Article Special Series Tom Adams

The Road Less Traveled: Why Fewer Miles Are Better

Last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 32, California’s landmark law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The largest single sector of greenhouse gas emissions comes from cars and light trucks, much of which is attributable to our land use patterns.

The California Air Resources Board (ARB) has adopted new standards for vehicles to reduce tailpipe emissions. If they survive a pending legal challenge from the automobile industry, these standards will significantly contribute to reducing greenhouse gases from this sector. Governor Schwarzenegger has also proposed new low-carbon fuel standards, which are expected to be adopted by the ARB and would also significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks.

The reality, however, is that these measures will not be enough to achieve the goals of AB 32. Several million metric tons of greenhouse gases will still need to be removed from the air. Changing land use patterns is one way to do this.

Blueprints Aim to Reduce Emissions

Reducing vehicle miles traveled and increasing transit use are the keys to achieving greenhouse gas reductions through land use planning. Regional transportation agencies in California have been developing “regional blueprints” as part of their transportation plans. These blueprints show that land use patterns can be designed to reduce air pollution. While we may all have suggestions for how these blueprints might be improved, we have to recognize that they have made a significant contribution to improving air quality.

The regional blueprint for the rapidly growing Sacramento region, for instance, achieves a projected reduction of 15 percent in vehicle miles traveled per household. It does this, in part, by locating more growth closer to the urban core. The blueprint also shows 50 percent of new growth subdivisions built in greenfields (previously undeveloped land) that are not only closer to the urban core but also slightly more dense than they would be under a “business as usual” scenario. Increased densities within the urban areas tend to result in more public transit use.

The plan prepared by the Southern California Association of Governments achieves similar results. These blueprint processes show that local land use decisions can help the state achieve its very important climate change-related goals.

Regions throughout the state are working hard on implementing their blueprints, and many local government leaders are embracing these plans and adopting them at the local level. In the San Diego region, local governments are even stipulating that future transportation projects must conform to the regional vision.

Dollars Shrinking as Urban Footprint Expands

Local governments are supporting these blueprints in part because the money to keep expanding the urban footprint is just not available. We need to invest our infrastructure dollars in our existing communities. Many local leaders also recognize that these plans will lead to better communities and greater environmental protection. Mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented developments are increasingly popular with the public because they can enrich civic life. Most of us agree that a two-hour commute is not just hard on the environment, it’s also a hardship for working people 
and families.

Reducing vehicle miles traveled will relieve congestion, reduce greenhouse gases and decrease air pollution. It can also significantly reduce our consumption of petroleum products, which is both a national security and an environmental issue.

Dramatic Results Are Possible

Meeting the state’s climate goals requires change; but if the regional blueprint plans prepared by Sacramento and Southern California were replicated and implemented throughout the state, the results would be dramatic. Over a 25-year period, greenhouse gases could be reduced by almost 400 million metric tons. The reduction in air pollution would be equivalent to permanently shutting off all the state’s power plants and oil refineries. Commuters could save billions of dollars in gasoline costs. In terms of congestion relief, it would be the same as taking 2 million cars a year off the road. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and wildlife habitat could be saved – and we would enjoy more housing choices, shorter commutes, greater investment in existing communities and a better quality of life.

This article appears in the September 2007 issue of Western City
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