Driving Californians Out of Their Cars

Loren Kaye
President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education

In a state whose voters are obsessed not only with curbing waste but trimming their waistlines, it should come as no surprise that state officials want to put California on a “road diet.”

Not to be confused with South Beach or Jenny Craig, a road diet basically is tough love. Halting road and highway expansion will create more congestion, which will convince drivers to seek out more efficient transportation options, such as transit, carpools, or relocation near their jobs or schools (or out of state).

As is the trend in California public policy, the road diet was inspired by the state’s consuming interest in reducing carbon emissions. Just last year, the Legislature set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2030 by 40 percent below 2020 levels.

The mildest expletive for that new goal is “ambitious.” Between 2020 and 2030, California must reduce GHG emissions by about 4 percent a year – double the pace of the prior decade. This comes after squeezing out the least costly energy efficiencies, increasing renewable electric power to one-third the total portfolio, and initiating a first-in-the-nation cap-and-trade program.

Those were the easy steps. Beginning in 2020, more stringent and expensive compliance requirements and lifestyle changes will come to California businesses and residents.

Planners and regulators devote their attention to the transportation sector because it makes up the largest chunk of GHG emissions. Key strategies include increasing fuel prices through the cap-and-trade market, mandating less carbon-intensive fuels, and subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles. But according to the California Air Resources Board, even more is required:

A reduction in the growth of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) is needed. VMT reductions are necessary to achieve the 2030 target and must be part of any strategy evaluated in this plan.

The bottom line, per the Air Board’s draft regulatory goal, is a 15 percent reduction in total light-duty VMT by 2050.

The policy would require an absolute cut in per-capita mileage, meaning that on average California residents will need to figure out how to commute, get to school, and manage their daily lives while driving fewer miles. California businesses would need to deliver more goods to a larger population during the next two decades.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has taken the road diet to another level: incorporating the principle into the state’s most powerful land use tool, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

According to a draft OPR regulation interpreting CEQA,

Reducing roadway capacity (i.e., a “road diet”) will generally reduce VMT and therefore is presumed to cause a less than significant impact on transportation. Building new roadways, adding roadway capacity in congested areas, or adding roadway capacity to areas where congestion is expected in the future, typically induces additional vehicle travel.

Since additional VMT would be a “significant effect” under CEQA, agencies will need to mitigate those effects for these new projects, whether they are road capacity improvements, new housing developments, or job-creating commercial investments.

The intended effect of these policies will be to dissuade investment in projects that create more traffic or rely on expanded transportation infrastructure. But the long plan is to alter fundamentally California’s land-use policy and priorities from a tradition of meeting housing demand with a diverse menu of housing choices and price points to a laser focus on creating dense, urban housing near transit hubs, without regard to affordability.

The Air Board’s plan sets the terms of this new land-use regime. It proposes numerous additional actions that would further discourage automobile trips, from encouraging more transit to establishing urban growth boundaries.

In principle, a greater emphasis on urban infill housing seems like a good idea. After all, reducing transportation burdens and conserving farmland or open space are important attributes.

But the natural consequence of directing development into the urban core and away from suburban areas is to ratchet up further the price of housing in the job centers. When the price of close-in housing inevitably rises, more workers will seek affordable housing further afield, thereby increasing commute times and cars on the road.

Regulatory infill policy contains the seeds of its own destruction. When government creates scarcity, prices will rise. A housing policy that favors dense urban development and discourages regional housing will price out low- and middle-income Californians, who will seek more-affordable housing options further from the favored urban (and jobs) center. After all, an urban growth boundary creates an economic distinction, not a literal wall preventing commutes from outlying areas.

But don’t take my word for it.

The nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst found a direct relationship between housing costs and commute times.

After … in essence isolating the effect of housing costs on commute times – (we found) a 10 percent increase in a metro’s median rent is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in individual commute times.

Perhaps most insidious is the antidemocratic nature of the road diet. Creating a new cause of action under CEQA for increased miles driven will undermine new, voter-approved local transportation projects. Across the state voters have agreed to increase their sales taxes in return for specific improvements in local streets and highways.

Just last month the Legislature narrowly approved the first fuel tax increase in decades, with promises to improve the state transportation network. Whether these improvements can survive the Scylla of climate policy and the Charybdis of CEQA will be a test of political will for California leaders.

After many years of mostly theoretical debate over the direction of California under ambitious climate change policies, real effects on ordinary Californians are now within sight. The road diet will be but the first of many new policies to constrain Californians’ lifestyle. Will it reshape our society for the better or starve middle-class Californians of new housing?

Originally published in Eureka, a publication of the Hoover Institution.

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