Let’s Go San Diego! An Interview with Dr. Cathy Gere about Getting Transit on the Ballot
BY ETHAN OLSON
Cathy Gere is a professor of history of science in the UCSD history department, with a specialization in the history of life science. Having been an environmental activist in her young adulthood, she has returned to these issues in the last few years and is currently active in a number of local climate justice organizations, including the Green New Deal at UCSD. Artwork by Sophia Hidalgo.
Can you start us off by introducing what the Let’s Go San Diego ballot initiative is? What is it proposing? Who is a part of it and why is it important?
Let's Go SD is a citizens’ ballot initiative to impose a half-cent sales tax to pay for public transit. 50% of the proceeds would go to new public transit; the other 50% is divided between maintenance, repairs, and other kinds of supporting infrastructure. It's fundamentally a public transit measure. But it's also about mending the roads, shoring up the Del Mar bluffs, and that sort of thing. It's about modernization and repair, but also about building out transit of all kinds in San Diego County.
There's been a lot of debate about how to pay for this and even though a sales tax is an imperfect solution, it's probably the best of the available options. Just to put it in perspective, if somebody spends $300 a month on groceries, this sales tax will end up costing them $1.50. A citizens’ initiative means that instead of a government entity putting it forward, there's been a campaign to collect signatures to get it on the ballot. One of the advantages of that hard work — we need 115,000 signatures — is that you don't need a supermajority for it to pass. So if the City Council put it on the ballot, for example, you'd need 60% or 66%, I think, for the initiative to pass. This one will only need 50% (plus one).
Why do you think this bill is so important, personally?
There are so many reasons why I think this is incredibly important. The first is emissions. The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationally is transportation. Regionally, 41% of emissions are from road travel! This is because we live in the heart of car culture in Southern California. This bill, if it goes through, is estimated to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, which is a whopping victory for the environment — and we're not going to get that any other way.
The private electric car is an important part of a whole suite of solutions. But if everybody buys a private electric car, we're not going to solve the environmental crisis. We're not going to solve the biodiversity crisis. There’s still the issue of the emissions that go into making the vehicles, traffic congestion, gridlock — all of those problems. So public mass transit is the crucial element in solving some of the biggest environmental design flaws that we have in this region and in this nation. For that reason alone, I think the ballot initiative is really worth supporting.
And then there's the equity piece. Public transit is really important for all groups of people: teenagers, single parents of teenagers, the disabled, people who can't afford to drive, people psychologically unable to drive, etc. There's just a huge equity piece about making safe, affordable, reliable transit available to all the communities in San Diego.
In this County, public transit is used mainly by people at the lower ends of the social and economic spectrum. It's a sign of a world-class city when public transit is used by all classes of people. So that's the vision: to get a really wonderful public transit system that would be used by everybody. Once you have it, there's no going back. Public transit is fantastic. But there's a huge equity issue. So it’s important for both things — the environment and social equity.
As an involved climate activist, your interest in getting this type of bill passed is pretty obvious: you mentioned that it's going to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions by about 20%. But for the normal citizen who may not be worried or knowledgeable about climate change, or who may not be concerned about equity, why should they care about improving San Diego's public transportation network? What positive and tangible impacts will this policy have on their lives?
I'm glad that you asked that. I think everybody wins. For people who may be in suburban or rural areas that still will not be well served by public transit, there are all kinds of reasons why drivers will benefit – emptier freeways, more parking, less congestion. Building out public transit helps private vehicles, too! We all know that traffic is a problem and we all know the terrible condition of the roads and the bridges. This bill is designed to address those issues as well. So, it's not just about mass transit; it's also about upgrades to private transit as well. It really is a complete win, win, win. We just have to find a way to pay for it. Everybody benefits from cleaner air, even if you're not concerned about climate change. Air pollution and air quality are direct health issues for everybody. It benefits the whole community and even people who continue to drive should find a reason to support this.
Do you think that there's a benefit or value in marketing decarbonization policies through their impacts on things other than the climate such as jobs, commute times, or air quality? Do you think people are more responsive to those topics or is there a unique advantage to emphasizing the role such policies will have on reducing emissions specifically?
I think it depends on the audience, of course, and it depends on the issue. In the case of transit, and other things that pertain directly to local infrastructure, it's really important to emphasize the direct community impact. These quality-of-life kinds of issues unite people. Much of the debate about the environment is polarized and politicized — it's partisan. It becomes about your views on capitalism and these other hot-button issues.
