Isaac’s Vision for Tacos + Transit

A 5 point plan for functioning transit

Isaac Wang
Aug 26, 2019 · 9 min read

I like tacos, and I like transit.

That’s the 1st thing you should know about me.

So when I found out that San Diego ranked as having the best tacos and the worst transit, I felt a cognitive dissonance.

For years, I wanted to leave San Diego because the transit was so bad, but I kept staying for the tacos.

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But what if you like tacos and can’t get to tacos by transit? You laugh, but this is a problem faced by tens of thousands of San Diegans without cars.

At Open San Diego, we explored this very problem through a project called Tacos + Transit. We wanted to see:

#1. Can I get to a taco shop by walking + transit only?

#2. How long does it take?

With this, we created the Tacos + Transit Measure of Equity Index as a proxy measure for transportation justice.

I saw the tacos + transit problem as a metaphor for much larger problems in San Diego.

Transit is like your circulatory system. It moves and connects people, the lifeblood of any city. Our current circulatory system is focused almost entirely on cars and not mass transit. Our metaphorical person here is having blood clots everywhere and is not healthy.

Currently, if you have a car, you have an aneurysm every time you drive in SD. If you don’t have a car, it feels like blood is not moving oxygen to your brain.

There’s no point in me bashing the transit system; the survey speaks for itself. In case you needed something with a better methodology, here’s a site with WalkScore and TransitScore. We’re tied with Houston in TransitScore. I don’t ever want to be tied with Houston for anything.

Modern cities in the 21st century need a functioning transit system. An effective transit system is one that provides a connection between where people LIVE/WORK/PLAY.

Effective transit means connectivity to housing, jobs, and services to meet your basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To achieve this, we need zoning and land-use policies that encourage transit-oriented development. Land-use and transportation need to be planned together. This is common sense to people everywhere else around the world.

Because San Diego is so bad at urban planning, we have a car-centric society that leaves us with a nagging North/South divide along demographic lines. The wealthy suburban enclaves and high paying jobs are in the North, while most of the demographic future of San Diego is in the South. We all collectively sit in mind-numbing traffic, breathe awful air, drive to workplaces that filter us by education/socio-economic class, and return home to our racially segregated neighborhoods. This is largely driven by bad zoning and land-use policies coupled with systemic underinvestment in mass transit.

We can do better.

When I was in Taiwan, I saw kids take transit to school everyday. It’s normal. And I asked myself, “How do we get that? What is the minimally viable product here?”

  1. There’s a transit station near me.
  2. I can safely and quickly get there without a car.
  3. The transit system actually goes to my destination.
  4. It’s easy for me to figure out where I need to go. (Get on / Get off)
  5. It’s fast. It’s a competitive option to cars.
  6. It’s cheap for the rider. It’s financially sustainable for the city.

Just to be clear here, we’re talking about a minimally viable product (MVP), not something pie-in-the-sky. We’re trying to achieve something basic that most developed countries around the world have already achieved. We’re not sending someone to the moon or building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. We’re creating a basic transit system that gets people where they need to go in a manner that is safe, cheap, efficient, and easy. This has been done before. Many, many times, everywhere.

I created an acronym called TACOS that serves as a basic framework for how we achieve our un-ambitious goal: Create a functioning mass transit system that you’d feel comfortable letting your kids use to get to school.

T → Transit-Oriented Development

A → Active Transportation

C → Connectivity

O → Obvious (easy to use)

S → Speed

Transit-oriented development: We need to zone for mixed-use high density transit corridors. From the perspective of urban geometry, we have a finite amount of land and a rapidly growing population. We need to use land appropriately and move people efficiently. Generally speaking, it is financially impractical to build anything significant in size to serve a small amount of people living in low density. Higher density allows an area to have more people within close proximity; as a result, things like transit stations and grocery stores suddenly become much more financially feasible, because the market for these services is now much bigger. Mixed-use zoning makes this dynamic even better because it allows housing/jobs/services to exist within the same footprint. This is why in Europe and Asia, your bakery and coffee shop are commonly downstairs. This type of zoning reduces the need to take a car for short trips; whereas segregated land-uses means your residential areas are separate from your office spaces and commercial areas. As a result, you often need a car just to get from your home to your grocery store or from your work location to a lunch spot. High density mixed-use zoning along transit corridors allows many more services of all types to be within walking distance of a transit station. The end goal is to quickly get to a transit station, get off at a stop, and quickly get to your destination. Transit-Oriented Development is fundamental to this goal.

