Report: California Efforts to Reduce Transportation Emissions Are Not Working

Californians need to drive less. Period.

More transit, more bikes, more walking is needed, and California regions aren't investing enough to meet state climate goals. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
More transit, more bikes, more walking is needed, and California regions aren't investing enough to meet state climate goals. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

California has for years—since the passage of S.B. 375 in 2008, and even before that, with Regional Blueprint Strategies—sought ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by planning for housing, jobs, services, and transportation in ways that allow people to drive less. At least, that was officially how it was supposed to work.

S.B. 375 required regions to add “Sustainable Communities Strategies” (SCS) to their regional transportation plans. An SCS is supposed to lay out what regions—and the cities and counties in them—would do to help reduce the need to drive everywhere.

All the regions have these plans now: they say they will build more housing near transit, invest in better transit, and improve conditions for people walking and biking. But S.B. 375 only required that these plans to be written and approved. There were no enforcement measures, and until last year’s S.B. 150 there wasn’t even a requirement that progress be measured.

The first S.B. 150 report was released today, and it is not good news.

California regions are not on track to meet their greenhouse gas emissions targets, not by 2035, and not even the “easier” targets in 2020. Other reports have announced that California will meet its 2020 targets, but those emission reductions are almost entirely from cleaning up the electricity sector, specifically because of an increase in hydroelectricity made possible by heavy rains in the past few years.

Emissions in the transportation sector, in contrast, are rising, even with cleaner fuels and more electric vehicles.

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Source: CARB, Tracking Progress on Sustainable Communities

The S.B. 150 report, pulled together by Air Resources Board (ARB) staff and based on data from regional agencies, shows that Californians are driving more, everywhere, per capita and over all.The report also finds that despite the existence of the SCS plans, regions are not investing enough in either climate-friendly transportation modes nor affordable homes near jobs and transit.

The report puts it baldly:

While positive gains have been made to improve the alignment of transportation, land use, and housing policies with state goals, the data suggest that more and accelerated action is critical for public health, equity, economic, and climate success….

California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030 and beyond without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded, and built.

“The plans are expected to meet the targets,” Ella Wise, State Policy Associate at ClimatePlan, told Streetsblog. “The problem is that they’re not being implemented. We’re not seeing the investments we need in affordable homes near transit, and in sustainable transportation infrastructure, so people can easily walk, bike, and take the train or bus — and so reduce driving.”

The targets are set by law—S.B. 32—and ARB works with the regions to set attainable goals for each. At every update to the state scoping plans, the regional governments—in Southern California, in the Bay Area, in Sacramento, in the Central Valley—have fought for easier emission reduction targets, claiming there are too many factors outside of their control that prevent them from meeting more stringent targets.

It’s true that there are many challenges to this project, and the report discusses them in detail. There isn’t enough housing being built of any kind, let alone the high-density, transit-adjacent kind. The report finds that while compact growth is increasing in California, so is urban sprawl.

There is only so much a regional planning agency can do. They control some transportation funding, but not all. They have the ability to create a few incentives or discourage bad planning because they make some transportation funding decisions, but most land use planning remains firmly within local control.

But there are some factors within the control of planning agencies that have perhaps been overlooked. While they have been busy creating strategic plans to encourage environmentally-friendly transportation, those same regions, cities, and counties have continued to invest in building new highways and expanding existing ones.

In fact, regions are still placing highway projects—the Southeast Connector in Sacramento is a good example—at the top of their priorities lists. In the name of “congestion relief,” planners even claim that these travel-inducing projects will bring greenhouse gas emission benefits from “smoother traffic.”

According to the report:

The overall ratio of dollars planned to be spent on roads versus on infrastructure for other modes in the largest regions of California has shown remarkably little shift. The changes that have been made so far are clearly not of the magnitude necessary to have yet had a significant impact on these challenges.

Meanwhile many of the strategies in the regional Sustainable Communities Strategies have remained on paper, unfunded, and at the bottom of transportation priorities lists.

