Opinion: Freeway or free way



North Coastal columnist

The proposed widening of Interstate 5 has triggered renewed discussion of how to expand the use of public transportation so as to reduce the need for ever-more freeway lanes.

Such discussion often revolves around three variables – convenience, frequency, and cost. More people would use public transit (1) if transit stops were nearer to people’s homes and workplaces, (2) if buses and trains ran more frequently, and (3) if fares for public transit were lowered. Also, it would be nice if you could take a bus or a train to the airport.

Providing more routes, more stops, and more frequent buses, however desirable, is enormously expensive. And governments are broke. And we are unsure if we would ever recoup the public investment in more stations, stops, drivers, and rolling stock. So let’s consider the third variable, lowering the cost of transit use.

Since 2002 Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has enjoyed free public transit on all fixed-route bus service and EZ-Rider service for the elderly and disabled.

The University of North Carolina, faced with the enormous cost of building and maintaining parking lots and parking structures, formed a partnership with the cities of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to provide free bus service. The buses are fare-free for all area residents and visitors, not only for the 40,000 UNC students, faculty, and staff. Ridership has more than doubled in the nine years since the fare-free policy was adopted.

What if UCSD, SDSU, the VA Hospital, the Navy, and the Marines formed a consortium to subsidize free public transit for San Diego County?

What if they were joined by large private-sector employers such as Qualcomm, Sempra, Solar, General Dynamics, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Callaway Golf, SeaWorld, Cox Communications, Wells Fargo, Jack in the Box, NASSCO, SAIC, AT&T, BAE, SBC, UPS, XYZ, ETC? You know who you are.

Other partners might include city, county, state, and federal governments, colleges and universities, community colleges, school districts, the Postal Service, the zoo, the big hospitals, the Indian casinos, the major shopping centers, Hotel Del Coronado, and the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Collectively, these entities employ or serve hundreds of thousands of people every day – most driving solo to their destinations. Collectively, these entities spend untold millions of dollars every year on parking facilities and services.

If buses and trains were fare-free, many more people would ride them. And traffic, congestion, pollution, and new freeway construction would be reduced.

Gordon Clanton teaches sociology at San Diego State University. He welcomes comments at gclanton@mail.sdsu.edu