San Diego's Five Big Moves: A Golden Opportunity

In the coming months, ClimatePlan will be spotlighting work led by our partner organizations in our five priority regions: Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California, and San Diego. Regional partners will share their challenges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the inertia of car-centric infrastructure, environmental justice, conservation, and housing. Through shared stories, we believe our partners will connect and learn different strategies and tools to face the challenges in their communities. Our first regional blog focuses on San Diego, where advocates are facing challenges to shift spending away from highways and roads.

San Diego County is on the precipice of a transportation revolution. After spending years embroiled in controversy, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) seems to be ditching their perennial philosophy of endless freeway expansion for a holistic, green, and more equitable public transportation system that would set the bar high for California and beyond.

One glance at San Diego’s vast, sprawling freeway network makes it clear that San Diego County faces the same challenge as other counties in California: it has a long history of being designed for cars, not people. Part of the reason San Diego has continued such regressive transportation policies for decades is the make-up and voting structure of the SANDAG Board of Directors. In the past, small cities (which were planned almost exclusively for cars)  had a vote equal to larger cities, which tend to offer more transportation choices, including transit. For example, Del Mar’s vote was equal to one of San Diego’s two votes, meaning that the people of Del Mar were essentially represented in SANDAG decision-making at over 160 times the rate of San Diego residents.

Why Such Big Change?  

Recent legislation replaced this unbalanced structure with a weighted vote proportionate to population. These weighted votes have made the SANDAG voting structure much more democratic.

SANDAG’s Executive Director position has been filled by the forward-thinking Hasan Ikhrata, the former Executive Director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG).  Recently Ikhrata broke from the auto-centric planning of the past and centered on moving people, not just cars, when he announced the region would not be able to reach SB 375 greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets unless the region’s transportation philosophy underwent significant change. 

Journalists and advocates played a significant role to advance these changes. Quality investigative journalism at the Voice of San Diego exposed a scandal that rocked SANDAG leadership in 2017. The year prior saw the defeat of a freeway expansion at the polls, thanks to fierce opposition from a broad base of advocates, including the Quality of Life Coalition (a coalition of dozens of environmental, environmental justice, and labor organizations).  

Where we’re at now: Five Big Moves

With new leadership at the helm, SANDAG stated they would need to delay the 2019 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) until 2021 to meet the state’s climate goals. Now SANDAG has unveiled their “vision” for the new RTP/SCS, called the Five Big Moves. These “five big moves” are guiding principles pointing the way toward a greener and more forward-thinking RTP/SCS that will emphasize:

  • fast and frequent transit, 
  • investment in new technologies, 
  • and rethinking our regional transportation corridors and hubs. 

While at this point we only have a broad understanding of what the 2021 RTP might look like, this plan offers real hope that reducing greenhouse gas emissions while supporting equity is getting traction. Conventional wisdom held for years that making waves at SANDAG would be impossible. But, through strong, effective, and targeted collaboration at the Quality of Life Coalition and among our allies, we’ve seen not only waves but promises of a tsunami.

SANDAG's RTP/SCS update process timeline. Source: SANDAG

However, since the Five Big Moves is more a skeleton of an RTP than a fully-fleshed RTP, many questions still need to be answered. Primarily, what is the San Diego region going to do in the near-term to center equity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution? Communities of color and low-wage workers need immediate changes to a broken transportation system that has long prioritized moving cars above all else. And when it comes to fighting the climate crisis, what we do within the next ten to twelve years is probably more important than what we plan to do thirty years from now. While the Five Big Moves are in many ways forward-thinking and commendable, we need to ensure infrastructure and operations for bus travel, biking, and walking are prioritized and funded as soon as possible. If SANDAG can solve these problems in the near-term as well as the long-term, the San Diego region can have a transportation system that is not only one of the best in the world eventually, but addresses the needs of the region and its most vulnerable populations when they most need it—now.

Kyle-Rentschler-BW_235x300-235x300.jpg Kyle Rentschler is the Conservation Organizer at Sierra Club San Diego Chapter. He also facilitates the Quality of Life Coalition, an alliance of environmental, social justice, and labor organizations that work together on a wide array of local equity and environmental issues related to climate change, transportation, housing, water, and wildlife


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