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Understanding Sustainable County Transit—A Conversation with Steven Gelb

By Aishik Saha, Climate Writer

Green Transportation

Transportation contributes nearly a quarter of American current CO2 emissions according to the International Energy Agency, a share that is growing due to increasing demand for larger and heavier vehicles and the growing e-commerce sector that requires road transportation to deliver goods. We interviewed Steven Gelb from the SanDiego350 Transportation Team to understand what can be done to bring down emissions related to transportation.

What do we mean by Green Transportation?

Steven: The term we tend to use is sustainable transportation more than green transportation. It refers to transportation that is not creating more greenhouse gasses, that is not polluting the air, and that is also focused on environmental justice. The United States and places like San Diego are very car-centric. The reason for this focus is that the government policy has been to spend a lot of money on highways. As a result, we have a poor public transportation system and then people say “well I need a car because public transportation is not so good”. Of course the reason it’s not so good is because we put all this money into cars, which is something we need to change.

In San Diego, we are trying to create policies that would help people get out of their cars and take transit, or use active transportation which refers to walking places or riding a bicycle. The big movement now is to build safer infrastructure for bicycles because the main reason people don’t ride bicycles is because of fear that it’s not safe. Since the cars are so fast and the roads are wide, they are dangerous for bicyclists. However, if we are to think about a sustainable future we would have to imagine a place where people are living in communities where they have access to their employment by transit, or by walking, or by bicycle—and where it’s not necessary to own a car.

The problem of poverty and transportation is inextricably interlinked. People who are too poor to buy a car because cars are very expensive don’t have access to many jobs because the transit system is not reliable enough to bring them to workplaces. What we need is reliable public transportation that gets people to their workplaces or medical appointments or leisurely activities without actively requiring planning.

If I already own an electric car, need I do more for sustainable transportation?

Steven: Getting rid of cars that are gasoline powered is only a part of the solution. Electric vehicles can be problematic in many regards. One is they require more carbon to produce than a gas-driven car because they require fossil fuels for the electricity to power them, and minerals for the battery that requires mining. Mining is something that often takes place in areas where indigenous people live, which involves displacing them. So it furthers the environmental injustice that we see where these big multinational corporations locate polluting facilities near indigenous people or poor people. Two, because of the weight of the batteries, they’re far heavier than conventional cars. So this extra weight means greater wear and tear on the road infrastructure and increased pollution from the tires and the brakes. The third issue in the United States is that we have seen the number of deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists increasing. Since electric vehicles are heavier, the damage is greater in the event of a collision with another vehicle or a pedestrian.

The key objective of sustainable transportation is not to get people to drive electric vehicles, but to generate fewer car trips altogether. If everyone has an electric car tomorrow instead of a gas car, it would still not be what we would consider a sustainable future because we would still be drawing power from a grid mainly powered by fossil fuels. Instead, we must be encouraging multimodal transit systems that use a combination of walking, cycling, and public transit for people to commute to and from their destinations.

That seems more inconvenient and expensive at the same time!

Steven: The problem with the United States is decades of car-centric development that has resulted in urban sprawl. That means that people build neighborhoods far away from existing development because housing prices are expensive in denser urban areas. But then a developer comes and says, you know what? I can build a development that will be cheaper because nobody lives out there so it won’t cost as much to build the house. In San Diego, we have people who live 100 miles away from the place they work because that’s the only place they can afford to buy a house. If you have a neighborhood that’s built on sprawl, you’re far away from everything you need. It seems inconvenient to use any other mode of transportation because it was planned that way to prioritize cars. On the other hand, if you build a neighborhood the way neighborhoods used to grow organically, there’s a grocery store a block away, and there is a doctor within walking distance or bicycle riding distance. But when you build these neighborhoods far, far out, maybe the person wants to go shopping for furniture and they wind up driving half an hour or 45 minutes, something like that. So it’s not a sustainable way of life.

What should our long-term and short-term goals for sustainable transportation be?

