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California Can’t Be a Climate Leader Until it Stops Building Freeways

Caltrans should be inducing demand for active transportation and transit with protected bikeways and bus-only lanes.

Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog

Representatives from the State of California are in Dubai, United Arab Emirates right now for COP28, the climate summit where world leaders make agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our state is promoting itself as a climate leader, and in some respects, that’s accurate. But California can’t claim the mantle of responsible climate stewardship while it continues to build freeways that increase emissions and pollute vulnerable communities.

California’s delegation of high-level state officials discusses wind energy and EVs at COP28; back in California, Fresno residents have had to sue Caltrans for failing to disclose the carbon impact of two new freeway interchanges that will contribute to a significant increase in truck traffic.

While Caltrans spends billions each year repairing and mitigating the damage done by extreme weather caused by climate change, it continues to create the conditions for more harmful emissions. A planned freeway expansion in Yolo County, between Sacramento and Davis, may involve improper environmental review and misuse of state roadway repair funds. The controversy led to the firing of Caltrans deputy director for planning and modal programs Jeanie Ward-Waller, who planned to blow the whistle on the alleged malfeasance. 

The Yolo Causeway project is supposedly designed to decrease congestion, but it’s old news that adding roadway capacity induces demand, resulting in more vehicle miles traveled and often more congestion. Calltrans understands induced demand California Can’t Be a Climate Leader Until it Stops Building Freeways - it even has information on its website - yet it continues to implement projects that will increase VMT without reducing congestion.  

Caltrans should be inducing demand for active transportation by building protected bikeways with protected intersections that connect to robust local and regional networks of safe bike routes. It should be adding bus-only lanes and bus boarding islands, widening sidewalks, and improving conditions for people who walk or take transit.

In the middle of the last century, much of California’s identity centered on car culture. We invented drive-thru restaurants. You can even drive through a redwood or drive your car on the beach. We overshadowed once-bustling neighborhoods with freeways and built suburbs without sidewalks

But California doesn’t have to be defined by its car-centric past. If we are to build a new image as a climate leader, we must move beyond the fragmented, speed-addled landscape dictated by subservience to the motor vehicle. We need to be leaders in mode shift, in 15-minute neighborhoods, in reducing pollution and deaths from traffic, in enhancing existing transit networks and building new ones.

A prerequisite to making these changes is radical change at Caltrans. We can’t let a benighted agency drag us into the past. Only by ending our state’s love affair with road building will we be able to realize the climate-friendly future Californians want and need. CalBike is focusing much of our energy on measures to make these changes a reality. We hope you’ll join us.

Kendra Ramsey is the Executive Director of the California Bicycle Coalition.

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