Getting California's Mobility Back

I grew up in Los Angeles.  When I was a teenager and gasoline was 33 cents/gallon, getting your driver’s license and bumming your parents’ car meant mobility and freedom.

There isn’t much mobility left in L.A.  The population has more than tripled since I was born.  And we are driving longer distances, even though it often seems that it’s taking longer to get anywhere.  In fact, vehicle miles traveled, often abbreviated as “VMT”, is rising faster than the rate of population growth

This scary statistic means more than just a delay getting to Dodger Stadium.  Cars and light trucks contribute almost 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in California, 50 percent of air pollution and 70 percent of our consumption of petroleum.  We cannot reach the goals of AB 32, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels no later than 2020, without addressing VMT.

California Senate Bill 375, introduced by State Senator Steinberg, recognizes that development sprawl and the resulting long commutes to work are the biggest contributors to VMT growth, and proposes solutions that will incentivize local governments, and the building industry, to create new development that is close to public transit, in or near existing urban areas, or both. 

The building industry, as the price for its support, wanted broad amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  Those were whittled down so that the current bill contains highly conditional changes in two areas:  for qualified “transit oriented development” projects, and for residential or mixed-use residential projects that are consistent with specified regional planning policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.   For residential or mixed use projects, the CEQA relief is only with respect to discussion of growth inducing impacts and for project specific or cumulative impacts from cars and light-duty truck trips on global warming or the regional transportation network.  The current version of SB 375, as of this writing, can be found here.

In my view, these narrow CEQA amendments are a reasonable price to pay for new housing that will reverse the VMT trend.  The transit oriented development exemption carries 4 single-spaced pages of environmental and energy use restrictions.  Projects can’t be more than 8 acres or have over 200 residential units, and must meet strict moderate and low-income affordability requirements with affordable rents for 55 years or result in payment of in lieu fees to develop an equal number of units with the same restrictions or provide public open space in excess of current requirements.  That’s just the kind of development that California needs – not more sprawl.  Plus, there will still be judicial review of the decision of a legislative body that finds, after a public hearing, that a transit priority project meets all of the conditions in the bill.

The residential or mixed-use CEQA amendment is narrower in scope.  In my view, it doesn’t make sense to try to control VMT related greenhouse gas emissions on a bottom-up, project by project basis because these emissions, unlike, say, noise or diesel particulate emissions, have a global, not a local effect.  The approach of SB 375 dovetails with the approach taken in AB 32 of having sector-wide, decreasing caps on greenhouse gases.  The bill provides that regional greenhouse gas reduction plans will be developed by regional planning agencies such as the Southern California Association of Governments and then approved by the California Air Resources Board.  It is not unreasonable to say that, if a project meets an approved regional plan, then the project EIR does not need to re-analyze the impacts on growth inducing impacts and global warming that the regional plan has already analyzed.  And, again, there is judicial review available if someone feels that a project is being wrongly classified or approved. 

Some may disagree that these new CEQA provisions are worth it.  In my view, they are.  If we don’t move forward on SB 375, continual VMT increases could wipe out the effects of emissions decreases from the new federal auto mileage standards and California’s clean cars and clean fuels rules, and could put our AB 32 goals out of reach.  Thirty-three cent gas isn’t coming back, but mobility and lower greenhouse gas emissions could – if we’re smart enough.