From Portland’s TriMet to Atlanta’s MARTA
By Hutton Marshall / SanDiego350.org
Not all public transportation systems are created equal. Across the country, there’s a huge gulf between bumper-to-bumper black holes like Los Angeles versus cities like the subway-happy New York City, which boasts 660 miles of rail transit.
Many of the cities we now see as pinnacles of functional transit became that way out of utility. New Yorkers, for example, have come to see their expansive subway system as a way to escape fierce blizzards and even fiercer rush hours.
Today, however, many cities have come to see public transit as an important tool in growing in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner. The 2015 and 2016 climate change reports increased the importance of efficient transit.
Thankfully, there are several shining examples of what local and state governments can accomplish when they wisely invest. Perhaps no region is better served by public transportation than Portland, Oregon, through its TriMet system. This kind of planning is essential to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The size of the TriMet system (short for the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon) and number of people who ride it are small in comparison to large U.S. cities, but its impressively comprehensive system, continually modernizing technology, and its integration with active transportation make it a model for similarly sized cities (hint, San Diego).
TriMet fills downtown Portland with public transit options, but it also spreads out wide into the surrounding suburbs and cities, and its trolley system runs parallel to many of the region’s busiest highways, pushing the incentive for commuters to abandon their cars. Plus, TriMet is well integrated with Portland’s reputably amazing system of bike paths and walking trails, making the city a full-scale example of low-emission transportation.
TriMet isn’t a perfect system. Indeed, the scale doesn’t come without considerable cost which, in recent years, has overwhelmed TriMet’s budget. An Oregon Secretary of State report found that TriMet had more than $1 billion in unfunded financial obligations in the wake of the recession. To put this in context, TriMet has a 2017 budget of $511 million, and notes “Generally, the Forecast for the periods covered projects a relatively positive financial future for TriMet.”
A 2014 “telephone survey of 1,000 residents” showed TriMet’s “MAX [light rail] approval was 84 percent” and “Bus approval was 78 percent.” By contrast, in San Diego no MAX exists, and the most recent data easily available online showed “The professed satisfaction of transit [ . . . as ] 60 percent in 2009.”
San Diegans should take note of what a transit system like Portland’s can accomplish, and just as importantly, what such a system costs. Residents throughout the San Diego region have a chance to begin realizing both facets of improving our public transportation—ambitious planning and proper funding—through SANDAG’s proposed increase to the TransNet tax increase, which the region’s voters will approve or reject on the November ballot (assuming SANDAG formally decides to pursue the ballot measure on April 8).
To maximize the potential of a favorable TransNet plan, environmental, labor and other progressive voices in San Diego (SanDiego350 included) have formed the Quality of Life Coalition, advocating for the TransNet revenue to be spent in an environmentally friendly way that protects the region’s most vulnerable communities. That means revitalizing and growing our public transit system.
On the other hand, if we’re not careful, rather than a transit system like Portland’s, we could end up with one that more closely resembles the notorious MARTA system in Atlanta. According to the August 1, 2012, Atlanta magazine article “Where It All Went Wrong,” exclusionary transit mapping has led to suburban decay and worse, transit service deficiencies drawn along racial lines.
Public transportation isn’t something the region should delay for the next generation. The more we build out with roads, the more expensive and burdensome it becomes to weave transit routes within the urban sprawl.
In the wake of white flight, many Atlanta suburbs negatively viewed light rail development as a force that would connect the suburbs to the downtown cities they were trying to escape. Because of these unfortunate attitudes and compromised planning efforts, Atlanta’s transit system is struggling.
Of course, San Diego County doesn’t have the entrenched racial tension that Georgia did in the 1970s, and no one accuses those opposed to public transit in San Diego as being motivated by racial prejudices, but the lesson to take from Atlanta is that we should see public transit as something to create a united, interconnected region, as a force to prevent the isolating urban sprawl seen in areas like Atlanta where poor transit planning caused the “suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation” also noted in that August 1, 2012, Atlanta magazine article.
