Hey North County: SANDAG Is Fooling You

Ever since Measure A failed last month, the common narrative is that San Diego is divided on the issue of transportation infrastructure: the urban core wants public transit and bike lanes and the more suburban North and East County want freeways.  As Ron Roberts put it:

The public debate over Measure A highlighted a deep division in the San Diego region over what modes of transportation would best serve everyone’s needs and meet environmental goals. . . . On one side are people who believe that all freeway investments are bad, and that instead the focus should be solely on expanding bike lanes, rail lines and bus routes. At the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that more investments must be made to repair and improve our freeways and local roads and less should be spent on public transit. 

It's a good story.  The underlying premise is that each region wants new infrastructure to help them get around the county and, in the most basic sense, get them home from work earlier.  As one politician put it in an op-ed claiming to speak for the suburbs, "Voters desire highway and road improvements that reduce their commute time and improve quality of life. Voters want to spend time with their families instead of in traffic."  

On its face, the demand for new freeways to ease commutes makes perfect sense.  The problem, however, is that it is premised on a known falsity that SANDAG doesn't want the suburbs to figure out.  The simple, undisputed fact is that new freeways will not result in shorter commutes.  Instead, freeway expansion will only cause more demand for housing in the suburbs.

The funny thing is that SANDAG itself has repeatedly, if somewhat quietly, admitted this is true.  Despite labeling Measure A as a "traffic relief" plan, SANDAG admits it will not materially affect commute times.  Usually, SANDAG buries this admission in their environmental review documents, like on page 26 of this document.  In SANDAG's jargon, they admit that "new arterial lanes, managed lanes, toll lanes, and general purpose freeway and highway lanes within the proposed Plan are the most likely to induce vehicular travel in the region."  Put into plain language, "inducing vehicular travel" means that if we add freeway lanes, the result will not be less traffic, but instead more cars sitting in the same amount of traffic.  You won't be getting home any sooner, but you'll have more friends sitting next to you that are also miserable.

So adding freeway lanes will not benefit current residents or shorten commutes because adding lanes will only mean more cars on the road.  And this is where it gets interesting for suburbanites.  Why will there be more cars on the road?  This sounds obvious, but it's an often overlooked point: more cars are the result of more people.  And those new people need new houses to live in.  Although those added lanes will not shorten commutes, they will allow more people to live in your community and have the same commute as you. 

 When you think of San Diego's history, this makes perfect sense.  Before the interstate freeways were built, towns like Encinitas and El Cajon were sleepy little communities.  As the interstates were built, the cookie-cutter suburbs exploded as people could now live far from job centers and commute in.  As new lanes were added, more and more people could take the freeways and more and more people moved to the suburbs.

If we add even more lanes to the freeways, there is only going to be more demand for housing in your city.  Sure, you can try and limit zoning for new housing, but the developers are going to sue you.  When demand is so high, developers can afford the lawsuits. 

But if we all oppose new freeways, the traffic on the freeways will stay the same, but there won't be more room for more cars.  The result?  Demand for new housing will drop.  A young couple that works downtown will realize that living in Carlsbad may not work for them and they will instead look in North Park.  As demand drops, the lawsuits will fade away. 

The opposite point is also true: if new public transportation is built in the urban core, demand for housing in the urban core will also increase.  The result?  New houses are built in Hillcrest, not Encinitas.  If you live in Encinitas and do not want to see more housing, it is in your best interest to support public transportation in the urban core of San Diego. 

SANDAG doesn't want you to figure this out.  With its "United Nations" approach to planning where every city is given an generally equal voice, it developed a "Regional Housing Needs Assessment Plan" that spreads new housing growth around the entire county.   When any region can veto SANDAG's actions, it needs to both share the "wealth" and spread the "pain" to every corner of the county.  This only succeeds if SANDAG can plan for new growth in the suburbs and spend billions of freeways to allow for that growth.  If the freeways don't happen, the growth in housing will slow, requiring more housing in the urban areas.  

For the past half century, planning in San Diego County has resulted in huge growth in the suburbs aided by freeway expansion.  But things have changed.  The suburbs don't want to keep growing and the urban core wants more density.  The only way to achieve this result is to stop new freeways and build new transit, but SANDAG is planning to do the opposite.  The only people that benefit from new freeways are SANDAG planners that don't want to adapt to a new world and the unions and construction companies that benefit from endless construction of more freeway lanes funded by your tax dollars.  If the suburbs and the urban cities can work together, they can ensure that San Diego will see a new way of growing.  As long as they are diametrically opposed, however, nearly no one wins.  Except SANDAG.