I was playing around with Wikipedia the other day, looking at demographic information. (Before the anti-Wiki crowd chimes in, Wikipedia's demographic data is entirely populated by automated download from US Census data. Wikipedia makes it easier to browse.) What I found out there surprised me. We have a conventional idea of the Inland Empire as this vast area of low-density low-population wasteland, unamenable to transit investment or mixed use development. However, this is a possibly misleading analysis. The Inland Empire, or rather, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Metropolitan Statistical Area, is the 14th-largest MSA in the United States. That may not sound impressive, but it puts our population above that of the Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Diego, Sacramento or Pittsburgh areas, and only a hundred thousand short of the Bay Area. And, as far as density goes, the City of Riverside had 3,908 persons/mi^2, only slightly below that of Portland, OR (4,288 p/mi^2). As transit advocates know, Portland is home to the well-run and well-patronized Tri-Met system. San Diego is also home to population density figures in this neighbourhood, at 4,174 p/mi^2, along with the three-line San Diego Trolley system.
What the Inland Empire lacks in comparison to these other regions is a defined center, a locus of activity. The development patters of the post-war period have spread commercial and social activity thinly throughout the region, and there are few places where viable, dense, mixed-use communities exist that would generate the sort of transit demand that other cities possess.
Fortunately, there is a solution. We must create this center of activity, and I can think of no better place than downtown Riverside. Fledgling cultural attractions are already in place downtown. We must add to this mix various sorts of housing and space for independent businesses, the necessities of daily life, and a fast, frequent transit line, preferably rail. We must make the planning decisions that will enable the construction of all of these amenities in a way that protects pedestrian space and minimizes the footprint of motor vehicles. We must end setback and minimum parking requirements at the very least, as well as the segregation of uses seen in traditional zoning. We must also stop giving away our tax money, in the form of TUMF waivers and economic incentives, to big-box developers on the outskirts of the city. By all means, if you insist upon building that sort of thing, do so, but our city should not be subsidizing it, regardless of how many low-wage jobs it might bring. (I'm thinking here primarily of the Mission Grove shopping plaza, but I'm sure it's not the only one.)
If we do all of this, we can allow Riverside to rise as a charming new urban center, the sort of place that people will want to live and work in. We can position our city to take its place as the leader of the Inland Empire in the coming decades, where our society will be forced to be come increasingly local and transit-oriented.
The beauty of this plan is that it gives our city a forward-looking, leading role in future development, and therefore it should be relatively easy to convince local politicians of its benefits. It will bring in tax money and prestige for our city for years to come, at minimal expense. It is a transformative departure from our usual ways of thinking, to be sure, but it should be one that our leaders can be persuaded to follow. And, if they cannot be persuaded, we ought to find leaders who can.