The state government has decided Californians are going to drive less, whether they like it or not. Want to buy a Prius or insulate your home as your contribution to lowering carbon emissions? Sorry, but that’s not doing enough for the government’s tastes. California wants politicians and planners to have a bigger say in where you live, shop and work so that they can make sure you don’t drive that Prius too far.
Senate Bill 375 is the state’s latest far-reaching piece of legislation intended to help to meet one objective: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020.
To cut emissions, the government will take a more active role in where you live, how you get there, and what kind of home you live in. While this legislation thankfully stripped away specific regional targets that would have been far more draconian, the core governing values underlying California’s approach should sound alarms in and out of the state.
Analysis prepared by the California Senate notes the legislative intent of the bill is to integrate housing planning with regional transportation planning. Regional planners are supposed to determine housing needs and use statistical modeling to “allocate housing units within the region consistent with the development pattern included in the SCS [sustainable communities strategy].”
A sustainable communities strategy is planning jargon for reducing carbon dioxide. It’s the only criterion that counts in SB 375. Neighborhoods could become mired in crime, failing infrastructure, and poor schools, but if they reduce carbon dioxide emissions they would be considered sustainable and conform to the SCS. This is Sacramento’s idea of “smart growth.”
An outcome as dire as this isn’t as far flung as it seems. The way California communities are expected to achieve lower carbon dioxide levels is by dramatically reducing mobility. Automobiles and light trucks, the legislation claims, emit 30 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. So the solution is to reduce driving, measured by vehicle miles traveled.
Such a grand, sweeping overhaul of land development will have significant negative consequences. Mobility will be greatly reduced since public transit (and walking) almost always takes significantly longer to reach destinations than automobile travel in California. Economic productivity will fall because companies will have access to fewer qualified workers within acceptable commuting distances. Job mobility will be limited since changing jobs will likely entail moving an entire household to a new home to avoid inordinately long commutes.
Fortunately, California planners can’t outright ban the use of cars – yet, or limit them to particular groups of people, as they do in places such as Singapore. Instead, cities and counties are required to achieve their greenhouse emissions targets using the obtuse and indirect method of changing land use. In other words, communities are expected to make driving so difficult and expensive that people will either walk or use transit.
Politicians in Sacramento don’t seem bothered by the fact that driving a hybrid automobile, such as the Prius, beats every public transit mode on carbon dioxide emissions except heavy rail.
Regional planners nevertheless are supposed to use their models to dramatically increase residential densities, and use smart growth planning to funnel new growth into “transit priority projects.” A transit priority project must have a minimum density of 20 dwelling units per acre, a standard that effectively prohibits single-family homes with a yard. Dramatically reducing automobile use means stuffing families into dense urban-living environments. Goodbye house, hello high rise. You didn’t really want a yard (or a car) anyway.
The bill stops short of explicitly mandating that all new development follow these rules, but the practical effect will likely be the same.
The heavy-handed, centralized approach to land-use planning embedded in SB 375 is an inevitable consequence of California’s greenhouse gas law passed in 2006, which requires emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.
Sadly, California legislators didn’t have to take this latest path. They could have recognized the value of mobility and the importance Californians place on housing choice by using deregulation and market incentives to enhance freedom and cut emissions. They could have streamlined the planning process, eliminating politics and red tape, while promoting mixed-use developments that don’t restrict other choices. Mixing condominiums and retail space, single-family homes and townhouses are not bad outcomes if they are desired by consumers.
On the energy front, they could have focused on market-based technological solutions to our energy needs, such as allowing the private sector to build nuclear power plants to produce electricity or streamlining the permitting process for wind power. Moving public utilities to market-based pricing for electricity, water and sewer, would also go a long way toward encouraging conservation and the development of alternative energy sources.
In the end, as it often does, the California legislature took the path of rigid control and top-down planning in ways that will hurt the state’s residents and businesses.