Commentary

California to Restrict Driving With Latest Global Warming Plan

State seeks to regulate where you can live so it can reduce your driving

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.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.