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Solimar Research

SB 375 Planning Gives New Sense of Purpose to Regional Blueprints

The midpoint of 2011 is rapidly approaching, and that means the first glimpses of the "Sustainable Communities Strategies" created under SB 375 are beginning to emerge. In particular, the "Big Four" metropolitan planning organizations � those from the Los Angeles Area, the Bay Area, San Diego, and Sacramento � are all moving forward with their SCS processes, and discernable trends are beginning to emerge.

Although there are 18 MPOs in California � all of which must create SCS's under SB 375 � the "Big Four" cover the communities in which almost 30 million people live. (Most of the rest of the population lives in the San Joaquin Valley, where 8 MPOs are attempting to coordinate their efforts to become, essentially, the fifth member of the Big Four.) No matter how you cut it, it's not easy for any of the Big Four to hit the targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction being laid down for them by the state. The targets are expressed in terms of per-capita greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and the MPOs typically have a high-single-digit reduction (at least) by 2020 and a 12-15% reduction by 2035. That's tough to do � especially considering 2020 is now only a little over eight years away.

On the other hand, it's not like the MPOs are starting from scratch. The MPOs have been working on "smart growth"-style blueprint plans for several years that move in the direction of an SCS. "All four MPOs have been doing this stuff for a long time," said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, at the recent General Assembly of the Southern California Association of Governments in La Quinta. "We have to remind ourselves to be proud of what we have already done."

And, increasingly, the MPOs are working to sell the major changes in urban form based not on greenhouse gas emissions reduction per-se, but on what have come to be known as the "co-benefits" � shorter commutes, more land conservation, a shift away from the traffic congestion created by automobiles, and many other things. As SCAG's Hasan Ikhrata said at the General Assembly, maybe the greenhouse gas emissions reduction should be considered the co-benefits compared with everything else.

For better or worse, however, that's not how SB 375 is set up. Because it's largely an implementation mechanism for the AB 32, the greenhouse gas emissions reduction law, SB 375 is � in technical terms � an exercise in air-quality modeling, where different strategies are manipulated in different ways to try to hit the targets.

So far, the San Diego Association of Governments is the first out of the box with a draft SCS (as required by law), but Sacramento has also done a lot of work on it. Meanwhile, MTC, partnering with the Association of Bay Area Governments, recently released its "Initial Vision Scenario," which moves a lot of development around the region (see CP&DR Vol. 26, No. 8, April 2011), and the two COGs within SCAG that "took delegation" � that is, agreed to do their own SCSs � have released drafts.

The SANDAG experience so far is telling. Two aspects of the draft SCS in particular are worth noting. 

The first is the fact that SANDAG chose to take the SCS out 40 years, to 2050, rather than 25. SANDAG's still got to hit the 2020 (7%) and 2035 (13%) targets, of course, but the longer time frame does allow the region to put more things in place and see how they play out over a longer time frame.

The second � which smaller MPOs are going to have a tough time replicating � is a really aggressive effort involving transit and high-occupancy vehicles. SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos notes that the SCS calls for running10-minute headways on the trolley system and undergrounding the trolley in downtown San Diego to increase capacity. The SCS calls for a 250% increase in transit service miles and "hundreds of miles" of managed lanes (basically, toll lanes to manage congestion). This results are trend-bending � Gallegos noted that transit travel time from Otay Mesa to job centers near UC San Diego would be cut by two-thirds by 2050, so they are competitive with driving � but the amount of investment and behavioral change required is nothing short of mind-bending.

Indeed, it's a big question as to how � and whether � California can make the level of investment in transit that's required to bend these trends sufficiently. There's been a lot of discussion recently about how California's budget crisis has compelled the state to cut back on transit funding at exactly the same time that the state is implementing SB 375. "Transit in California is on very shaky financial ground," Heminger said at the SCAG event. "The shortfall is $1 billion a year." 

Local transit advocates around the state � especially in Los Angeles � have been calling for the state to give regions and localities more options to raise revenue for transit. But Senate Majority Leader Darrell Steinberg's recent proposal to give locals more taxing options generally is clearly going to run into the Republican anti-tax buzzsaw, so it's not clear whether those options will really be expanded.

Maybe the most interesting conclusion you can draw from the early SCS work is that the whole land use/transit thing can only take you so far. The conventional wisdom over the past couple of years � promoted by me among others � is that you need land use change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because technological solutions can't solve the problem all by themselves. This is clearly true. But it's also true that you can't hit the SCS targets without the transportation demand management and transportation system management components. Look at SANDAG's "hundreds of miles" of priced lanes and the Bay Area's general willingness to pay tolls, both of which manage demand. (I recently read a blog that said one of the ten ways you know you're from the Bay Area is that you think $7 is a reasonable price to pay to cross a bridge.)

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this general trend is contained in the draft Gateway COG SCS prepared by Cambridge Systematic (pdf). Cambridge concluded that the Gateway cities � those along the 710 corridor, mostly � can cut per-capita GHG emissions by 4% by 2020 through transportation and transit efforts and another 3% through land use change. But there it stops. From 2020 and 2035 � at least according to this draft SCS � the only way to cut per-capita emissions further is to build a series of regional and statewide projects. Some of these are transit projects � High Speed Rail, the Green Line to LAX � but most of them are highway improvements, such as expanding I-5 in southern L.A. County and building an I-710 freight corridor.

The bottom line is that the SCS process doesn't necessarily mean that land use change will fall out as the biggest factor in meeting the targets. This isn't an either/or thing � either land use change or roadway improvements. It's a both/and. We're going to have to do everything we can possibly think of and then some to get there. And then we've got to figure out where to get the money.