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State Struggling to Reduce Vehicle Emissions

This post was originated by our content partners at California Watch.

Report says driving needs to be more costly to get us out of our cars

By Marie C. Baca

Drivers now pay $6 to cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge during peak traffic hours. "Peak pricing" is one strategy to push commuters to alternative transit. (Photo: Craig Miller)

California faces significant obstacles in complying with a 2008 state law aimed at reducing passenger vehicle usage, according to a report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

The report points to unrealized rail transit investments and resistance to pricing tools like fuel taxes as factors that have slowed reduction in car usage.

The two-year-old SB 375 mandates that California’s major metropolitan areas reduce per capita emissions from driving by 7 percent by 2020 and by 15 percent in 2035. While the primary focus of the bill is a reduction in the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, the legislation places a special emphasis on addressing traffic and public health concerns by reducing the number of miles residents drive. Continue reading

Hidden Treasure: An “Eco-City” in SF Bay?

Thousands roar by Treasure Island every day without a passing glance. That could soon change…radically.

Listen to Alison Hawkes’ companion radio feature on The California Report, Monday morning, and see a slide show of the island’s transformation, below.

Architect's rendering of a proposed "eco-city" on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco’s twin islands in the Bay – Treasure Island and Yerba Buena – are not exactly jewels of nature. Although they have stunning views, a half-century of use by the U.S. Navy and years in redevelopment limbo have taken a toll.

Some sites on Treasure Island are severely contaminated, and much of the island is cracked asphalt and derelict buildings. Yerba Buena is solid rock but Treasure Island is entirely artificial, conjured from bay mud as an engineering showcase for the 1939 World’s Fair. As time passes, a corner of Treasure Island is gradually sinking into the sea. Rising sea levels as a result of climate change could subsume the island entirely, returning it back to its natural state, which is to say underwater.

In short, the place needs some serious help and this is where a massive multi-billion dollar redevelopment takes stage. Private developers want to transform the islands into a high-density “eco-city” with as many as 20,000 residents, making use of the best that technology and city planning have to offer in sustainable development. Continue reading

Tackling Greenhouse Gases from Cars

Photo: Craig Miller

California’s regional planning authorities need to find new ways to get people to leave their cars at home.

Passenger vehicles are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in California, comprising one third of all the state’s emissions.  Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, is designed to chip away at those emissions by curbing sprawl and encouraging infrastructure that gets Californians to drive less — or at least, not as far.

This week the state Air Resources Board met a milestone (so to speak) in the implementation of the law by sending to California’s 18 regional planning organizations, greenhouse gas reduction targets for cars and light trucks .  Now it will be up to the regions to create their own strategies for linking land use and transportation planning in ways that lure Californians out of their cars. Continue reading

Rebuilding a Buffer Against Climate Impacts

Hear our radio feature on wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, to be aired Friday afternoon on The California Report.

As my colleague Paul Rogers reported this week, earth has begun to move in the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. This week I took a brief tour of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, near Hayward.

What is and what will be: Hundreds of acres of salt evaporation ponds, in the background, are being restored to tidal wetlands, as seen in the foreground of this scene from Eden Landing in Hayward. (All photos: Craig Miller)

Scanning much of the scene, “Eden” wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Vast, white expanses of salt and gypsum deposits are more reminiscent of Utah than a bay estuary. These are the remnants of a once booming salt harvesting industry.

But fueled partially by federal stimulus funding, bulldozers and backhoes are now reshaping levees there as part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will eventually return 630 acres of abandoned salt flats into tidal wetlands at Eden Landing, and thousands more in an arc around the south end of San Francisco Bay. Continue reading

Another Climate Change Impact: Smog

Los Angeles cloaked in smog shortly after sunrise. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Air pollution, already a problem for much of central and southern California, will get worse as temperatures warm, according to a new report from scientists at UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

By mid-century, trouble spots like the Central Valley and Los Angeles could experience between six and 30 more days per year when ozone concentrations exceed federal clean-air standards, depending on how much temperatures rise, and assuming that pollutant emissions in the state remain at current levels, the scientists project. Continue reading

Linking Sprawl and Climate Change

Mark Strozier

(Photo: Mark Strozier)

Transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in California. So in a state where car culture rules, what will it take to get us out of our cars?

That’s the goal behind SB 375, a bill passed in 2008 that links greenhouse gases to urban sprawl. Under this first-in-the-nation policy, the state’s 18 regional planning organizations must reduce the emissions coming from vehicles through land use and transportation planning. This week, the Air Resources Board is expected to release the draft emission reduction targets that the agencies must meet by 2020 and 2035.

While the chances of getting Californians out of their cars completely are slim, the idea is to reduce the number of miles traveled through more public transit, more “walkable” communities and denser development. (Learn more about that in this Quest story about transit villages).

According to a report released today, that development approach can have some dramatic benefits, considering how California is expected to grow. By 2050, some projections put the population at 60 million, adding seven million new households.

The planning firm Calthorpe Associates looked at those housing needs and ran a number of growth scenarios, in a study funded by the California Strategic Growth Council and California High Speed Rail Authority. They compared a business-as-usual approach of low-density suburbs (30% urban and compact growth) to a “growing smart” scenario with more urban in-fill and transit-oriented development (90% urban and compact growth). While that last scenario may sound like the land of endless condos, according to Peter Calthorpe, it would still be 53% single family homes. Calthorpe calls it “a shift back to what California used to build–bungalows.”

Here are some of the benefits they found for the scenario by 2050:

  • Reduces the number of vehicle miles traveled  by nearly 3.7 trillion
  • Saves more than $194 billion in capital infrastructure costs
  • Saves 19 million acre-feet of water
  • Prevents the release of 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 25% less than business-as-usual
  • Saves California households $6,400 per year in auto-related costs and utility bills.

In-fill development can often cost more than low-density development and this report doesn’t take housing prices into account. Indeed, costs may be one of the biggest challenges for SB 375, since both the state and cities are facing budget crises  and a lull in the housing market.

Under the bill, state transportation funding will be prioritized for projects that meet the SB 375 goals. But according to Hasan Ikhrata, Executive Director of the Southern California Association of Governments (one of the regional organizations doing the planning), financial incentives will be key to reaching the goals. “I think the biggest challenge is to find incentives to help cities, because cities want to do this, but they don’t have the resources to do it without help,” he said.