This report is dour enough news, but it comes on the heels of the Fourth National Climate Assessment from the federal government. That report, released on Friday and immediately downplayed by the Trump administration, says climate change will bring dire consequences to the economy, environment, and people’s health, even in a best-case scenario in which California’s efforts pay off.

“The good news, at least, is now we know,” said Wise. The ARB report “is a strong call to action. Emissions from transportation are rising, and that’s the biggest source of emissions–this is why we have to reduce driving. The state, regions, cities, and counties all have to step up.”

“Fundamentally, we need to focus on translating those plans into changes on the ground,” she said, “because it’s clear that what we’re doing now isn’t sufficient.”

S.B. 150 was written to bring accountability to one of California’s signature climate change efforts, the move to plan transportation and land use for better, more livable communities. This first report shows all the planning has not been enough. Major shifts in priorities will be needed, to shift money and investments away from car infrastructure and towards better, more frequent, more extensive transit options.

The state’s current structure of policies and lack of incentives will continue to produce and exacerbate the insufficient results outlined in this report unless shared responsibility, changes in authority or mandates and incentives, and strong, deliberate, collaborative action is taken by state, regional, and local policymakers to foster a policy environment that enhances the way we live, work, and travel.

“The plans exist, but they are not resulting in the investments we need,” said Wise. “The focus has been on developing strong plans, and we have those plans, but now we have to focus on what regions, cities, and counties need to do, so that they are working with and planning transportation projects that meet climate goals.”

“We know what to do; we just have to make it easier for people to get around by biking and walking and taking transit,” said Wise.

The report will be formally discussed at the second joint meeting of the Air Resources Board and the California Transportation Commission (CTC) on December 4 in Los Angeles.

The CTC is in charge of allocating money for transportation projects in California, so this will be a new opportunity to discuss the importance of shifting state resources towards investments that encourage sustainable transportation choices.

Written comments on the report can be submitted to ctc[at]catc.ca.gov by 10 a.m. December 3.

  • JDietrick

    A bipartisan group of Congressmen introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Tax and Dividend Act that is a significant step to steadily reverse gasoline use by correcting its distorted price. It gives everyone a heads up that the years of cheap gas are numbered. The revenue neutral policy puts enough dividend payments in the pockets of Americans to spend in whatever way makes sense for that household to make the transition. At least a third will come out ahead financially. With a price correction operating throughout the economy, California agencies can continue to try whatever other measures they deem effective and fair. Learn more at
    https://citizensclimatelobby.org/energy-innovation-and-carbon-dividend-act/

  • Edward

    Actually it’s an age thing. Older people whose social life was tied up in the automobile when they were young versus younger people whose social life is tied up in a smart phone. A survey was made of 18 to 25 year olds, “Would you rather give up your car or your smartphone?”

    What do you think was the result? It’s something older folks have a hard time wrapping their minds around.

  • Edward

    Some do. Some don’t.

  • Kevin Withers

    It’s already “after the fact”.

    It’s not a binary choice. Transportation will evolve, but the juvenile, SB “war-on-cars” generates the same results as banging ones head on a brick wall. Have fun.

  • artnouveau

    Yeah, but a lot of it is largely theoretical. Besides, three possible problems with extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

    1. Where does carbon extraction stop and who decides? When it reaches net-zero? Or will those who presumably will have invested small fortunes in decarbonizing schemes insist or continuing carbon extraction? Perhaps going beyond leading to global cooling? I mean how far is this going to go?

    2. Next, what about all of those other pollutants (e.g. toxic, criteria and other greenhouse gas pollutants, gases like methane, the fluoronated gases, nitrous oxide and sulfur hexafluoride) released from fossil-fuel-burning processes? Do we exclude all of those to focus only on carbon extraction?

    3. And, finally, how much of an impact can carbon extraction make when gigatons of carbon emissions are released from fossil-fuel burning into the atmosphere yearly?

    It is better to focus on ways of preventing the release of emissions rather than addressing the problem after-the-fact.

