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Putting on the Brakes : San Marcos Moves to Ease Growing Traffic Problems

December 28, 1987|LEONARD BERNSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

Creeping along California 78 on his daily commute to work, Emmett Phillips sees a disturbing glimpse of the future, a view that reminds him of the traffic horrors made famous in Los Angeles.

"At times, it's coming to that point," said Phillips, personnel manager for Singer Electronics System Division in San Marcos. "It's much more congested than it was two years ago, three years ago. (But) it hasn't reached the situation where you stop dead yet."

Unlike others who merely complain, Phillips has been swept up in San Marcos' new effort to fight gridlock on the roads by requiring employers to actively encourage employee use of car pools, van pools and staggered working hours under the county's first traffic control ordinance.

Chagrined by corporate and commuter voluntary efforts that have failed to control traffic, other cities across the county are following San Marcos' example and beginning to develop traffic management plans of their own. Like San Marcos, all will consider statutes that would require the participation of the large employers in their area.

"With the way the city is growing, we're going to see traffic getting to the point of traffic gridlock," said Amy Foster, who coordinates San Marcos' Peak Hour Traffic Management program. "What we're doing, instead of waiting for that to happen, is we're taking a pro-active approach. As hard as it may seem to do, we're trying to change people's way of thinking a little bit."

Though business leaders appear to be taking a cooperative attitude toward such measures, experts with experience in traffic management predict that progress will be measured in small increments and note that traffic management is only one part of the solution to the county's growing traffic gridlock.

"I personally think it's difficult to get people to change their behavior," said Lee Hultgren, director of transportation for the San Diego Assn. of Governments. "They want to be able to drive when they want to drive, and where they want to drive. If it's convenient for them to pick up somebody along the way, that's fine too. But they want to have their cars available whenever they want to use them."

"This is a motherhood, apple pie, American flag kind of program," Foster said. "Everybody knows it's good, but no one does it until they absolutely have to."

According to the 1980 U.S. Census, 63.8% of San Diego County commuters drove to work alone. Another 17.4% were part of car pools, 9.9% walked, 3.2% used public transit and 1.1% rode bicycles.

A 1983 Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce survey of 20 large downtown businesses found that 55% of their employees drove to work alone, with 24% using car pools, 12% taking public transit and 5% being dropped off.

San Marcos is just one of the cities that believe they can no longer remain idle while growth swamps their major thoroughfares in a sea of single-occupant vehicles.

At the request of a panel of North County mayors, the cities of Escondido, Vista, Oceanside and Carlsbad are meeting with San Marcos to come up with traffic control plans designed to spread traffic control benefits to the entire congested region.

Farther south, the San Diego City Council is about to hire a consultant to map out a plan for the city's major employers. Two weeks ago, the county government agreed to look into ways of controlling traffic created by the 13,000 employees at offices countywide.

The local efforts coincide with a similar Los Angeles-area plan approved Dec. 11 that will require 8,000 businesses to offer ride-sharing incentives to 1.5-million commuters in the four-county South Coast Air Basin.

Breaking Old Habits

In May, the San Marcos City Council passed an ordinance requiring businesses with more than 10 employees to participate in programs designed to break old commuting habits during the peak traffic hours of 6:30-7:45 a.m. and 4:30-5:45 p.m. Surveys show that 82% of the town's commuters drive to work alone, Foster said.

San Marcos' carrot-and-stick approach offers giveaways to employees who switch to car pools, van pools, bicycles or walking, and the possibility of fines for companies that do not comply with the ordinance.

Under the terms of the ordinance, which was developed by a task force that included business and government leaders, all employers and business complexes must conduct surveys of their workers' driving habits and turn in the results to Foster. Businesses with 10 to 49 employees must offer informational programs on transportation alternatives.

Businesses with 50 or more employees must develop traffic management programs, including the promotion of car pools, van pools, bicycle-riding, public transit subsidies, and staggered hours or flex-time scheduling.

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