Transit Dependent Communities, Social Equity and Environmental Justice
By Anna Daniels
There is no trolley route through City Heights. This deficiency is not for a lack of trying. In the early 1990’s residents were advocating for significant mitigation to the construction of I-15 through the community. The proposed mitigation included the construction of a trolley line in the center of the freeway that would efficiently carry City Heights residents north and south to their jobs and concentrated employment centers.
The short story is that the steep freeway incline/grade made a trolley route infeasible. So while the heavily transit dependent community of City Heights does not have a trolley, it does have buses and will continue to rely upon buses. If you can get past trolley envy, buses become the workable solution to transit needs.
For decades, the highest bus rider ship in the whole Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) has been on the Number 7 bus. This one bus route carries a whopping 3,903,109 passengers annually. To put this in perspective, the Green and Orange trolley lines each record around seven million passengers annually. The Number 7 bus is a plodding workhorse, definitely not a racehorse.
This route also has a relatively high farebox recovery of 42.6%. For a $2.25 one way fare, it provides much more than a mere bus ride–it provides an accurate glimpse into life as it is lived in City Heights.
The Number 7 Bus: Poem by Anna Daniels, Voice and Video by Jim Bliesner
City Heights has been served by a number of other bus routes. In the past decade new expanded routes, including some express limited stop service through City Heights, have been added. Newer buses with easier street access for wheelchairs, kids, the elderly and people with disabilities were finally fully integrated into this service area, as were buses that reduced air pollution. In this same decade however, the economic crash has resulted in service cuts, particularly on Sundays, as well as fare increases. These things all matter in a transit dependent community.
SANDAG (The San Diego Association of Governments) is in the process of revising a multi-modal integrated regional transportation plan that will extend through 2050. They anticipate a future in which the county becomes “majority minority” with Hispanics comprising 42% of the population, the white population declining slightly and other minority populations remaining the same. The population will become older, with Baby Boomers and GenX generations living longer than previous generations.
The anticipated increase of 338,000 new homes are proposed at higher densities to provide for the greatest amount of affordable housing to be built. That means continued infill in existing urban centers. An estimated 54% of the population will be comprised of low income minority (LIM) residents.
San Diego County in 2050 will look remarkably like City Heights today. How will SANDAG, a powerful albeit largely invisible entity, balance the demand for expanded freeway access and new road construction with the reality of transit dependent communities and “smart growth” urban planning models designed to encourage public transit and alternative transportation opportunities?
The 2050 Regional Transportation Plan includes a lengthy section titled “Social Equity: Title VI and Environmental Justice.” This section is clearly a response to pressures for SANDAG to evaluate its planning decisions through the lens of the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which states that “no person in the United States, shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, to be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
What do Civil Rights have to do with transportation planning? SANDAG acknowledges that it is required to make “investments that provide all residents…with opportunities to work, shop, study, be healthy and play.” They also acknowledge that a lack of proper transportation systems can have a negative impact on the quality of life by placing health burdens on many low income and minority communities and physically dividing those same communities with new transportation projects.
“Social equity” and “environmental justice”–buzzwords or serious transportation planning considerations? The SANDAG plan got off to a rocky start last year. This plan was found deficient in addressing SB 375, which requires long-term transportation plans to meet targets for reducing green house gas emissions. Environmentalists and public transit advocates have hoped that this bill would provide the opportunity to reshape transportation planning in the region.
“State Attorney General Kamala Harris drafted a letter to SANDAG… expressing disappointment with the 2050 plan. ‘The suite of strategies relied on by SANDAG, which include a heavy reliance on roadway expansion projects, does not deliver GHG [greenhouse gas] reductions that are sustainable in the long term.'” Atlantic Cities A Fight for the Future of San Diego Jan 10, 2012
Approximately 30% of the plan’s funding is allocated toward transit projects in the first decade, with the level rising to 57% in the final ten years–2040 to 2050. Two environmental groups have sued SANDAG. “These critics charge that the 2050 Regional Transportation is front-loaded with highway projects and defers major transit efforts until the later years. By that time, they fear, the San Diego region will be locked into an auto-centric transportation network that encourages unsustainable types of development and ignores the transportation needs of its cities.”
City Heights, in the transportation planning meantime…. Whatever changes, if any, to public transit in City Heights in the short term will occur through the planning and budgetary decisions of MTS. There are some relatively modest fixes that would address some of the socio-economic concerns of residents who depend exclusively upon public transit to get to their jobs, schools and health care providers. These modifications would go a long way toward dispelling the perception that City Heights is seen solely as a captive transit audience which will make do with the transit options provided to it.
- There is a critical need to restore the service cuts on weekends, particularly Sunday schedules. In a community with few bankers or residents who work banker’s hours, weekends, including Sundays, are work days.
- There is a critical need to reduce the monthly transit expenditures in households with multiple members who rely on public transportation.
- There should be more outlets to buy monthly and daily bus passes in City Heights. It took years before MTS established an outlet at the Albertson’s in the Urban Village. Transit riders were previously left with no option but to travel to a Vons outside of the community or make the trek downtown to the transit center or other outlets there.
The cruelest cuts… The concept of social equity is becoming more common as a criteria for assessing public policy and determining where and how to invest public funds. This criteria is important. It can also be easily reduced to a feel good word of the day that lacks tangible standards of evaluation.
Perhaps the most over-looked evaluation standard in assessing our commitment to social equity is in terms of what public services and investments we justify cutting and where, as a result of economic downturns. A commitment to social equity requires us to rethink our very definition of “fairness.”
Cyclic booms and busts appear to be baked into the workings of the local, state and national economy. Downturns have occurred approximately every ten years since the late 80’s/early1990’s. Cuts to public services and investments always follow.
In the past decade, we have seen proposals to close a branch library in each district (didn’t happen) and an across the board reduction in library and park and rec hours. Every community has felt the pain of transit cuts in that time period. This is the cut-the- baby-in-half model of fairness that ignores the degree to which certain areas of the city are dependent upon those services and use them more than in other parts of the city.
This accepted practice sets a low bar for fairness and it does not address the matter of social equity. Budget cuts are a pretty good way of assessing our true values. And it is unrealistic to think that there will be no booms and busts between now and 2050.
Planning is invariably seen as an additive process. Budgets can be as much about reductions as about increases. City Heights’ future lies within the plans and the budgets. City Heights is where the rubber hits the road.
Update: SANDAG will hold a public meeting on the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan Update Wed Aug 21, 6-8 pm at the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center, 404 Euclid Avenue.