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  • Writer's pictureMarc Segal

From The San Diego River Park To The River Line

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Case Study Analysis From Successful Projects Such As The Atlanta Beltline Which Have Transformed Entire Cities

The San Diego River Park will unify the city, linking neighborhoods and some of the best parks in the country. Could it become a model example of canyon greenspace reclamation and park connectivity? Could novel but growing concepts such as trail-oriented development or aerial transport (Master Plan p.52) take hold and help to decrease traffic in a growing city?

Truthfully it will not be an easy feat, because unlike some other unifying city-wide initiatives such as the Atlanta Beltline, which encourages active transportation, the San Diego River Park has numerous land owners. Current Mission Valley planning documents call for development to be oriented towards the river but there are a number of developments already in place that have no site engagement.  This leads to the trail connectivity issues.

The solution? Simple, provide comparable amenities for cyclists on parallel arterial roads, serving these connections to the existing river park segments.  

It’s so simple of a solution that it hasn’t quite taken off.  City-street connectivity will extend the livability and extend the influence of the river, giving San Diegans the ability to move carbon-free. Major opportunities lie ahead with regards to specific large redevelopment tracts that could reshape entire areas of San Diego. The outdated SDSU stadium (60+ acres)  and Pechanga arena (48 acres of developable land) are due for major renovations in the near term and can help to increase engagement towards the river.  There are already active non-profits, such as the River Park Foundation, which has made enormous strides through community education and parcel acquisition helping to return the river to its natural state. Would the regional presence of a connected trail system throughout the city accelerate long range river park goals and help improve parallel walking and cycling facilities to increase engagement along the river corridor?   

Active Transportation and Placemaking Benefit Land-Owners and Cities Alike

Places like Balboa Park and Central Park have attracted tourists and city dwellers for hundreds of years.  The areas around these communal green spaces are often highly sought after.  In fact, if your home has an above average livability and walkability score, your home may be valued on average $34,000 more (Urban Land Institute citing a 2009 study by CEOs for cities). Previous studies looking at property value adjacent to the Katy Trail in Dallas echo the same sentiments (Urban Land Institute). Investments in active transportation infrastructure should be encouraged not only by the people who utilize them but land-owners and people who wish to see cost-effective solutions for reductions our traffic.

How can we provide cost effective solutions to reduce traffic?

Facilities for bikes and pedestrians is a cost-effective solution for enabling the movement of a region.  Trail facilities in Dallas (Katy Trail - $5.9 million per mile) and Indianapolis (Cultural Trail - $7.9 million per mile) are significantly cheaper than light rail (ballparked at $100 million per mile) and still provide development and increase land value. In addition, store owners may prefer to see cyclists passing their store windows, as they end up spending more per month.

So these active transport projects benefit our communities overall health, create safer spaces for cyclists and pedestrians, are cost-effective and provide a return on investment, but they still have to get funded….

But How Do These Projects Even Happen?

Major donors and gifts from railroads have typically been the catalyst to get these types of projects completed.  A master thesis from Ryan Gravel sparked the creation of the Atlanta Beltline and many other trail projects occur from the people who use current or parallel facilities and see potential for future works.  Thanks to complete street initiatives and changes from the federal government, funding and innovative financing sources are available from the federal government as well as other grant sources (railstotrails).  

Transit fare increases is one financing mechanism the City of London used to develop its cycle superhighway network. Land acquisition can be pretty expensive, especially in the case of for southside section of the Beltline trail. Funding from the City of Atlanta, public/private partnerships, the Atlanta Beltline tax allocation district as well as grants from all levels of government, enabled 4.6 constructed miles of the total 22-mile Beltline project, which is set to be complete in 2030 (Beltline). In the greater Philadelphia region, the Circuit Trails concept was formed in 2012 (Circuit Trails).  The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission provides planning and financial assistance for trail developers, counties and municipalities.  Community health advocates are often big donors, and the William Penn Foundation’s 6.6 million dollars of additional investments in 2017 will help to eventually connect 800 miles worth of active transportation facilities (Circuit Trails).

Closing the Funding Gap and Completing Our Streets

How can our local infrastructure projects help to close these gaps and give us the active transportation facilities we so sorely need?  Ambitious projects such as the largest trail system in the US and connecting forty-seven cities in the Bay Area require coordination locally and the disbursement and accrual of funds. Our surface streets can help provide connectivity of trails and quickly integrate trail pieces as larger funding becomes available for right-of-way acquisition.  

WIth the mass exodus of urban areas to suburbia and with the momentum of completing the interstate highway system in the 50s, funding for other modes apart from the automobile were scarce.  In 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which finally began to set aside funds for the construction of bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Then came the complete streets initiatives, beginning in 2004 and have grown since then, which helped to decrease the funding gap for protecting and providing facilities for humans and for humans on bikes (for an in-depth view on the subject, read this). Historically, funding for active transportation has been a fraction of the total percent trips (as seen in the visual above). As we see more cities with complete streets policies and increases in cycle infrastructure, we see a direct correlation in usage increases, holding true to the phrase, “if you build it, people will come”

What Happens When A Region Plans A Comprehensive Cycle Network

So what would happen if a whole region fully embraced the bicycle?  This region went all in on their complete streets policies, had an advocacy group help start a regional trail system, and cycling became a more significant share of the overall person-trips in the city? In the US, most of our regional trail and cycle routes are not as built out as our friends in Europe. Let's take a look at Copenhagen, who’s investment into 300+ miles of cycle superhighways has helped reach their target goal of 30% increase in bike commuting.  

This cycle infrastructure makes a lot of economic sense to the Danish government. The City of Copenhagen found in 2010 that a constructed bike facility EARNS the country .18 USD for every kilometer travelled while every kilometer travelled by car costs the nation .10 USD (Urban Land Institute). These benefits can be gleaned from improved air pollution, less long-term health issues for a more active population and fewer road fatalities. With bicycle commuting percentages comprising 62% or more in Copenhagen it is proof that more infrastructure leads to a change in commuting methods (City Observatory). 

Cycle infrastructure and bike-friendly cities also boosts the tourism economy.  Bike tourism in Wisconsin has been estimated to bring $1.5 billion annually to the state’s economy (Urban Land Institute). It is important to note that while skiing and golf are attractions for tourists, more people participate in cycling activities and can help to bring in more tourists.  The construction of bike paths in Hilton Head, South Carolina has increased bike rentals across the island and other tourism focused communities such as the Outer Banks saw an annual return nine-times higher than the initial capital investment (Adventure cycling).

Back to our case in SD ...With a regional focus on cycle infrastructure, smaller beach towns like Oceanside and Carlsbad may benefit from the added tourism and serve as a vital active transportation connection for recreational and commuting needs.  Adding a more regional focus will provide more resources for important connection pieces such as the San Diego River Park and will engage city officials from Chula Vista and National City to contribute to this plan and see a return on their investment.  If the potential ridership matches the eastside of the Beltline (3,000 per weekday and 10k per weekend day), this can drastically reduce trips on road corridors along the river path and help keep San Diego within the greenhouse gas emission goals. 

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