Steven: Well, for us in San Diego, the most important thing that we’re working on is to improve the rapid transit system. It’s a joke to call it rapid transit because it’s not very rapid and it lacks coverage in many places. When somebody wants to go somewhere, they’ll look on their app and frequently find that they will have to change five different buses and it will take over 2 hours to arrive at their destination. Of course, that person will then think of driving as the only option that they have. So the first thing is we have to make the buses and the trolleys cover more areas than they cover because there are a lot of neighborhoods that do not have access. Studies have found that 88% of seniors and low-income people in San Diego are more than half a mile from the nearest public transit. This distance needs to come down 

The second thing is frequency. One of the biggest drivers of transit is how often the bus comes. If it’s coming every 15 minutes or less, people can show up and not worry about it. But in San Diego, most of our buses are 30 minutes apart, and often it is one hour apart. Sometimes it’s even more than that with some buses only commuting once a day. Such frequencies are useless for people and no one uses them regularly.  So something else that we want to see is extended hours. I used to go to a meeting in one part of San Diego that would end at 8:30 p.m. and the last bus from that neighborhood to my neighborhood left at 8:20. It meant that I couldn’t take the bus, so I had to either ride my bicycle, and it was about 18 miles away, or take a car. We’ve been asking for 24 hours service on the routes that people need because we have some people who work night shifts. Their job requires them to work at night. So for them to take transit, it needs to be running 24 hours a day.

There are other improvements that we want to see in the transit system to provide more dignity and respect for the riders. Because we have some ‘stops’ which are called a stop, but it’s nothing but a patch of dirt. There’s no shade, there’s no place to sit, and there is no place to go to the bathroom. So mostly the people who take public transit are only the people who can’t afford cars. So you see homeless people and poor people on the trolley, and then the middle-class people say “well, this is not for me because only poor people use this.”

San Diego has very good weather all year round and we should be seeing people riding their bicycles nearly all year round, but instead bicycle ridership here is lower than in many other cities that have a less-than-ideal climate for bicycling. It comes down to which cities have invested how much into bicycling infrastructure. San Diego is now creating bicycle infrastructure and creating a plan that will hopefully get people where they want to go if they want to go on a bicycle.

What kind of projects is the transportation team involved with at the moment?

Steven: We are involved with several initiatives both at the city of San Diego and the county level. Our focus is to persuade the board of supervisors to not allow housing to be built in what we call the backcountry, which encourages sprawl. Another initiative that we have taken is to support the Regional Decarbonization Framework. The county commissioned a scientific report about what would be necessary for San Diego County for us to reach net zero carbon by the year 2045. Meaning that we’re removing as much carbon from the air as we’re emitting. To get there, we’d have to drastically reduce the amount of carbon we’re emitting and find some ways to reduce carbon by increasing marshland, planting trees and other things that remove carbon. This is a very ambitious plan, and it goes further than anything else that has been proposed. It also requires all of the 18 cities in San Diego County to work together and collaborate. Not only are we helping develop this plan, but we are also involved with implementation.

Something else we’re working on is the microtransit initiative. Microtransit, which is becoming very popular in the US, refers to shared vehicles pretty much like vans that might be able to carry ten or twelve people. So many transit systems are incorporating these vans in areas where there’s no good option to bring people to mass transit stations. For example, if you’re 5 miles away from the nearest transit station, microtransit could be something on a schedule or it could be on call through an app. Sanjiv Nanda, one of our members on the transportation committee, helped us draft a whitepaper about microtransit. We have been sharing that white paper with elected officials to get their support and to try and get some more pilot projects started in the San Diego area, especially in neighborhoods that are not served by public transportation and that have primarily poor people. We’re also going to do a climate chat on Zoom where we will have a panel of people speaking about microtransit. We will have Rani Narula-Woods, Operations Superintendent of Los Angeles Metro Micro, and also Jennifer Williamson, Senior Regional Planner at SANDAG.

Apart from that, we are petitioning to create a ballot measure that increases the sales tax by half a cent on the dollar, which would go toward green and sustainable transportation. On this, we’re working with many of our coalition partners. There is also an ongoing project that educates people about the problems associated with electric cars. We are not against electric cars, but it is not the silver bullet to kill climate change that it is made out to be.

How can one get involved with the Transportation Team and its initiatives?

Steven: The website has an ongoing call for volunteers you can choose to join the transportation team or any other team that has your interests. The website also provides you with resources that guide you about ways you can support our initiatives.

Microtransit is an innovative transportation solution that provides shared rides at the neighborhood level to connect people to transit and other resources. The transportation team has produced a policy paper on microtransit and is campaigning for MTS, SANDAG, and NCTD to implement and fund pilot programs in environmental justice communities. Join us on October 20 for our Climate Chat event The Future is Microtransit: A Solution for Transportation, Equity, and Environmental Justice. Our panelists will include Councilmember Jill Galvez, District 2, Northwest Chula Vista, Jennifer Williamson, Senior Regional Planner at SANDAG, Rani Narula-Woods, Founder of Metro Micro, and Sanjiv Nanda from the Transportation Team at SanDiego350.