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 January 09, 2019
California's Car Population is Exploding

 A blunt report recently compiled by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finds that Californians are driving more than ever --- and unless the state reverses that trend it will not meet its ambitious climate milestones. These include a target of producing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and reaching California's 2045 carbon-neutrality goal. The report is the first of a series of four-year assessments to take stock of the state's progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions under Senate Bill 375.

The report estimates that about three-quarters of commuters drive alone to work, a figure that in most regions is staying the same or growing, and that statewide vehicle travel per capita has increased.

The report's authors say California's lofty climate agenda is undermined by two factors: a booming economy and the rising cost of housing, particularly in coastal metropolises --- with the latter factor causing people to face longer commutes to their jobs. The researchers claim that even as cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.

David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB's climate change programs, said state and local government investments must make systemic and structural changes to help people do more than just buy cleaner cars.

"All the state, regional and local agencies involved need to up their game," Clegern said. "It's not so much that they aren't working on it, but it's an effort that needs to be a higher priority, since much of the climate fight will be at the local and neighborhood level."

He added that a big part of that effort is incorporating mass transit into regional, local and neighborhood planning to provide Californians with options to get them out of their cars.

The report also highlights the difficulty of getting people to abandon automobiles when the only affordable housing options are far from their employment. Targeting housing costs as a key factor in the increased miles driven by Californians, the report states that nearly half of all renters spend more than the recommended 35 percent of their income on housing. Only one-quarter of affordable homes needed for low-income families have been built, the authors say.

The CARB report was released shortly before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the Centennial project, located 60 miles north of L.A., which has been derided by opponents as contributing to suburban sprawl, a car-based lifestyle and fire dangers.

In an email Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for the Tejon Ranch Company, Centennial's developer, said that the project's proposed 3,480 affordable housing units make it "the largest commitment to affordable housing undertaken by any private developer in Los Angeles County for certain, and perhaps in California."

A similar far-flung and controversial proposed development, Newland Sierra, was green-lit last year by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Aruna Prabhala, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Urban Wildlands program, says the argument that developments like Centennial and Newland Sierra will fix the housing crisis is specious.

"In California we say we're committed to sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction, yet we still approve outdated models of development," said Prabhala. "Developers present [models like] Centennial as solutions for affordability, but what solves the problem is infill development and housing close to existing jobs --- not leapfrog development."

Governor Gavin Newsom made affordable housing and increased building central to his 2018 election campaign. In the state legislature, several measures aimed at housing affordability are in the works. Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), for example, is planning legislation to encourage low-income housing construction through tax credits for developers.

In the state Senate, an expanded version of the controversial SB 827, which died in committee last year, was introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) in December and is expected to see its first committee vote in March or April. Like SB 827, SB 50 would mandate incentives for denser development near transit centers. Wiener told Capital & Main that the new bill addresses concerns of vulnerable communities by providing stronger tenant demolition restrictions and would encourage housing starts in job-rich areas that don't have transit options.

Wiener said he was "pleasantly surprised and thrilled" by the CARB report's conclusions and prescriptions. "It was clear and spoke the truth that our restrictive anti-housing policies are undermining our climate goals. Unless we address our land use pattern, car use and emissions will keep going up."