the region’s commuters will continue to spin their wheels.
Paul Blackburn, founder and acting director of Move San Diego, a nonprofit dedicated to improving transportation countywide, says the public needs to be better educated about transportation issues if lasting solutions are ever to be realized.
“There’s no community in the entire world that has built itself out of traffic congestion,” says Blackburn, who doesn’t own a car and gets around primarily by bicycle. He recently contracted a team of transit planners from Australia to study the region’s transit system and suggest improvements—“political influences aside.”
SANDAG communications director Garry Bonnelli echoes Blackburn and a host of county traffic engineers from Escondido to Chula Vista. “The bottom line is simply this: You can’t buy enough concrete to build your way out of congestion,” he says. “We’re looking at good old American ingenuity to get more capacity out of the existing system.”
An enterprising spirit helps, too. Every day, 44- year-old Daniel Cipriani bikes to the Carlsbad train station, boards the southbound Coaster train and then rides the trolley to his assistant professor job on the San Diego State University campus. “I get to avoid the I-5 and I-805 traffic, save on gas and can get some work done while I’m commuting,” he says. On the weekends, Cipriani and his wife rely on bicycles to get around their Carlsbad neighborhood, cruising everywhere from the beach to the grocery store.
Leucadia’s Dina Maxwell has used the Coaster, trolley and bus for her commute, and she bikes to her job at a Kearny Mesa bank twice a week. Incorporating her Ironman training regimen into her commute, 34- year-old Maxwell has inspired coworkers to follow suit. “I work with a bunch of guys, and when they saw that I rode my bike to work, they all wanted to do the same,” Maxwell says. “One coworker actually drove home at the lunch break and rode his bike back to work that same day.”
For the fitness-minded, commuting via bicycle confers an added health benefit. And with recent countywide improvements to major bikeway corridors, commuting by bike is becoming more convenient— and safer.
Dan Orr of Coronado says the city’s ferry service is an underutilized alternative to the grind of the singleoccupant vehicle commute. Three times a week, the 56-year-old salesman boards the ferry for downtown errands and business appointments.
“I don’t understand why more people don’t ride the ferry,” he says. “It’s a much cheaper alternative to driving; just consider the cost of gas, a downtown parking spot and parking tickets. Plus, riding the ferry is just more fun.” The ferry is economical for other reasons: Commuters ride for free during peak commuting hours, beginning at 5:40 a.m. departing from the downtown San Diego terminal (at Broadway and Harbor Drive) and 6:15 a.m. from the Coronado Ferry Landing. On land, Orr’s transportation mode of choice is his bicycle; he puts an estimated 1,000 miles on his bike each year.
BUT WHAT DIFFERENCE can a single commuter like Dan Orr make in reducing the massive bottlenecks on local roadways? All the difference, says Move San Diego’s Blackburn. “Traffic congestion is an incremental phenomenon,” he says. “A highway can flow well to a certain point, but just a few more cars can slow traffic. We’re not talking about making huge reductions in the number of cars on the roads; we just need to reduce the number by 2 to 4 percent to really see a difference.”
Blackburn says carpooling is a viable approach to achieving this reduction—but not until the trepidation of riding with a stranger is minimized. A recent SANDAG study found that among commuters, 75 percent agreed with the statement “I would join a carpool if I found someone whose schedule matched mine,” although many respondents also qualified this by agreeing with the statement “I would not feel comfortable carpooling with a stranger” (60 percent).
To help reduce this anxiety, Blackburn is developing a Web site that pairs compatible commuters. Using the technologies and search criteria of the popular Internet matchmaking site Match.com, cross-referenced with geographic information (such as where a commuter lives and works), Blackburn says his site will provide a valuable service to the carpool-weary populace. His assumption: “You’re going to feel a lot more comfortable sharing car space with a person you know something about. Knowing they have two Pomeranians named Missy and Buffy and go to church at St. Mary’s is likely going to remove some of the anxiety.” Blackburn hopes to be fostering carpool connections by early 2006.
“I call myself the Queen of Traffic,” says Kimberly King, KNSD-TV’s traffic reporter for the past decade. Few know San Diego’s streets better than King, who says the best way to cope with “the Los Angelization of San Diego” is to carpool. “Every morning I sound like a broken record,” she says. “I tell people to take the carpool lane. Or their other alternative is to leave for work when I do—at 4 in the morning.”
Three days a week, Debra Gutzmer of Poway carpools the 20 miles to her job at SAIC’s San Diego campus, where, as the facilities planning and client services manager, she oversees the company’s transportation incentive program. An increasing number of San Diego companies are encouraging employees to carpool by offering incentives. SAIC provides a $25 monthly subsidy to any of the 2,800 workers employing any mode of transport other than a single-occupancy vehicle.
“It’s definitely a quality-of-life issue for our employees,” says Gutzmer. “They’re in a better mood when they get to work and are more productive.”
THE CITY OF CHULA VISTA recently launched its Chula Vista X-press transportation program, which pays commuters $2 a day to carpool or take the trolley during peak travel hours. Open exclusively to east Chula Vista residents, and operated by the city and SANDAG, the program is funded by local developer contributions and a grant from the San Diego Air Pollution Control District.
If corporate or city-organized car/ vanpools aren’t an option, look to SANDAG’s RideLink program for a lift. About half of RideLink’s 423 vanpools originate from outside San Diego County, shuttling commuters around the county and beyond (Newport Beach and Costa Mesa are two common destinations). An updated listing of the available vanpools is provided on the RideLink Web site, ridelink.org.
