San Diego looks to limit driving without boosting housing density

Under pressure to shrink its carbon footprint, San Diego this week rolled out proposals aimed at encouraging commuters to curb their driving — from eliminating parking spaces to getting businesses to offer incentives for employees to walk, bike and take mass transit.

The move comes as the city continues to largely avoid changes to the allowable housing density of urban neighborhoods amid controversy. Homeowners and merchants often object to what they see as too much density while environmentalists argue that taller and more tightly packed development is needed to encourage less driving.


The city's planning staff unveiled the transportation strategies Tuesday just hours before the council approved updates to the long-range community plans for North Park and Golden Hill — two neighborhoods currently projected to fall short of the city's climate-change goals for reducing car trips.

"There are many, many tools available to this council and this city to make sure that we hit the mark," Councilman Todd Gloria, whose District 3 includes the two neighborhoods, said at the meeting, expressing support for the new proposals.

Of all residents who live within a half-mile of a major transit stop, the city's Climate Action Plan calls for half to drive to work by 2035, down from about 89% today.

The zoning blueprints for North Park and Golden Hill are the first to be updated since the city approved its climate document in December. That overarching vision calls for combating global warming by slashing the city's greenhouse-gas emissions in half during the next two decades through steps such as greening up the local electrical grid, embracing federal and state clean-car programs and planting more trees.

Environmental groups and developers argue that the community-plan overhauls should dictate denser development to promote walking, biking and busing, while some residents, specifically in North Park, said future growth could ruin their neighborhoods' aesthetic character as well as worsen noise and traffic.

Nationwide, other cities are grappling with the density debate. Some, including Seattle and Portland, have spent decades considering the tradeoffs and benefits of tighter neighborhoods, while others like San Diego are intensifying their discussion because of growing attention to climate change.

"I believe we'll meet our transportation targets by 2035 by using a variety of methods that include but aren't limited to updating community plans," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in an email Tuesday. "These neighborhood blueprints are one piece of the puzzle, and they are one of many things we'll be doing to meet the main objective of improving air quality and the environment by reducing greenhouse gases."

These additional strategies call for encouraging businesses to explore ways to encourage workers to take alternative modes of transportation, including charging employees for parking or paying people to forgo driving.

In its memo, the city's planning department also proposed removing on-street parking spaces to beef up bike lanes. The memo states that such a move may become more politically palatable as commercial fleets of self-driving cars reduce consumers' need to have their own cars — thus reducing overall demand for parking.

Bruce Appleyard, a professor of city planning and urban design at San Diego State University, said cities need to try a wide variety of ways to get commuters out of their cars and into buses, trolleys, vanpools and the like. That includes at least a moderate amount of housing density coupled with greater investments in transit, as well as measures to dissuade residents from driving, he said.

"Parking strategies can be hugely effective at encouraging people to take [transportation] modes that are the most appropriate for their travel needs," he said. "One of the things that we've found is that parking has been hugely subsidized, and it's a huge determinative of your mode choice."

Joshua Emerson Smith writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune