California Air Board Votes to Cut Traffic and Clean the Air

Last Thursday, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), chaired by former NRDC attorney Mary Nichols, voted unanimously to accept local recommendations and adopt regional targets to reduce pollution from cars and light trucks.  In doing so they met the deadline for the first major milestone in implementation of California’s first-in-the-nation Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, or SB 375, a law authored by Senator Darrell Steinberg and cosponsored by NRDC and the California League of Conservation Voters in 2008. 

This is the culmination of over a year and a half of technical, economic, and policy analysis, including a locally-driven public participation process. CARB’s action was supported by many diverse voices - homebuilders, local governments, environmental justice organizations and environmental groups.

Steve Heminger, Executive Director of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, one of the 18 regional agencies ready to implement the targets, explained to the Board what SB 375 means for his region:

“What we’re really talking about here is the increment of new population growth between now and 2035.  We’re talking about planning for those folks to live more sustainably.”

From the perspective of a regional transportation planning agency, he told the Board that SB 375 is about creating more transportation choices for people to live sustainably:

“Twenty years ago, you had three choices for spending federal transportation dollars: you could build an interstate, or you could build an interstate or you could build an interstate.” Under SB 375, regions will do more to create viable transportation choices for Californians. This means investing in transit so that it is convenient, affordable, and reliable. It means creating communities where walking and bicycling are safe and practical.

This increment of new growth is what makes SB 375 so meaningful. California is expected to add another 22 million people to our existing 38 million between now and 2050. The way we design communities to accommodate this new growth will have a profound impact on our air quality, public health, and environment.

Now that the Air Board has set the targets, the regional agencies will use their existing regional transportation planning processes to select the strategies most appropriate to their regions to meet their targets. The law leaves full flexibility to local governments to pick and choose. As Boardmember D’Adamo noted: “What I’m seeing here is a toolbox of strategies to pull from.” If one particular strategy is not appropriate for a certain region, or is not delivering the desired emissions reductions, there are other tools to choose from.

Heminger described some of the tools the Bay Area is considering.  The Bay Area will strive to create a land use pattern that provides for a greater jobs-housing balance – by providing more housing units in the Bay Area to match projected job growth.  He also described a series of travel demand measures, including working with employers both to provide employees with greater transportation options such as carpooling, vanpooling and shuttles, and more flexible work schedules.  Right now, 5% of Bay Area residents telecommute. With computer technology advancing dramatically, it seems very likely that the Bay Area could double the level of telecommuting to 10% by 2035, helping to achieve the region’s target.

Boardmember Balmes spoke about another tool in the toolbox when he raised the subject of school-related traffic congestion. “When we were children, most of us walked and biked to school. Now if you ask people how their kids get to school, very few of them do.”  Programs like Safe Routes to Schools provide funding to create walking and cycling paths and other school area infrastructure to encourage cleaner modes of travel to school. In the Bay Area, school traffic is estimated at 20% of morning congestion. 

The Board heard several hours of testimony overwhelmingly supportive of staff’s recommended ambitious and achievable targets.  Representing the public health community, Dr. Janet Apshire called better community design under SB 375 “the strongest possible prescription for healthy communities” noting that more walkable communities can help to address three pressing public health crises: asthma, obesity and diabetes.

Meea Kang, President of the recently incorporated California Infill Builders Association, joined several other infill developers to speak in support of ambitious targets, noting that the kinds of walkable, transit-oriented housing that will help regions meet their SB 375 targets is precisely what the market is demanding.  “People want greater housing choices.” They will still be able to buy a single family home on a large lot, but they will also have choices to live in walkable neighborhoods close to amenities and transit.

Toward the end of the discussion, CARB Boardmember and Mayor of Riverside Ron Loveridge commented on what may be one of the most significant impacts of law to date:

“The 21st Century is a century of regions. SB 375 is the first time in my political lifetime that we’ve had a serious regional conversation about urban form.”

Led by a highly capable team of James Goldstene, Lynn Terry, Virgil Welch, Kurt Karperos and Doug Ito, the staff of the Air Resources Board deserve a tremendous amount of credit for running an exemplary implementation process over the last year and a half.  The Air Resources Board members were highly engaged in the process and their deliberations Thursday reflect a deep understanding of both the critical importance of improving land use planning to ensuring Californians’ high quality of life and the challenges that lie ahead. This has been a highly collaborative and constructive process and NRDC is committed to working with the Air Board and the MPOs to ensure that SB 375 implementation continues to be a success.