Of course, public transit is divisive too. There are people who find it to be part of a whole trend away from the kind of comfortable suburban lifestyle that San Diego can offer and so there's resistance too along ideological lines, which is why I think it's so important to emphasize that it's something that can potentially benefit everybody in these really direct ways— direct health benefits, direct benefits to car drivers, those sorts of things. We should emphasize the grouping together of public mass transit with road repairs and improvements, things like that. On the whole, I think that pointing out the quality of life co-benefits that come with this kind of climate action is really important. This is the beauty of transit: it's one of those things that checks all the boxes.
So, I think it's a really important question. The emphasis here is to say, we don't want to deprive you of the wonderful things in life. Great public transit is a good way of solving the resource-sharing problem in a manner that is advantageous for all people. You know, once you get used to it, there's a certain kind of freedom in riding transit that you don't have in driving a car. It's not as convenient but it's also way less stressful, if it works well, and is clean, safe, and reliable.
To me, this policy sounds like a no-brainer. But what are the largest hurdles to getting the measure on the ballot, and then getting voters to vote for it to turn it into policy?
As I said, people associate this kind of measure with accelerated urbanization and not everybody loves that. They associate it with aspects of the city's Climate Action Plan that have to do with providing urban density transit hubs. Part of the Climate Action Plan is getting rid of the mandated parking provision for every unit of housing that's built. for example. This represents a shift in the region away from this idea of one person, one car, one parking place, to a vision of a pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly, transit-friendly kind of city. And not everybody likes that kind of change. So, I think that there will be some resistance along those lines. One of the people who's been very active in opposing all of these kinds of measures is Carl DeMaio, who was a mayoral candidate and is now a local conservative activist; he will say this is threatening to our way of life. So, there's that whole side of it as a way of life issue.
I'm sympathetic to people not wanting to change. It's lovely here. If you're having a lovely suburban time, I get it; I understand why people don't want that kind of change. Having grown up in London, where neither of my parents ever learned to drive, I'm all about urbanization, but I know that the green city concept is not for everybody.
And then there’s the fact that it's a tax. Famously, these types of ballot measures sometimes don't pass because people don't want to pay more taxes. I think this sales tax is a very good solution. You know, the line about California's direct democracy is that Californians want to be taxed like capitalists and subsidized like socialists. We want the best of both worlds, but unfortunately, we do have to pay for services, and this seems like a very modest way of doing it. So, those would be the two reasons that people might oppose it – it's threatening to a way of life, and it does have to be paid for.
Right. So, this question is a bit more abstract but feel free to get specific with your descriptions if you'd like. What do you think the end goal for transportation and mobility should be in San Diego?
Yeah, that's such a good question. I think the end goal should be addressing the burden of environmental and social harm that is created by the absolute dominance of the private vehicle. My personal view is that car culture is in the long run unsustainable and so mass transit is just something we are going to have to put in place; and the sooner we get on with it, and the better we do it, the better for everyone. It doesn't mean there is no place for the private vehicle. It's just that we have to diversify the choice architecture for people so that there are ways of getting around that don't depend on dragging 3000 pounds of metal and plastic around on your back everywhere that you go.
It is also about creating a less economically and socially divided region. As somebody who does use mass transit in San Diego, I'm very aware of the fact that it's still stigmatized. It's still considered something that you only do because you don't have any alternative — because you don't have a car. It's not something that people in San Diego choose to do. I think the situation around campus is slightly better because students get the passes they pay through their fees, and the 201 is frequent and heavily used, so it is less of a starkly divided thing. Again, it's about both justice and about resource sharing.
By the way, one of the things that is wonderful about this particular initiative is that it has been spearheaded by labor unions and construction unions. So often, those unions have not been necessarily aligned with climate action, because they're worried about the well-paying jobs. But this one will provide hundreds of well-paying, green jobs — and so it's really a model for the just transition, where unionized labor and green infrastructure are aligned with one another. So, in that sense, it's really a wonderful thing.
How can students, faculty, or local citizens get involved and support this ballot initiative? What should they do?
A good way to demonstrate support is just by raising awareness about it and making sure that people know that it's coming. I'm pretty sure we're gonna get it on the ballot. It's coming and everyone who cares about climate, who cares about social justice, or who's just sick of driving to work — anyone who has any investment in the future of the region — should vote for it, and encourage others to vote for it.
So spread the word; it's coming, it's beautiful, it’s necessary, and we need to push it over the finish line.
Those looking to support the Let’s Go SD ballot initiative can participate in the upcoming Town Hall on Transit on Wednesday, May 18th, from 3 pm-4:30 pm. The virtual town hall will explore ongoing efforts to develop a world-class mass transit system serving UC San Diego and the surrounding communities. It will feature information about LetsGoSD, how the campus is electrifying its own fleet, developing commute alternatives, and designing last-mile solutions. Finally, there will be a discussion on how UCSD staff, students, and faculty can mobilize to push these transformations forward. The expansion of the Blue Line Trolley was just the beginning!