Will SB 375 help achieve the Governor's Vision for California?

For those of us who support a healthier, smarter, more sustainable California, the last few weeks have given us much to write home about. The centerpiece of California’s efforts is Senate Bill 375 –the nation's first law to control global warming pollution by curbing sprawl.

First, Governor Schwarzenegger released Vision California, an unprecedented effort to explore the critical role of land use and transportation investments in meeting the environmental, fiscal, and public health challenges facing California over the coming decades.

The release is the culmination of a year-long effort funded by the Strategic Growth Council and the High Speed Rail Authority. The report paints a picture of a very different California if our metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) can successfully adopt improved transportation and land use patterns. By bringing Californians closer to their jobs and providing transportation choices, by 2050 we can:

  • help Californians drive 3.7 trillion fewer miles;
  • help Californians save $6,400 per year on transportation and other household costs;
  • save the state $194 billion in infrastructure costs with smarter planning;
  • save 140 billion gallons of gasoline;
  • save more open space than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and;
  • save enough water to fill Hetch-Hetchy 50 times over.

By taking a look at these longer term results, Vision California argues for better land use patterns, starting now. The report received a fair amount of media coverage, including a piece in the SF Chronicle.

The story that doesn’t get enough attention is that the kind of development that will help us achieve this incredible diversity of co-benefits is exactly what the market is demanding. A recently released report from the Urban Land Institute, one of the most frequently cited sources of objective information on real estate issues with 30,000 members worldwide, finds that:

“SB 375 will help the state, communities and developers meet the shifting market demand for housing, diversify the housing offerings on the market, allocate public resources more efficiently and ensure a better quality of life.”

My colleague Kaid Benfield has also blogged extensively about the shifting market demand.

On Thursday June 24th, the California Air Resources Board held a hearing to release the draft targets for SB 375. The two efforts are of course linked. The Vision California report tells us how many ways improving land use will benefit the state. The SB 375 targets are critical in determining whether we get on the path to this better future or not.

While the draft targets are a step in the right direction, and the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and CARB staff should be commended for a tremendous amount of hard work in a very short time frame, we have a couple of key concerns as documented in our testimony to CARB:

  1. We are still learning. While we had hoped that CARB would have sufficient information from the regions by now to make findings about what draft targets are appropriate, the regions are still running new land use scenarios and discovering what range of reductions are possible. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission – the regional transportation planning agency for the nine county Bay Area –will model some additional scenarios in the coming weeks that attempt to provide more housing to accommodate job growth within the region.  The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) admits that even their most ambitious scenarios do not represent the upper range of what is achievable and they will model an improved land use scenario. Many of the MPOs are still refining their models to fully capture the benefits of their laudable policies.  We will continue to see new information this summer and we encourage you to take this into consideration as you set draft targets.
  2. We have every reason to believe that the benefits of these policies should grow, not erode, over time.  Land use and transportation changes happen slowly, but the benefits accrue over time and add up to big savings in the longer term. Therefore we should see greater reductions in 2035 than 2020, and even greater reductions in 2050. The empirical evidence from across California and around the world supports this conclusion.
  3. We believe the MPOs can do better. We do not believe that you should interpret the scenarios before you to represent the upper end of what is achievable. In every case there are certain ambitious policies and there are certain areas where we know the MPOs can do more. For example, in every case, we fail to see a shift of transportation funding to support the improved land use patterns every MPO is calling for. This is the thrust of SB 375 – to align regional investments to support a more sustainable land use pattern. The MPOs make assumptions – in certain cases very ambitious and laudable assumptions about the increase in walkable, transit oriented development, but then fail to shift their transportation investments to make sure we realize these better futures. As we work through the summer and into the Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) processes, we need to ensure the regions are doing everything they can to incentivize these better land use patterns.

The bottom line is that if we want to maintain the extremely high quality of life that Californians have come to expect, we have a powerful tool before us in the form of SB 375. The California Air Resources Board should recognize the potential ripple effects of its rulemaking and do everything in its power to set ambitious targets for SB 375 implementation.