Thanks to improvements in its job market, housing affordability, energy usage and air quality, San Diego County took significant strides in improving its physical and economic environment last year, according to an annual report on the region's quality of life.
Released this week by the Equinox Center research group, the report added that the economic recovery in San Diego has been accompanied by a rising cost of living, longer traffic tie-ups, strains on the water system and pollution on the beaches.
"We saw some positive signs that quality of life is improving in San Diego," said Equinox Center executive director Ann Tartre, who unveiled the report at an after-hours meeting at SeaWorld. "However, we must do more to focus on priority areas and persistent challenges."
The Equinox Center — a nonprofit group backed by such firms as Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), SeaWorld San Diego, San Diego Gas & Electric and Union Bank — evaluated more than a dozen criteria in its report, including:
* Employment — Local employers hired nearly 35,000 new workers in the past two years, although the county is still only halfway toward replacing all the jobs that were lost during the recession. The study suggested more jobs could be created by focusing on environmental technology, which accounted for 8 percent of jobs created in 2011.
* Affordable housing — In the aftermath of the real estate crash, home prices are a bit more reasonable than they were at the peak of the bubble. With low interest rates and rising salaries, affordability improved by 3 percent for homeowners last year and 4 percent for renters.
But home prices remain far higher in the region than most of the nation. Nearly half of San Diego homeowners still devote at least 30 percent of their income to their mortgage payments. Fewer than 40 percent of homeowners nationwide are in that category.
The study recommended streamlining the permitting process, loosening zoning ordinances and revising design guidelines to encourage infill developments in town centers and urban areas.
* Commutes — San Diego drivers spend nearly 40 hours a year stuck in traffic, partly because the improving economy means more people are on the road. Only 3 percent of commuters rely on public transit, compared to 6 percent in Los Angeles. Roughly 76 percent drive to work alone rather than carpooling.
"This can be a major issue for businesses, since they spend more time transporting their goods and services and it's tougher to attract people here if they think their commutes will be too long," Tartre said.
The study recommended building more parking areas near public transportation hubs, as well as encouraging employees to bike or carpool to work.
* Air quality — San Diego cut its bad air days from 19 in 2010 to 13 in 2011. In comparison, Riverside had 122; San Bernardino, 119; and Los Angeles, 94. The study suggested that one reason for the improvement may be a county-run program that helps local businesses replace their high-emission diesel engines with engines that run more eifficiently and cleanly. In fiscal year 2011-12, the county cleaned up more than 200 engines, helping the city eliminate 70 tons of smog-forming pollutants.
* Water consumption — On average, San Diegans used 133 gallons of water per day in 2012, compared to 130 gallons in 2011. "That's only a slight increase, but we're going in the wrong direction," Tartre said, noting that the water supply is at risk from a variety of factors, ranging from climate change to land disputes.
In addition, the county is under orders from the state to cut its water use by 20 percent by 2020. "We live at the edge of a desert," Tartre said. "We can't afford to use our water inefficiently."
* Water pollution — Beaches around the border closed more than 30 times in 2011, largely because of pollution from the Tijuana River. Besides posing health risks, the closures also threaten tourism, Tartre said. "When people come here, they expect to find pristine beaches and bays," she said.
San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria said the report provided civic leaders with useful information for improving the county's environment.
"We sell San Diego based on our quality of life," he said. "It sure as hell isn't our cost of living."
But Carrie Stone, who specializes in executive recruitment, said that for most of the people she deals with, the cost of living is the most important element of quality of life — and the one that's hardest to fix.
"If they're coming in from outside the area, the first thing that they look at is cost of living," she said. "They sometimes come in with spreadsheets, comparing costs in San Diego with other cities. They don't care about issues like water and air, which they assume are going to be OK."