Active Transportation: Because much of America is already built to be low-density with segregated land-uses, many places feel they cannot make transit viable. People feel that it’s too difficult to get to their closest transit station, even if it’s 1 mile away. This is known as the last-mile problem. To solve this, city planners have to add more transit stations and make it much safer to get to these transit stations through some mode other than a car for this final stretch. How do we get people to walk or cycle this short stretch and feel safe while doing it? By improving street design to accommodate for multi-modal transportation. This entire field is known as active transportation. Cities that do this well don’t prioritize any form of mobility over another, and citizens feel adequate with all modes (subway, bus, cycling, walking, driving). For the MVP, let’s set the bar really low and say: “Can we at least allow every person to get to a transit station by cycling or walking without needing to cross a major highway or share the road with 3000 lb metal vehicles. I’m not asking for a new economic model or new world order here. I’m just not ready to die by cycling or walking. Right now, I live in Scripps Ranch and can’t get to my closest transit station (Mira Mesa) without crossing underneath this gigantic I-15 interchange. People don’t feel safe doing that.

We can’t just ask for people to shift behavior and take mass transit. We have to DESIGN for it.

Connectivity: For a mass transit system to be useful, it has to actually go to useful places in a timely and frequent manner as a standard of competency. These features have to be in the MVP; otherwise, people won’t use it. Using that standard, San Diego’s transit system doesn’t provide efficient connections to where people live, work, or play. Unless your universe is in downtown, our transit doesn’t functionally connect to major job centers (ex. Sorrento Valley, Kearny Mesa), major residential clusters, major attractions (SeaWorld, Zoo, beaches), major parks (ex. Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park), major hospitals, or the major airport. Most urban planners agree that a BRT (bus-rapid transit) network is the low-hanging fruit for rapidly creating functional connectivity at a low price. There’s very little infrastructure costs since it’s mostly just paint and political will. For the MVP, San Diego needs a connected network of bus-only lanes that reaches across all vital areas of the city. It can’t just be small sections in selective areas; it has to be a system.

Obvious: Is it easy to use our buses? Can someone quickly figure out which bus they need to get on? Is our user-interface for buses obvious? Is it simple to make payments? Are our route maps intuitive? Can people without a command of English figure out our transit system? UX Design can be applied to every field that provides a product or service to an end-user, and it’s important that we take a human-centered approach to mass transit.

Transit should be easy. We shouldn’t have to be transit experts.

If you look at UBER/LYFT, their user-interface is extremely easy and intuitive. With the fewest clicks possible, you can get someone to pick you up, drop you off, and pay immediately without complexity. If cities don’t think about the transit rider experience, the high learning curve will make people choose shared vehicles over mass transit.

Speed: People have to see that buses can compete with cars for time savings, but that won’t happen if buses sit in traffic with cars. Currently, the time inefficiency of buses clearly makes buses a last option. Transit has to be fast, but it’s hard to be competitive with a car due to added time from frequent stops. We have a need for speed. As a minimally viable product, the city needs mass transit that moves a lot of people without sharing in the traffic burden. We need a connected infrastructure network exclusively for mass transit. This is generally achieved with either grade-separated rail systems, light-rail with signal prioritization, or a network of bus-only lanes with prioritization at intersections. Ideally, a city should have all three work together, but the first two are often cost-prohibitive. While San Diego has a trolley and a bus system, the trolley doesn’t have enough frequency or reach, and the bus system doesn’t have an exclusive right-of-way. Getting to a network of bus-only lanes to vital areas will be the first step.

Is our MVP mass transit system financially sustainable? A common argument you hear is that the buses are empty and a huge waste money; therefore, we should spend less on transit and more on highways to cater to drivers.

This argument makes me want to throw myself in front of a moving bus.

The problem here is actually very similar to that of a buffet. If the food sucks and few people are coming, would anyone argue that the buffet should spend less on food to be financially sustainable? NO! You should improve the quality of your food and improve your marketing. In a similar vein, cities should improve the quality of their transit and improve outreach to educate people on transit. If cities have a great transit service, people will use it. Higher ridership numbers make transit systems financially sustainable. I outlined above how we design for successful mass transit, and all of that requires investment. We have to provide enough funding to reach the MVP before we can make the argument that it doesn’t work. Currently, we have not provided adequate funding to reach basic transit competency.

Let’s get TACOS!

As a minimally viable product, we are trying to create a basic functioning transit system that an average person would let their kids use to get to school. We’re not talking about subways or high speed rail or teleportation devices.

If we can’t achieve this basic un-ambitious goal, I’d argue we shouldn’t call ourselves a developed country.

Through a combination of land-use reforms, multi-modal street designs, network of bus-only lanes, and user-experience improvements, San Diego can have basic functioning transit. That’s the vision.

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