Replay 5/11/08: San Diego/Oakland Reflections: Sprawl, Transit & Walkability

5 Sep

I spent last weekend in San Diego, and as usual when I travel, I couldn’t help myself from comparing the city to Oakland. It’s been a couple years since I’ve visited San Diego, and I realized that though I’ve been there at least a dozen times, I’ve never spent even 24 hours there in one visit and I’ve never really gotten to know the city.

When remembering San Diego, I often thought of the one factor that’s true in the southern California cities I know better – sprawl. And this part I remembered correctly. San Diego is incredibly spread out, and it seemed difficult to get between most neighborhoods without a car. Oakland’s not the most compact city, but I feel like it’s fairly easy here to get from almost any neighborhood to the next, as long as you’re willing to hop on the bus or BART and maybe even transfer to another bus.

And just as I had remembered, it did seem as if pretty much everyone in San Diego had a car. Parking was sometimes difficult in popular neighborhoods – not San Francisco difficult, but certainly more competitive than most parts of Oakland.

But there were a couple things about San Diego that surprised me. Though much of the city was difficult (or at least very time consuming) to navigate by public transit, there is a trolley system that covers the downtown area and a few of the surrounding areas. So if you live in one of these areas, it does seem like you wouldn’t need to use a car very much. Considering that we’re having trouble even implementing bus rapid transit in Oakland, I’m a bit jealous that central San Diego is way ahead of us with rail.

Also, many San Diegans commute to Los Angeles, and unless they like sitting in traffic for 3 or 4 hours, many of them use the Metrolink train, much as some Oaklanders commute by Amtrak to Sacramento. So though there’s still tons of driving that’s symptomatic of southern California sprawl, I learned that there are alternatives to driving in San Diego that are fairly widely used.

Another thing that surprised me was the walkability of individual neighborhoods. Though it’s mostly inconvenient to walk between neighborhoods, there are several neighborhoods in San Diego where it’s possible to walk to just about everything (markets, shopping, parks or the beach, restaurants, bars, etc.). In fact, my friend’s apartment in Ocean Beach has the same walk score as my apartment in Oakland (88). On Sunday, we went to a friend’s house that is in between neighborhoods (near Hillcrest) and I was a bit shocked when we did not get back into the car and instead walked a few blocks to a restaurant (her house’s walk score is 89). It really seemed to me that it was just as easy to find a walkable neighborhood in San Diego as it is to find one in Oakland. This surprised me because I always had assumed that San Diego was much like LA in that respect, and though there are a few walkable neighborhoods in LA, it’s usually not so easy to find a walkable neighborhood that’s affordable to live in.

It was nice to clear up some of my misconceptions and to find out that San Diego isn’t quite as car-centric as I had assumed. But don’t worry, I’m not planning to move to San Diego anytime soon. I still think it’s a whole lot easier to be carless in Oakland than it is to be carless in San Diego.

One Response to “Replay 5/11/08: San Diego/Oakland Reflections: Sprawl, Transit & Walkability”

  1. Cats September 6, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    I think your observations about San Diego are very right. I lived in San Diego for a few years before moving up to the Bay, and I often find SD gets rather incorrectly portrayed as an extension of LA. But your comparison with Oakland seems a bit misguided: those few walkable neighborhoods in central and coastal San Diego are the only walkable places in a giant, sprawling urban area — while the walkable neighborhoods of Oakland are only a small portion of the huge number of walkable places in urban Bay Area. Also, the SD Trolley is largely a commuter service that goes to the burbs and to the border (which is pretty cool) — but given its tiny coverage the comparison to BART is more apt than to bus rapid transit; and BART is far, far better than the trolley in both coverage and speed (the Trolley doesn’t go to UCSD, the airport, the beach, or Balboa Park — this makes it less than useful). San Diego might be comparable to Oakland-without-bay-area, but since this is Oakland-with-bay-area we’re dealing with here, I think Oakland is a far better place to be (in fact, that’s why I am here).

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