San Diego County politicians love to lament the lack of affordable housing. The housing crisis has become an excuse to rubber-stamp sprawl-style mega-developments far from jobs and cities. The best way to meet the growing demand for housing is to build complete, interconnected transit, bike, and walk systems that support housing in urban centers.
What does this have to do with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG)? SANDAG oversees, among other things, transportation planning for all of San Diego County. The agency brazenly ignores state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, committing repeatedly to expand freeways over investing in reliable transit that would make our cities work for everyone.
We need a radical change in approach, a true commitment to constructing infill housing. But for this effort to succeed, this housing will need to be served by complete transit, bike, and walk systems.
Most developers prefer to build single-family homes on rezoned farmland because their main priority is making money. But it’s not the job of our elected officials to please developers. Government should be laser-focused on making housing more affordable.
SANDAG recently started the process of putting together its next Regional Transportation Plan. The plan will be a roadmap for the future of transportation throughout the county. State law pushes SANDAG to plan for a housing/transportation mix that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and incentivizes people to walk, bike, and embrace public transit.
Will our “leaders” once again delude themselves into believing that wider freeways and sprawling roadways will improve quality of life and drive down housing costs?
The first signs are not encouraging. SANDAG considered three concept alternatives at its latest meeting, broad sketches of how the transit/housing balance might be addressed in the coming years. None of the scenarios prioritized improving transit in a systematic way that would demonstrate its effects on housing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To make an educated choice about how to proceed, we need to see that model.
Someone should tell SANDAG that our region will continue to be plagued by long commutes, degraded natural areas, and sky-high housing costs until the agency is willing to try something new.
Oh wait – someone has. The state courts have repeatedly told San Diego County and SANDAG that they need to take a second look at regional plans and far-flung housing developments that induce sprawl. A recent appellate court decision found the County’s plan for managing emissions was inadequate. Indeed, the courts have consistently concluded that our county government and regional planning agency are stuck in the 1950scar culture when they should be looking forward to 2050.
What’s so significant about 2050? That’s the year our state has targeted for reducing emissions by 80% below 1990 levels. Many California communities are making tremendous progress toward this goal at least in part by investing in transit. But SANDAG keeps looking for ways to get out of its obligation to be part of the climate solution, even as extended drought and ferocious wildfires plague our region.
For example, a planned expansion of San Diego International Airport includes plans for a bigger parking lot. Instead of envisioning a modern future where travelers could take state-of-the-art Coaster and Sprinter rail lines to a downtown intermodal transit center, our regional agencies continue to plan for a car-centric future.
How hard would it be for SANDAG to take a realistic look at making San Diego a more livable place? Is it possible more of us would take transit if we knew it would be reliable and less expensive than driving? Could we finally tackle our affordable housing crisis if we stop approving sprawl developments and get serious about promoting infill? We’ll never know unless we try.
Duncan McFetridge is director and Keari Platt is a member of the board of directors of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the lead organization in a landmark climate change lawsuit against SANDAG.