Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of City and Regional Planning/MS in Engineering (Transportation Planning Specialization)


City and Regional Planning


Dr. Hemalata Dandekar



The Historical Influence of Railroads on Urban Development and Future Economic Potential in San Luis Obispo

Adrianna L. Jordan

Today the sound of a train passing through San Luis Obispo may be intermittent and faint, but persistent nonetheless, a reminder that the railroad (displaced eventually by the automobile and accompanying expansion of highways and road systems, and later by air connectivity) was a significant force in the development of the City of San Luis Obispo. The sound of railroads evokes a sentimental reminder of the past, but the railroad’s continued presence in the city, cutting through its urban fabric, raises intriguing questions as to what constructive role it can play in the evolving city economy. Can the railroad make a contribution to the new economy of the 21st Century? And if so, how? These questions are worth considering beyond nostalgia for a railroad-dominated past as we become more concerned, nationally and especially so in the State of California, about living sustainably. The aspiration to create communities that reduce dependence and expenditure on the automobile and the petroleum based economy that it represents has surfaced as an important goal, one that might enable us to live within our resource base. In this emerging context of heightened concern about integrating sustainability into current development, what role will, and might, the railroad play in shaping future developments and influencing land use? This work explores these questions by tracing the intertwined histories of transportation and land use in the City of San Luis Obispo from the 18th century Spanish mission era to the 19th century railroad era to the present-day automobile and air travel era.

Although the heyday of rail as an economic driver in the city has come and gone, San Luis Obispo’s Railroad District, with the award-winning Railroad District Plan for its place-making guide, is poised for continued revitalization. Public and commercial entities such as the Amtrak Station, the Railroad Museum, the Park Hotel building and its restaurants, and the Railroad Square Channel Commercial Building anchor the district and serve as pulse points of activity for locals and tourists alike. In addition, the Railroad District’s excellent pedestrian and bicycle connectivity helps to link it with the rest of the city and channels people to it.

Given the present concern over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from motor vehicles, rising fuel costs, shortages of oil, and the centralized land-use patterns popular in New Urbanism and required by SB 375, it is possible that the railroad, or some other form of fixed rail public transportation might once again become a preferred mode of long-distance transport to the major metropolitan areas south and north of the city and beyond.