Opinion: Focusing on efficiency, SB 375 is vital to a stronger California economy

SB 375 (Steinberg) was passed in 2008 under the rubric of climate protection.  But there is a new, rather staggering realization: SB 375 may provide the critical boost our taxpayers, cities and regions need to grow their economies and reap savings from more vibrant and efficient communities.

That’s because SB 375 focuses on efficiency; it will make it easier for people to drive less by spurring convenient communities, shorter commutes, and more transportation choices.

A report called Vision California released by Calthorpe Associates this past June quantifies the enormous potential savings that SB 375 offers by 2050: $6,400 per household per year in transportation and utility costs, $4.3 billion per year (the equivalent of $24,000 per household per year) in infrastructure costs, more than 3,700 square miles of land not paved over (more land than Delaware and Rhode Island combined), and tremendous water savings.

These future savings aren’t just theory.  Billions are already being saved right now, this year, as laid out in TransForm’s recent report Windfall for All.    

Let’s start by considering regular people just trying to get around.  Turns out that individuals are responsible for the bulk of transportation spending.  For example, in the Bay Area regular folks spent $34 billion on transportation in 2009.  This dwarfs by 7 to 1 the money spent by Bay Area governments on transportation.

TransForm found that the better the public transportation access and more walkable the community, the less is spent on transportation.  The 20 percent of Bay Area households with the best public transportation options spend an average of $5,450 less each year on transportation than the other 80 percent of households.  If all residents in the Bay Area were able to spend the same amount as those with the best public transportation, they’d be spending $10.7 billion less on transportation each year.

Our findings were similar for other metropolitan regions: LA households with good transportation options save $3,600 per household.  In San Diego, it’s $3,515.  And in Sacramento, $2,825.  Not surprisingly, the same people who can more easily walk, bike, carpool, take transit, or drive shorter distances are also emitting less pollution: from 27 percent less in Sacramento to 42% less in the Bay Area.

Windfall for All also addresses how government can benefit from smarter planning.  Consider two examples:
• The Sacramento Regional Blueprint process found that the public sector would save $9.4 billion in infrastructure costs through 2050 by pursuing more transit-accessible development and that transit agencies in the region would experience a 300 percent increase in ridership.

• UC San Diego had plans to build another 10 parking garages at a cost of over $300 million.  But a “business case analysis” found that investing in their wildly successful program of free transit passes, carpooling, shuttles, bicycling and other alternatives would save millions per year.  They’ve already cut solo driving from 66 percent to 46 percent of commutes.
Californians are hungry for action.  This past June, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report showing a whopping 78 percent of Californians support requiring local governments to change land-use patterns so that people can drive less.

But in order to reap the full benefits of SB 375, we need to solve the public transportation funding crisis.  That includes giving regions more authority to bring funding measures to the public.  And we need to make sure all Californians can find homes they can afford.  SB 375 can help with that as well, as the CEQA incentives will streamline the review process for a host of projects.  

Next week the California Air Resources Board will consider reduction targets for each region.  These targets are based on nearly two years of analysis and input.  

Some people are saying we can’t afford to make these changes — that the 1990’s paradigm of growth, exemplified by fields of tract homes separated by long distances from corporate parks and big box stores, needs to remain the status quo.  

But when you look at the empirical data you see a different story.  By aligning planning for transportation, land use and housing, SB 375 will help California derive the full economic benefits of efficient planning.  And it will meet the changing demographics that are favoring walkable communities with greater housing and transportation choices.

SB 375 was passed to help the state meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.  But it can also be part of the economic salvation that California’s people and local governments so desperately need.

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