Public transportation isn’t something the region should delay for the next generation. The more we build out with roads, the more expensive and burdensome it becomes to weave transit routes within the urban sprawl. According to SANDAG, sixty-nine percent of San Diego County residents work outside the region where they reside. It’s time to give them a practical alternative to Interstate-8 during rush hour.
SANDAG planners have already stated that if this TransNet increase isn’t passed—barring the introduction of another funding source—forthcoming transit projects will be left without funding. And that’s just to accomplish the bare minimum.
San Diegans deserve a TransNet increase that will allow the region to set a course toward a truly ambitious public transit expansion. Looking at Portland and Atlanta, the choice is clear. Which city our transit system will resemble two decades from now depends on decisions we make today.
Hutton Marshall is a journalist and a volunteer with SanDiego350. He studied at San Diego State University, where he served as managing editor of The Daily Aztec, SDSU’s student newspaper. After graduation, he edited and reported for multiple local publications in San Diego, including San Diego Uptown News. He is an incoming student at the University of Virginia School of Law.
John Lawrence says
What you said about Portland’s mass transit following the major freeways struck a nerve. Sandag needs to build transit lines following I5 and I15 north to Oceanside and Escondido respectively and I8 east to Alpine. That would certainly be suggestive for people who want to get out of their cars and still reach their destinations. Feeder bus lines to the transit stations would help get cars off the road. Parking lots where people could leave their cars while accessing transit are a must. Some of this infrastructure already exists. Incentives are needed to get more people out of their cars.
Lance Johnson says
Most people take the 5 ,8, 15 , and/or 805 freeways to get to work. So having transit options around these areas are crucial to get people out of their cars and choose transit. Currently the Coaster hugs the 5 freeway which is great. The green line trolley hugs the 8 freeway which is good. Sandag is planning construction on the blue line to cover the 805 freeway which is terrible overdue. Now they just need a line to cover the 15 from Escondido to downtown . Based on the geography of the land, whatever train that is installed will be tricky because of Lake Hodges in South Escondido.
Doug Porter says
I vacationed in Portland last year and loved their transit system. It was easy to use, easy to buy fare cards, and it actually went places I needed to go.
What a novel idea – studying existing systems to see how we can make our transit system better. We know we can have a more effective, accessible transit system…. and we need it to advance equal access to jobs and bring down carbon emissions. Why isn’t SANDAG making it happen???
Ironically, Portland studied OUR “Tijuana Trolley” when they were planning their light rail system! Of course, that was 35 years ago, a millennium in political terms.
Also, Consumers Union just released a study showing “California households are likely to save up to $1,530 each year by 2030 from clean transportation policies” http://consumersunion.org/news/report-california-clean_transportation-policies-provide-net-savings-for-consumers/
“Of course, San Diego County doesn’t have the entrenched racial tension that Georgia did in the 1970s, and no one accuses those opposed to public transit in San Diego as being motivated by racial prejudices….”
Well, me. I accuse some opposed to transit in San Diego of racism.
SANDAG’s modeling limits funding for transit, because it presumes only “LIMs” – low income minorities – use the existing transit. It might not be as blatant as Atlanta’s, but it exists here, too.
I’d love to see San Diego develop a world class transit system. I picture how cool it would be be able to take transit from where I live in La Mesa to Little Italy for instance for drinks/dinner without it being a major hassle. I think I’d get a lot more out of living in San Diego County if we had a good transit system that was connected to walking/bicycling infrastructure. It’d be a win/win for residents, enabling us to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time reaping the health benefits of a less sedentary lifestyle. I hope SANDAG will deliver San Diego a world class transit system soon!
Jack Shu says
What is left out of this article is the point that $40+ billion in our current regional transportation plan is slated to expand our roads and freeways. In figures unchallenged by SANDAG, we need to reduce our overall number of vehicles miles driven in the region by 15% overall and 35% per capita if we are to reach our goal of 80% reduction of GHG emissions by 2050. So why don’t we spend that $40 billion on an effective transit system rather than on freeways we don’t need? Until we fix the allocation of funding, we for sure should not be considering a regressive sales tax which further burden lower income communities, taxing them for roads they can not use.