Thanks, But No Thanks California: You can keep your anti-mobility enviro policies

Many environmental policy ideas that have originated in California over the last century—some decent, but most ill-conceived—have been replicated in other states and even at the federal level. For the sake of mobility, freedom and choice, here’s an idea that we hope stays contained to the Golden State (and hopefully even falls apart there):

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark bill Tuesday to discourage sprawl in future decades, completing a deal among environmentalists, homebuilders and local governments on the final day of bill signing. Senate Bill 375, by Democratic Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, will push California communities to consider climate change impacts of development in regional planning, with an emphasis on reducing car travel. Environmentalists and other proponents feared the bill was in trouble as Schwarzenegger officials raised transportation and business concerns last week. But the Republican governor ultimately embraced SB 375 as a “first in the nation” effort to link land-use planning and greenhouse-gas reductions. “This legislation constitutes the most sweeping revision of land-use policies since Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA),” Schwarzenegger wrote in a statement. The bill requires the California Air Resources Board to set regional targets by September 2010 for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The state will use its annual $5 billion pot of transportation money to encourage regions to embrace compact residential development. The legislation also will relax CEQA requirements for housing projects that meet goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, giving homebuilders incentive to pursue high-density projects near transit. Steinberg sees SB 375 as a necessary step to meet the state’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals. Under 2006’s AB 32, the state must reduce its greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020. “This fundamentally changes the way we think about growth,” Steinberg said. “It does not reduce growth. I think growth is inevitable and a good thing. But it will allow California to grow in ways that are sustainable for our environment.”

Dubious here would be an understatement. Hmmmm…sustainable for the environment? What about the economy, one of the three “Es” of sustainability (environment, economy, equity)? It’s hard to imagine that such a massive attempt at state interventionist, centralized planning with such an impact on mobility and land use would have no bearing on what is generally regarded as a terrible economic climate to do business. And the history of lofty promises and failed delivery in urban planning certainly cast doubt on the very notion that this would do anything more than add another layer of red tape and poor planning to an already onerous regulatory framework. Back to the article:

Some business groups remained critical because the bill did not allow commercial development to benefit from CEQA changes. And some local officials said it overreached by allowing the state to dictate greenhouse-gas reduction goals for each region. Proponents believe the measure will push communities to pursue more infill projects and new communities that are transit-focused, discouraging car travel despite future population growth. Transportation, including commute and errand traffic and trucks carrying goods, accounted for 38 percent of California’s greenhouse-gas emissions from 2002 to 2004, according to a CARB report. The bill is based on a “smart growth” plan adopted by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. “Californians will see more infill,” said SACOG Director Mike McKeever. “They’ll see higher-density housing, particularly in transit corridors. The new areas will look more like existing neighborhoods with a mix of uses between schools, stores and housing.”

If local governments want to jump into the murky waters of smart growth, fine. They can take that (high) risk of failure to achieve their goals, and local voters can throw the bums out if they don’t deliver on their “ma and pa, picket fences, and apple pie” promises. But we know from our research that the states that have bestowed strong land use powers to the state—taking it from the local level, its proper place—haven’t exactly delivered on the promises pitched to sell the idea to other policymakers. In short, expect the opposite of what proponents claim as this moves into implementation. My colleague Sam Staley recently wrote this accurate summation (IMO) of SB 375:

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. [. . .] 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. [. . .] 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.

As an aside, I watched a PBS special on Ronald Reagan recently, and it reminded me of what a shame it is that the state has deteriorated so much, policy-wise, since his days as Governor. I wonder what he would think of the dismal state of things today, with people and businesses fleeing over-taxation and over-regulation (and btw, bringing lots of silly ideology with them to places like Arizona, where I live now). Unions have a virtual lock on the legislature, so innovative ideas from spending reform to transportation funding to market-based environmental policies have virtually no chance of moving forward. It’s sad to see what should be a leading state on a steady decline, led by a legislature bent on compounding its problems through thinly-veiled collectivism, hastening its malaise. Contrast that with Texas, its polar opposite. Texas is sitting on billions in surplus right now, has passed tort reform, has no state income tax and a far friendlier business tax climate, has little state welfare to speak of, and is set to explode through the growth it’s attracting. In Texas, cities can do planning and zoning, counties cannot, and the state has no interest in usurping local land use control. What’s the key difference? Policymakers in Texas, from Governor Perry on down, seem to get the one key thing that California policymakers forgot a long time ago: economic maturity drives social progress. This is especially true in environmental policy. We know from global experience that countries cannot focus on environmental improvement without having the economic maturity to be able to facilitate it—put differently, you need a decent economy before you can tackle big environmental issues, because environmental gains come with a significant price tag. Reversing the order here—adopting counterproductive environmental policies at the expense of economic vitality—is practically guaranteeing that the only road soon to be left to drive on in California is the road to serfdom. And with the bailout swirling in DC, that road is starting to get congested. Let’s hope other states don’t take inspiration from a peer that doesn’t deserve to be followed. Reason’s Growth and Land Use Research and Commentary