According to SANDAG, the average commuter in the county pays $600 each month to drive to and from work (in fuel and maintenance costs); users of the vanpool program pay an average of about $75. While the number of riders and distance traveled determine a vanpool’s cost to each rider, SANDAG underwrites $400 per month for each vanpool. SchoolPool, a ridesharing program that matches families with children attending the same schools, is another useful RideLink offering.
New shuttle bus operations also are cropping up around the county in response to the demand for added flexibility and convenience in public transit. Presto! is a new trial shuttle that—for just 25 cents—transports riders around a Little Italy–downtown loop at 10-minute intervals. The Chula Vista X-press program operates free express bus service to downtown San Diego during the morning and afternoon commutes.
DESPITE COUNTYWIDE EFFORTS to broaden the mass appeal of ridesharing, Cal Walker isn’t convinced San Diegans will ever fully embrace public transportation. A radio traffic reporter for Airwatch traffic for the past 15 years, he says public transit will continue to meet resistance from a majority of San Diegans.
“People here don’t want to lose the freedom of driving their cars,” says Walker. “If you carpool or take the trolley to work, you don’t have that freedom to whip down to the beach at lunch to eat your sandwich, and people want to come and go as they please.” He’d rather see the money currently being poured into enhancing the region’s public transportation redirected toward the creation of more freeway lanes. “The car is here to stay,” he says.
Calming San Diegans’ car-separation anxiety, the Flexcar auto-sharing service offers drivers a win-win situation: Users have access to a vehicle whenever they need one, without the hassles or expenses that accompany ownership. Flexcar parks its cars (all hybrids) in neighborhoods where members live and work. Individuals and businesses can reserve these vehicles (on-line or by phone), paying only for the time the car is used, and return the car to its original location. Flexcar bills users at the end of each month. There are nearly 600 Flexcar members in San Diego and 24 downtown San Diego pick-up locations, with an additional 25 locations in the works.
The American Automobile Association estimates it costs more than $850 a month to own and operate a car in Southern California. On a national average, drivers spend an hour a day in their car, working out to a cost of about $28 an hour. Flexcar’s rate is $8-$10 an hour and includes the cost of gas, insurance and maintenance; the average user pays $141 a month for about 15 hours.
Constance Parmiter doesn’t miss the car she sold six months ago; she gets along just fine using Flexcar. It’s a solution in both time and money for this downtown dweller. “Reserving the car for a certain window of time helps me better structure my time, so I accomplish more in less time, and I can rent out my parking space to offset the fee of using the service,” she says. National City’s Guillermo Alfaro has an equally economical answer to wallet- thinning gas prices and traffic snarls: a scooter. Alfaro, 35, rides one of his 18 scooters anywhere he needs to go, from his job as a preschool director in Linda Vista to weekend trips across the border. He fills his gas tank, which lasts him a week, for about $5. Scooter sales at the Lambretta Works store he co-owns have gone up 30 percent in the past nine months. “San Diego is becoming increasingly scooter-friendly,” he says. “The more crowded we get, the greater the need for scooter transportation. And scooters are becoming trendy.”
Don’t keep pace with the Vespa set? Do as San Diego Magazine’s own executive editor did: Buy a pedicab and pedal friends and family around town. The tips are just one unexpected perk.
If you’re braving San Diego traffic——and absolutely must drive——arm yourself with tips from some residents who know the streets best
Kimberly King, KNSD-TV’s traffic reporter:
- North County alternatives: For I-5, try Highway 101, El Camino Real or Camino del Mar; for I-15, Bear Valley Parkway or Del Dios Highway.
- East County alternatives to I-8: Main Street, El Cajon Boulevard, Mission Gorge Road or Friars Road; Highway 94: Jamacha Road, Campo Road or Broadway; Highway 52: Mission Gorge Road or Friars Road.
- South Bay alternatives to I-805: Fourth Avenue, Highland Avenue, Highway 54 or Euclid Avenue; to I-5, Silver Strand, National City Boulevard or Harbor Drive.
Duncan Hughes, city of San Diego senior traffic engineer:
- Bypass the I-5/I-805 merge northbound by exiting Genesee from I-5 and taking North Torrey Pines Road through Del Mar.
- Use Pacific Coast Highway to avoid the congestion between downtown and Rosecrans.
Steve Kowalski, Cloud 9 Shuttle driver:
- Avoid the southbound I-15 bottleneck from Highway 78 to Lake Hodges by taking Highway 78 to Centre City Parkway in Escondido and get on I-15 at Lake Hodges.
- The 101 southbound may not be much faster than I-5 between La Costa and Lomas Santa Fe, but it is a more scenic route. Those more inland can take El Camino Real southbound to the Manchester I-5 on-ramp.
- State Route 52 westbound from Santee to the I-805 is slow from 6:30-9 most mornings. Take Mission Gorge Road instead; it runs just south of 52 and is an underutilized alternative.
Robert Carlson, city of Escondido senior traffic engineering technician:
- To avoid the backup at Via Rancho Parkway at the southbound onramp for I-15, leave outside the morning peak rush hour of 7 to 8. Del Dios Highway can be used as an alternative to I-15, but it has also become increasingly congested.
Robert Johnson, city of Carlsbad deputy city engineer:
- Use the College Boulevard–Cannon Road extension route to circumvent typically heavy traffic on Palomar Airport Road.
And one last tip from a veteran of the San Diego freeway wars:
- If you're heading east to the San Diego State/east San Diego area from downtown and want to avoid the inevitable I-8 gridlock, try taking Park Boulevard north to Meade Avenue (one block north of El Cajon Boulevard) and go east to Fairmount. There are few traffic lights or stop signs, and Meade is a little-traveled alternative to I-8, El Cajon Boulevard or University Avenue.