The New York City subway moves an average of 5.7 million people per week and 1.763 billion annually. Compare that to San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) trolley, which generates almost 41 million annual passenger trips -- that's more than 123,000 people every day of the week.
San Diego’s light rail system doesn’t hold a candle to New York’s subway, that much is clear. But on the other hand, San Diego outperforms 33 other cities’ light rail systems, ranking fourth in the nation behind only Boston, LA, and San Francisco (MUNI Metro, not the BART) in ridership.
In other words, San Diego's light rail system isn't the best in the world, but our four lines, 53 stations, and 54.3 miles of track certainly isn't the worst either. For frame of reference, New York’s subway has 469 stations with 660.75 miles of track, and people take it everywhere.
San Diegans, unlike New Yorkers, hardly take the trolley everywhere. In fact, the data shows that we use it to go to a few very specific places: 41% of trips are work-related, occurring between 6am and 6pm. Of all the 123,300 trips per day, only a combined 26% are for leisure, shopping, or dining. With all that's going on in San Diego, you can't help but wonder why people don’t take the trolley other than commuting to work.
Ask any local why and they’re bound to give you a theory based on personal experience. For the most part, all of their voices are united in painting a picture of where the MTS falls short -- hence why they wouldn’t use it for recreation.
“San Diego is a driver’s city, and it’s easy to get around between neighborhoods in a car. You can get pretty much anywhere in 20 minutes,” says Katie Buxton, a former San Diegan currently living in San Francisco.
Buxton has the ability to leverage her perspective of the San Diego Trolley against the widely used BART heavy rail system. But BART’s popularity isn’t solely determined by San Francisco’s car culture. That logic holds up for San Diego: we’re definitely big on cars, but that isn’t the only thing affecting the perception of the trolley.
“It doesn’t hit a lot of areas where people live. For example, you can't really take it to or from North County,” says Ian Harper, a local who grew up in North County and then moved closer to Downtown.
Closer to home than North County, the trolley does miss some crucial areas of the city. Father Joe’s Villages employee Mike O’Malley, a man embedded in the cultural makeup of Downtown San Diego on a daily basis, elaborates.
“People absolutely use the trolley to commute for work, but there's no trolley access for amenities like the beach or airport,” says O’Malley. “Pair that with the fact that highways will take you further and I usually forget it’s even a viable means of transportation. Uber and Lyft tend to meet all my needs.”
Ridesharing apps are a quick, easy alternative to using the trolley, especially given that coordinating nighttime trolley rides is challenging. Most bars and clubs in San Diego close at 2am, but the last trolley home is around midnight. Missing the trolley means you’ll be forced to ride with Uber or Lyft -- no escaping their bloated surge prices. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation, and some locals would rather just not deal with it at all.
“I would take the trolley from my home in Chula Vista to go Downtown and party on the weekends if it ran later,” says Thomas Stonehouse, a lifetime San Diego resident. “But if I miss that last train home, I’m kind of screwed and have to pay those Uber fees.”
Still, there are others who express confidence in the system. Take Erin Kraft, a woman who’s lived and worked in the city for almost a decade. She’ll be the first to admit that while she’s never used the trolley, it’s nonetheless a cornerstone of San Diego’s identity.
“True, it could be better,” says Kraft. “But at the end of the day, it’s a really solid system in theory, one that’s embedded as part of the community culture.”
What Kraft is getting at is how the trolley holds major significance for the city writ large on cultural and economic levels. It’s a sentiment echoed by lifelong San Diegan Mallory Albrecht.
“There’s always been a stigma that the better neighborhoods in San Diego aren’t accessible by trolley. That’s misguided,” says Albrecht. “There are places near trolley stops that have been completely revitalized by its presence and reach.”
Case in point: the 2016 MTS Community Impact Report shows that home values perform 17% better when located near an MTS trolley station. When home values go up, the entire neighborhood gets better, and then new places start opening up: a rising tide lifts all boats.
In that light, the trolley is literally a way for San Diegans to support the various parts of their city. Perhaps the reason most people choose to cling to the trolley for work-related travel is because they’re not fully aware of all that it reaches.
It makes sense how people might only see it as a line between two fixed points. But focus on the trolley’s potential, and you’ll realize that everything people love about this city is readily accessible -- beaches, state parks, sunshine, culture, food, and entertainment. In fact, if you take the trolley at all, you probably pass by all of this without batting an eye each time you ride. Consider these neighborhoods as destinations via trolley instead of just another few passing minutes before you get to work:
Morena/Linda Vista (Green Line)
Linda Vista is home to the University of San Diego, but don’t overlook the rich history of the neighborhood. In 1941, the government built 3,000 homes in Linda Vista as part of an effort to house aircraft workers. It established Linda Vista as America’s largest defense housing project during WWII. These low-income houses were the first demarcation between two very different identities for the neighborhood.
According to the San Diego Reader, “There is Linda Vista and Linda Vista. Southern Linda Vista has new, expensive houses and condos going up… it’s ethnically white. Northern Linda Vista is the result of the large military housing project with a mixed middle class. And the central area is low-income, older, also mostly WWII housing. It is the most ethnically diverse: Asian, African-American, and Hispanic.”
