Courtesy Flickr user joshua aaron.
Earlier this week, we spent some time delving into SB 375, the landmark Senate Bill that recently passed through the legislature and, at the time of writing this post, awaits only the Governor’s signature. The bill unifies transportation and land use planning, housing, and global warming into one package, with the ultimate aim of encouraging dense growth near good transit. The bill would leverage transit oriented development as a crucial tool in the struggle to fulfill AB 32’s mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The very brief two-sentence version of the bill: SB 375 requires that each region in California create a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) that details where it makes sense to accommodate new growth near transit. If a new development, appropriately located, is classified as a Transit Priority Project (TPP) — meaning that it is sufficiently dense and close to a transit route that receives frequent service — that project would be exempt from studying certain environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If you haven’t already done so, please read this earlier post for full details on SB 375.
SB 375 is a pretty exciting piece of legislation, but we still have a lot of work to do. Certain individuals who occupy seats in the California legislature — McClintock, we are looking at you — are eternally captivated by the suburban non-planning of the 1950s, opining that:
Most people don’t want to live in dense urban cores. Most people want a little elbow room – they want a yard for their children to play in. They want a little grass, a little garden, a little breathing room they can call their own. And who the hell are you to tell people they can’t?
Based on McClintock’s remark, you might think SB 375 is all about burning single-family homes to the ground and replacing them with high-rises. This is of course completely untrue: suburbs are not going anywhere. Rather than thinking of this as removing the option of the traditional suburb, SB 375 is properly viewed as adding a new option, by making the increasingly desirable transit-oriented lifestyle more widely available. But the trick lies in lining up the commitment to implement it.
It’s important to keep in mind both what SB 375 requires, and what it does not require. Even when the Governor signs the bill into law, it would not necessarily be an automatic panacea for the poor land use planning that has turned California into the congested, auto-oriented place it is now. Under SB 375, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) — which is the state agency responsible for implementing and enforcing AB 32 — would oversee the planning activities of all metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in California by: (i) informing each MPO about what the emissions targets are for its region, and (ii) evaluating the SCS that each MPO produces, to determine whether the SCS actually realizes those emissions targets. In the earlier post about SB 375, I raised, but postponed the answer to, the following question: what if an SCS fails to meet CARB’s emissions reduction targets? If that happens, the MPO who produced that SCS must provide what the bill calls an Alternative Planning Strategy (APS). The APS would document what changes would need to be made — in terms of infrastructure, development patterns, and so forth — to achieve the emissions reduction targets. Unlike the SCS, an APS would remain separate from the Regional Transportation Plan. Although California’s MPOs would be required under SB 375 to produce an APS (assuming that the SCS fails to meet the targets), they are not actually required to implement the APS, because doing so may go beyond the scope of what funding will become available. So, for regions whose SCS does not meet CARB’s targets, the APS is less a plan adopted with the intent of being carried out, and more of a goal to ideally work toward achieving.
It’s not that SB 375 is altogether free of requirements. Each MPO must undergo the process of producing and reviewing its SCS, which will basically be a growth blueprint that responds to the region’s transportation plan. But the language in SB 375 is careful to expressly point out that it will in no way encroach upon the authority that local governments have traditionally enjoyed to regulate land use — so, despite the requirements, it is likely that the extent to which SB 375 is successful in transforming land use patterns will be based more on incentives, rather than mandates. Starting in 2012, regional funding will be targeted toward transit-oriented development that is consistent with the SCS. In addition, projects that fall under the TPP classification are exempt from the need to review certain types of environmental impacts under CEQA. This would encourage more transit-oriented development, by streamlining the time-consuming and expensive CEQA process only for the type of dense, compact growth that is consistent with the SCS. And then there is the overriding, less tangible incentive: as Californians are hit harder by gasoline prices that will rise in the long-term, and as the need to push back against climate change continues to press into our minds, it becomes increasingly apparent that we must take steps to correct the planning mistakes of previous generations.
It is critical that all public entities involved in this process — cities, counties, and MPOs all over the state of California, as well as CARB itself — take this especially seriously, until enough time has passed to add some perspective illuminating how beneficial smart growth will be in the long-term. CARB, as the agency that both issues regulations and provides state oversight of local transportation planning, is entrusted with a great deal of discretion — but this is not necessarily a cause for comfort, at least not yet. This past summer, CARB released a draft scoping plan, which basically describes strategies that should be implemented to move California towards AB 32 compliance. These strategies include: energy efficiency, solar roofs, green buildings, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, implementing and expanding Pavley standards for vehicles, and high speed rail. However, the draft scoping plan falls short in that it understates the importance of land use planning. It fails to provide any criteria by which to judge whether a new development project brings us closer to or further from AB 32 compliance, particularly in terms of whether the development is most naturally accessed by car or by transit/on foot. (Is the project a multiple-story mixed-use development that activates the street and is within walking distance of a train station, with limited parking hidden under and behind the buildings? Or is it a strip mall with a free parking lot fronting directly onto the street, distant from transit and hostile to pedestrians?) Basically, the report gives lip service to the idea that smart land use could be related to reducing emissions, but it provides no clear policy direction. The final scoping plan should be amended to address this deficiency. It could start with SB 375’s definition of Transit Priority Project, but a more nuanced set of criteria would be preferable.
Reducing transportation emissions cannot stop with setting more stringent standards for vehicles. We must adopt smarter growth patterns that place density near transit, so that Californians will be encouraged to adapt their auto-centered lifestyles accordingly. Call it “social engineering” if you must, but one only need familiarize oneself briefly with major urban centers — where car ownership is low, and transit ridership and pedestrian activity are high — to realize what a powerful tool dense, well-designed, transit supportive land use can be for reducing vehicle miles traveled, and in turn for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is a statewide issue, and most parts of California are behind the Bay Area in this respect — so the directive to cities and counties to pursue compact growth should come from the State, even if if the details are most appropriately worked out on the local level. But the main point here is that while SB 375 includes many useful, thought-provoking changes, this is not the end of the story. Only time will tell whether the incentives that SB 375 provides will prove strong enough to significantly transform the landscape of California’s cities.