  • Kevin Withers

    Uh, oh, huh, gee whiz.
    Carbon extraction is a thing.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_removal

  • WorldCommenter

    Denser cities are a relatively new living arrangement for homo sapiens, which spent millennia living as roaming hunter / gatherers and then dispersed farmers. Protection from invaders, trade, manufacturing and industrialization brought people together in villages, towns and cities. Technological benefits of electricity, natural gas, clean water and sewage treatment were easier to provide to concentrated groups of people versus dispersed farms. However high rise apartments or condominiums are relatively recent, at most the last 100 to 125 years. Now technology of distributed energy resources, telecommuting, IIoT, IoT and automated manufacturing is not requiring that people be crowded together, so people natural want to have the space and openness of suburban or rural lifestyles versus congested high rise inter-cities.

  • WorldCommenter

    Do you see Malibu residence, rural / suburbs, moving in droves to Century City, urban / high rises? NO! Do you see Beverly Hills mansion residence selling and moving into high rise apartments or condominiums? NO! The wealthy will keep their suburban and rural spacious living, while the middle class and poor are herded into compact living spaces for the sake of the environment.

  • artnouveau

    “Carbon-extraction,” uh, no. “De-fossilization,” while it won’t be impossible, it will, however, be difficult as this is contingent on changing behaviors, especially in the transportation and travel sectors.

  • artnouveau

    You know there is a problem when the reward for reducing toxic, criteria and greenhouse gas emissions is to receive funding to build new or expand existing highways. Go figure!

  • Kevin Withers

    😉 In any case, yimbys grabbed onto the stack and pack agenda and are promoting it as gospel. Go figure.

  • Bernard Finucane

    If the best argument you have is a dumb rhyme, you don’t have any good arguments. 😉

  • Bernard Finucane

    Let them stay in the suburbs. Building denser housing doesn’t kill suburbs.

  • @Kevin Withers – “Stack ‘n’ Pack” was popularized by Glenn Beck while he was at Fox News, as part of fomenting against the U.N.’s Agenda 21 with an insane conspiracy theory. Apparently it has impressed people who imagine themselves to be progressive yet are susceptible to things that rhyme.

  • Kevin Withers

    It’s been tossed around so wide and often that the term nimby has become redundant. Everyone should care about their city/neighborhood. Period.

    EVs are indeed part of the solution. It will happen through the market. Not through Sacramento.

  • Edward

    But you do sound like a typical NIMBY. Many of those consider themselves to be progressives, just not on this particular item.

    But buck up. Even the car manufacturers think that EVs are the future. They plan to end production of ICE powered cars in one or two decades because they will cost more than EVs and the consumer in these situations is king.

  • p_chazz

    And what are the penalties for not meeting the goals? If there are no penalties, the goals will not be met. No one will put up with draconian measures. I predict that the goals are reduced or the deadlines are moved to the 2040s.

  • Kevin Withers

    Try getting out of your bubble occasionally. Right wing extremist? I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life.

    You give yourself away when you try to stereotype people into preconceived categories.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    You give yourself away when you say “stack and pack housing” – a phrase commonly used by right-wing extremists.

    In reality, Californians are members of the species Homo sapiens, like people all over the world who live in denser cities – which means we do not have an inborn, genetic aversion to living in denser cities.

  • Kevin Withers

    Make “plans”. Set “goals”. That’s what legislators in California like to do. In the 10 years between 2008 & 2018, did anyone really expect a paradigm shift?

    Without the full support of the population, little will change. You cannot legislate society and/or lifestyles. The SB375 and AB32/SB32 bills never had popular support, despite the religious fanaticism of Jerry Brown. They were passed because they were “goals” and not requirements.

    High density living will never appeal to more than a small sub-section of California. The future hopes for all of us lie in things like carbon-extraction and de-fossilization. Not stack and pack housing and bicycles…

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Climate Plan, a coalition of more than fifty nonprofits working on California climate policies, released a report [PDF] about what we’ve learned from S.B. 375, one of California’s policy efforts to grapple with climate change. The coalition held a day of presentations in Sacramento on Monday to celebrate the release. Presenters—people who’ve been working in […]