Driving climate change

Sacramento sprawl and the connection to global warming

The fate of the planet rests to some small extent on whether Sacramento County supervisors decide to approve more sprawl. It depends, too, on how close office buildings are to light-rail stations, and how many bike lanes are built in new subdivisions. These don’t seem like such big choices when it comes to climate change. But it all adds up.

At least that’s the idea behind Senate Bill 375, written by Sacramento’s state Sen. Darrell Steinberg and signed into law in 2008. It requires local governments to find ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by significantly reducing the “vehicle miles traveled” or VMTs, in their regions.

It’s a lot easier said than done, as Sacramento’s experience shows.

The law sets targets for local governments: Each metropolitan area is supposed to reduce their per-capita emissions from driving by about 7 percent by the end of this decade. They’re expected to trim their emissions by 15 percent by 2035.

If successfully implemented, S.B. 375 would account for a small fraction, about 3 percent, of the overall emissions reductions contemplated by California’s ambitious climate-change policy, the Global Warming Solutions Act, or Assembly Bill 32.

But reducing VMTs has lots of other benefits, such as reducing energy consumption and improving air quality and public health.

The law strongly links transportation funding, local land use and climate change. But many local governments can’t quite make the connection.

You’d think Sacramento would. After all, in 2005, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments—the transportation-funding agency for the six Sacramento-area counties and their constituent cities—adopted the regional Blueprint, a vision of future growth out to 2050 that called for less sprawl and more compact, “transit oriented development.” In fact, the Blueprint process was part of the inspiration for Steinberg’s S.B. 375.

Despite that lofty vision, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors is toying with the idea of opening as much as 20,000 acres of rural land, previously off limits, to suburban development in its updated general plan.

This proposal has some environmental groups sizing Sacramento County’s general plan up as a potential S.B. 375 “test case” in court, and the state’s Attorney General’s Office—first under Jerry Brown, then Kamala Harris—has let it be known that the county is flirting with a state lawsuit.

A recent letter from Harris’ office to county supervisors put it this way: “This is a golden opportunity for Sacramento County to become a leader in smart growth planning and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a path that all local governments will have to follow to comply with the State’s climate change goals.”

And last month, a report from the Public Policy Institute of California, titled “Driving Change,” concluded that local governments will have to make a “major behavioral shift” if S.B. 375 is going to be a useful tool in the fight against climate change.

“It’s feasible, but there are many challenges,” said Jed Kolko, researcher with the PPIC and one of the report’s authors.

The researchers recommend pricing policies such as new gas taxes or “VMT fees,” which would make it more expensive to drive and help fund transit.

Kolko also argues that “jobs really need to be closer to transit than housing does,” and recommends local governments encourage more commercial development near rail and other transit stations.

On a positive note, even if local governments are slow to embrace smart growth, the market may spur them on.

“The market is headed in that direction,” said Autumn Bernstein, of ClimatePlan, a coalition of environmental and transportation groups trying to influence state climate-change policy. “People under 40 are returning to the cities in vast numbers.”

Bernstein added, “We’ve been building as though everybody wanted to live in the suburbs and have three kids. That’s just not the demographics anymore.”