That diversity of ethnicity and culture has brought with it a robust diversity of cuisine as well. At the bottom of the hill (South) is JV’s Mexican Food -- it’s where you’ll find me at 1:30am on the weekends. Right next door is Bull’s Smokin’ BBQ, a place Linda Vista residents would say is right on par with Phil’s.
Getting to the top of the hill (North) is a hike, but it’s worth the effort with Super Bronco, Pho Hoa-Huong, and Sab-E-Lee waiting for you. And don’t overlook the Ballast Point tasting room lurking right near the University.
Barrio Logan (Blue Line)
For some, Barrio Logan isn’t worth visiting. For others, it’s one of the best places in all of San Diego to hang out. I side with the latter. From the minute you step off the trolley and see Barrio Logan’s Aztec-, Kumeyaay-, and Mayan-inspired sign, you’ll agree.
Barrio Logan is the epicenter of Latin culture and tradition in San Diego. It’s also the single oldest neighborhood in the city: the first street laid in the Barrio dates back to 1881. During the 1900s, it went through some major changes, though, like when the Navy annexed beach access from locals during WWII. And when the Coronado Bridge first went up in 1963, it cast a concrete roof over most of the neighborhood.
The city council promised the residents a park to remedy the bridge in 1969, but tried to backtrack until residents banded together in nonviolent protest for 12 days. Together they landscaped the area and commissioned local artist Salvador Torres to paint gorgeous murals on the freeway support pillars -- it was soon christened Chicano Park.
The culture and food here go hand in hand. Barrio Logan has the most authentic Mexican food you’re likely to find in San Diego at Las Cuatro Milpas. Get there early because there is always a line and they always sell out of food. If you miss Milpas, ¡SALUD! is a solid backup plan for tacos. Cap it all off with a beer from Border X Brewing or Iron Fist, and keep your eyes open for lowrider shows rolling through Chicano Park.
County Center/Little Italy (Green Line)
It’s not hard to see why people enjoy San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood. It’s home to the highest-rated restaurant in San Diego right now, Juniper & Ivy, with other hot spots like Kettner Exchange, El Camino, and the newly renovated Craft & Commerce. The best part is that all of Little Italy’s bounty is incredibly close to the trolley stop.
It’s stood the test of time since being founded in the 1920s -- Little Italy has had its ups and downs. Things turned around for the neighborhood in the 1990s when a group of property owners and businesses took it upon themselves to reinvigorate the spirit of the area.
“Our business district is rooted in the toil of immigrants and the perseverance and optimism of a new group of business owners. The strength of their faith and our proximity to the waterfront is what has supported families in Little Italy for generations,” says Marco Li Mandri, CAO for the group.
The neighborhood has held fast to its roots while successfully integrating the modernity of post-millennium living. Strolling through the piazzas and reading about the hardworking Italians who established the neighborhood is a historian's delight.
Aside from bringing you to San Diego’s oldest tavern, the Waterfront Bar and Grill (est. 1933), my personal favorite part about this trolley stop is that it lets off right by the new Waterfront Park. There are constantly events happening there, like the insanely popular, colorful, and fun CRSSD Music Festival.
Gaslamp (Green Line)
Perhaps the No. 1 destination for tourists who visit San Diego, the historic Gaslamp Quarter is hard to compete with. Not only that, it’s guaranteed to be off-the-charts fun and crowded every year when Comic-Con rolls through town.
Fun fact: gas lamps were never actually the main source of lighting for the district, but rather chosen as the symbol for the area during its redevelopment and preservation efforts in the 1980s. The main source of lighting, when the quarter was established in 1860, was arc lighting – that’s some bar trivia for you right there.
For locals, the Gaslamp stop is the most heavily used part of the entire trolley system because of Petco Park. The trolley is a much-needed remedy for the pain and cost of parking on Padres game day, and it’s extra fun riding the rails with all the other fans dressed in their game gear.
Outside of that, the Gaslamp Quarter has some of the hottest nightclubs and bars in the entire city like The Tipsy Crow, Bang Bang, and Vin de Syrah -- all worth checking out. Just don’t miss the last train home if you’re burning the midnight oil.
La Mesa (Orange Line)
La Mesa is the dark horse on this list. Usually people throw it out because it’s too far away. The reality is that being so far removed from the rest of San Diego has forced the self-proclaimed Jewel of the Hills to match pace with other neighborhoods’ entertainment and dining scenes.
If you want fancy, BO-beau opened a new branch in La Mesa to extend the reach of its unparalleled French cuisine. The Riviera Supper Club & Turquoise Room is another fine-dining option that has live music, great cocktails, and garishly turquoise walls. It’s also one of those steakhouses where the servers bring you the raw steak of your choice to be cooked on the grills in-house.
The Regal Bar and Johnny B’s Sports Bar stand as more casual fixtures in the community. Both have been able to evolve alongside La Mesa, putting in outdoor patios and revamping their aesthetic to keep the crowds coming in. The most fun local dive bar in La Mesa, to me at least, is Hoffer’s Cigar Bar.
So, even if the trolley ride does take a little longer, it’s worth the wait to get to La Mesa. And with more places opening up all the time, like the Coin Haus video game bar, expect it to only get better with time.
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