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Bureaucratic Compliance With SB 375 May Not Reduce Driving

Now that the age of greenhouse gas emissions reduction is upon us, I think there's an important point worth making: Government agencies in California can try to comply with SB 375 – or they can focus on reducing driving.

There is a lot of overlap between the two, but they are not exactly the same thing. One is a complicated governmental bureaucratic process; the other requires governmental action about infrastructure and new development.

A few weeks ago I got into hot water with some folks for the way I characterized a panel discussion at California State University, San Bernardino's Leonard Transportation Center. I said that Ty Schuiling from the San Bernardino Associated Governments – and, to a lesser extent, Hasan Ikhrata from the Southern California Association of Governments – were saying that SB 375 is not the best way to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The complaint was that this isn't all they said. Schuiling in particular also outlined SANBAG's smart growth efforts, including focusing development around possible bus rapid transit lines. But there is no question that an undercurrent in the SB 375 discussion these days, especially in Southern California, is that if you want to reduce GHGs, SB 375 may not provide the most efficient path.

To a certain extent, this idea reflects the view of a lot of elected officials – not necessarily of Schuiling and Ikhrata – that there must be some other way, any other way, to reduce GHGs besides leaning on local governments to change their land use policies. But it also reflects, understandably enough, the disconnect between the very bureaucratic process contained in SB 375 and the very real challenge of actually using land use strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in real life – which means reducing driving.

Like a lot of regional planning efforts, SB 375 is a real contraption. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks through land use strategies. Regional planning agencies are given an emissions reduction target from the state. Then they have to prepare a "sustainable communities strategy" (SCS) that shows how emissions will be reduced. But the SCS has to be tied to the regional transportation plan (RTP), and the RTP has to be grounded in realistic travel forecasts. So if the SCS doesn't meet the state target, then the regional agency has to produce an "alternative planning strategy" (APS), but unlike the SCS, the APS doesn't have to be financially tied to the RTP. The bottom line is that a city or county does not get transportation funding unless it acts consistently with an SCS (but not an APS). There is also some streamlining under the California Environmental Quality Act tied to both. But local general plans do not have to have anything to do with any of this.

All of which means a lot of people will do a lot of paper-shuffling in an attempt to meet the bureaucratic requirements of SB 375. But on the ground, using land use strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of transportation fuels means one thing: Figuring out how to lay out California in such a way that people drive less.

This has been the basic issue buried in SB 375 from the beginning, as we have been reporting for 18 months now. It's understandable that people are a little intimidated by this idea, and hiding one's self in the bureaucratic rigmarole of SB 375 is indeed an attractive alternative.

But there are ways to tackle the driving issue head-on, and if California is going to make a successful transition to a more urban society – remaining livable without too much congestion or pollution – it seems to me that planners in the state simply have to dive into it.

How do you reduce driving? The standard planning answer of  compact, mixed-use development, transit, bicycling and so forth is, broadly speaking, correct. But the most effective solutions are both simpler and more nuanced than standard planning theology, partly because the goal is to drive less, not revolutionize how people live, and partly because California contains a particular form of urban development that is not the same as in New York, Europe, or Asia. So, as planners move forward trying to reduce driving, here are a few tips:

1. Put things closer together. I know, this sounds incredibly simple-minded. But it's true. If you want people to drive less, don't put things so far apart. The studies by environmental activist and researcher John Holtzclaw of the Bay Area, which show vehicle miles traveled increase as you move from the center of the metropolis to the edge, is based partly on transit; but it's also based partly on the simple fact that things are closer together in Berkeley than they are in Pleasanton, even if you have to drive.

There are a lot of consequences to putting things closer together, including a fair amount of localized traffic congestion that average citizens won't like. But there are huge environmental benefits, including less driving and probably less congestion overall.

2. Density for its own sake isn't enough. Simply building high densities of one type of land use will be counterproductive. A high-rise office center will generate a lot of trips, a lot of commuting, and, without good transit, a lot of traffic. A high-rise residential area will do the same.

3. Concentrate housing and jobs in close proximity to one another. This is effective not for the reason you might think. Hardly anybody walks to work anywhere. But considerable evidence exists that if you put lots of jobs and lots of housing in close proximity to one another, a sustainable market for everyday businesses and services can be created. If a daytime worker population can create some business for a dry cleaner, a drug store, and so forth, a nighttime/weekend resident population can glom onto those same businesses and make them truly viable.

4. Pay attention to the actual businesses, not just the land uses. Planners tend to think in terms of land uses. But people think in terms of businesses. Where is the business that serves my particular need? The most successful mixed-use districts usually have popular, local, service-oriented businesses. If even one of those businesses goes away, the local residents and employees will start driving elsewhere.

5. Think like a shopping mall. I know – the worst sin a planner can imagine. But shopping malls are a prime example of the "park once" strategy. Your grandmother drove all over town to different little businesses; now, you just go one place, park your car, and buy all kinds of things. Even a Wal-Mart or Costco superstore operates on this principle. The idea is to get you out of your car and into a particular location, and then manipulate you to do as many different things as you possibly can before you get back into your car. Isn't that what planners are trying to accomplish?

You won't find any of this in SB 375, nor under discussion at the state's Regional Targets Advisory Committee, nor at the regional planning agencies. Still, these are the things that California will have to do on the ground to accomplish SB 375's goals.
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