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Here's What Your Future Commute Could Look Like

The Quickway Proposal is a public transit idea for a modern San Diego


Imagine you’re about to leave for your job in Sorrento Mesa and the radio reports heavy traffic on the 805. Not to worry—you’ll still get to work on time.

You walk from your home in Normal Heights to what looks like a mini transit station. A small, self-driving “flex trolley” is waiting for you with its doors wide open. It’s off-rails, like a bus, but otherwise looks just like a sleek, modern train inside and out. The vehicle moves down the middle of the street in its own protected lane. As the vehicle nears El Cajon Boulevard, it drops into a tunnel and lets you off by the entrance to what looks like a subway station.

You touch your fare card to a turnstile and walk down the platform. An electronic sign shows the U70—“U” for the transfer station, UTC—arriving in two minutes. Shortly after, you step on board a conventional light rail car, just like any modern subway in the world, and you’re on your way, a few local stops before accelerating to express service.

Hillcrest Center… Fashion Valley… Sharp Medical Complex… Convoy… then UTC. Travel occurs mostly at street level, but at times is elevated or in tunnels.

At the UTC station there’s a route going to Sorrento Mesa every few minutes. You walk down the platform to transfer, step onto your vehicle, and less than four minutes later, disembark in Sorrento Mesa near your office.

This scenario is no pipe dream. It’s a realistic vision of how an affordable rapid transit system can be configured to match San Diego. It’s called the “Quickway Proposal.”

Transit systems in cities around the world attract and serve residents of all ages, incomes, locations, and from all walks of life. Transit in San Diego doesn’t. Nearly two-thirds of trolley riders, for example, don’t have a car. More than 80 percent of regular trolley or bus users come from households earning less than $50,000 a year. Market research shows that San Diegans are willing to consider transit, but that transit fails to offer a competitive alternative to driving.

What’s wrong with our current network of trolleys? Too many stations are too far from useful destinations. Take Mission Valley, for example, one of the region’s largest office markets, but most office jobs are beyond walking distance of a trolley station. Too many places aren’t and will not be served. Hillcrest, the heart of North Park, OB, La Jolla... not even in the plans. It’s also too slow, since there are no express trains; too infrequent, running only every 15 minutes; and its stations don’t provide enough protection from the elements—something that will prove increasingly necessary if our winters continue to be this rainy.

Quickway Map

Plus, our current and planned trolley lines run in undesirable places, such as along noisy, fumy freeways, limiting stations’ ability to absorb and serve significant new development. Even downtown, after the residential building boom of the 2000s, trolley boardings barely increased.

These are the reasons why the trolley doesn’t meet the needs of enough people.

The Quickway Proposal is different because it takes a smarter approach to building and locating transit infrastructure, which leads to faster, more direct routes that cause ridership to increase dramatically. A Quickway is a grade-separated two-lane road that, like a freeway, has no intersections. Instead, the Quickway goes either over or under other roadways. Stations serving Quickways typically feature passing lanes, which allow express routes to bypass most intervening stations and save riders time.

Unlike rail lines, Quickways don’t have to be built contiguously, because flex trolleys can use existing conventional roads. Two disconnected Quickway segments—say, a few blocks in North Park and a few more in Hillcrest—automatically cut transit time by a third; and, as the connecting pieces are built, travel time becomes twice as fast as driving.

The proposed network starts out supporting “rapid buses” and emergency vehicles, directly serving most of the region’s hospitals and other emergency services. As connecting pieces are built, they can be scaled up to rail or some new form of guided, autonomous vehicles, but the benefits of the infrastructure are felt from day one.

The Quickway Proposal would reduce overall transit time by an average of 65 percent as compared with a 19-percent reduction expected with current plans, all while saving both capital and operating costs. By reaching into San Diego’s densest communities with real infrastructure, the Quickway Proposal better mitigates the traffic and parking impacts of new development. It can also facilitate world-class transformations of most urban communities by making new town squares and parks economically viable.

WILL IT HAPPEN? Quickway fans can write their mayor, city councilmember, or county supervisor.

Alan Hoffman is the founding director of the Center for Advanced Urban Visioning and a lecturer in city planning at SDSU.

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