Affordable Housing, Air Quality & Emissions, California, CEQA / NEPA Issues, Regional Transportation Plan, Transit Villages

Planning for Climate Change

Mt. Diablo, courtesy Flickr user qf8.

In August 2006, the California legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), and the Governor approved it one month later, on September 27, 2006. AB 32 aims to transform California into a global leader in the climate change battle, requiring that greenhouse gas emissions levels be reduced to 1990 levels by the year 2020. AB 32 charges the California Air Resources Board (CARB) with several tasks, including: (1) adopt and enforce regulations that require the reporting of emissions; (2) create a scoping plan to provide a strategy for reducing emissions; and (3) adopt and enforce regulations that achieve AB 32’s emission reduction mandates. AB 32 requires that CARB adopt such regulations via an open public process. It further requires CARB to consult other state agencies, particularly the Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission, and it encourages CARB to study other emissions reductions programs, both domestic and foreign, when crafting its own plan.

We will need to implement a varied array of programs to achieve AB 32’s targets, but transportation accounts for over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions statewide, and almost 30% of emissions come from automobiles and light trucks — so reducing transportation emissions is a major piece of the puzzle. Of particular interest here is how smart land use and transportation planning can be implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the face of California’s projected population growth. Legal challenges will provide the mechanism by which CARB’s AB 32 regulations can be enforced, so the momentum has been building to enact state legislation that will strengthen the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to make it a more effective tool for enforcing AB 32.

Enter SB 375, authored by Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). First introduced in February 2007 and passed just last week by the state legislature, SB 375 now awaits the Governor’s signature. SB 375 is a complicated, multifaceted bill, but its overall message could not be clearer: transportation, housing, and land use — although traditionally placed in different thought boxes — are, in fact, closely intertwined, and the intersection area should be leveraged as a powerful tool to protect the environment and reduce emissions. In that sense, SB 375 is rightly hailed as a landmark piece of legislation.

The first section of SB 375 focuses on transportation planning — specifically, on the activities of California’s metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Here in the Bay Area, our local MPO is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. SB 375 requires each MPO to create a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) component to its Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Based on the RTP’s planning vision, the SCS for a particular region would evaluate where housing growth in that region can be accommodated in a way that encourages people to spend more time on transit and less time in the automobile, thus reducing emissions from automobiles and light trucks. CARB will provide each MPO with region-specific targets for reducing emissions by a certain amount by the year 2020 and by 2035. CARB will then review the RTP-SCS adopted by each of California’s MPOs to determine if the emission reduction targets are met. Starting in the year 2012, transit-oriented development that is consistent with the SCS would then be eligible for regional funding; and in order to incentivize smart growth, these funds would not be available for non-compliant projects. But what happens if a particular SCS does not meet CARB’s emission reduction targets? More on that in an upcoming post.

The second section of SB 375 is about housing. State law requires cities and counties to include a housing element in their general plans, which describes how each local jurisdiction plans to rezone its land so that it can house its fair share of projected regional growth at different income levels, as set forth in the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). SB 375 would enact a number of technical changes, including a different schedule for carrying out the RHNA process. The main goal underlying these amendments is to coordinate transportation and housing planning — in particular, to allocate housing in a way that is consistent with the growth blueprint that each MPO lays out in its RTP-SCS.

The third and last section of SB 375 concerns the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This is my personal favorite section of the bill, because CEQA reform is absolutely central to this discussion. CEQA demands that study of environmental impacts be carried out before going through with major projects, and that the studies be released in the form of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that is made available for public commentary; the EIR is then to be revised to respond to that commentary. Producing (and in many cases, defending the validity of) an EIR requires a lot of time and expense. Making the EIR process less time-consuming for the type of projects we would like to see more of — dense transit-oriented development — will provide an incentive to build more TOD, and to stop building the isolated exurban residential subdivisions that generate more automobile trips. One of the great things about SB 375 is that it does exactly that.

Cities and counties, when pursuing developments that comply with the SCS that has been prepared for their region, should focus on constructing “transit priority projects” (TPPs) that are sufficiently dense and close to transit. TPPs must meet several criteria, including: (1) at least half the square footage must be residential use; (2) floor area ratio (FAR) no less than 0.75; (3) at least 20 units per acre; and (4) within a half-mile of a major transit stop or a high quality transit corridor, which can include a bus line with peak headways of no more than 15 minutes. In other words, what we think of as solid transit-oriented development would likely qualify as a TPP. So what is the point of laying out this definition? The point is that SB 375 would implement the following change: if a TPP is consistent with a region’s SCS, and if it satisfies other necessary conditions (such as no interference with wetlands or the habitat of an endangered species), then a TPP may be approved with less rigorous environmental review.

In particular, two major types of impacts need not be reviewed: growth-inducing impacts, and greenhouse gas emissions from new automobile trips that the project will generate. It may seem ironic that a bill whose entire point is to help implement emissions reduction would authorize less rigorous environmental review of any greenhouse gas emissions at all. These impacts could be taken into account generally in the SCS, which provides a blueprint for where to focus housing growth so as to encourage transit use and and reduce emissions. But the point is to incentivize the right type of growth, by streamlining environmental review for development projects that are TPPs and are consistent with the SCS (i.e. is reasonably dense and near good transit). Low-density residential subdivisions built on farmland, which would likely be accessible only by car and would thus increase emissions, would not enjoy these exemptions. The exact requirements are more technical than what I have described here. But hopefully this summary fleshes out SB 375 in a more meaningful way, without jumping too much into the minutiae of CEQA.

Check back soon for another post on this topic. Until then, readers are encouraged to contact the Governor to encourage him to sign SB 375 into law once a state budget is finally approved. Also, my apologies for the mess of acronyms in this post. You can blame your senator for that!




  1. Pingback: SB 375 and AB 1358 Are on the Governor’s Desk « Transbay Blog - 8 September 2008

  2. Pingback: Getting Somewhere on Land Use « Transbay Blog - 12 September 2008

  3. Pingback: Catching Up « Living in the O - 14 September 2008

  4. Pingback: The Mismatch of California Planning « Transbay Blog - 22 September 2008

  5. Pingback: SB 375 and AB 1358: Victory for Livability Legislation « Transbay Blog - 30 September 2008

  6. Pingback: Squeezing the Sponge Dry « Transbay Blog - 13 February 2009

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