In a move that should’ve been taken eons ago, California’s legislature is moving to bring civic planning under a unified framework that will reduce carbon emissions and reduce traffic:
The bill yokes three regulatory and permit processes. One focuses on regional planning: how land use should be split among industry, agriculture, homes, open space and commercial centers. Another governs where roads and bridges are built. A third sets out housing needs and responsibilities ? for instance, how much affordable housing a community must allow.
Under the pending measure, the three regulatory and permit processes must be synchronized to meet new goals, set by the state?s Air Resources Board, to reduce heat-trapping gases.
Seventeen regional planning groups from across the state will submit their land-use, transportation and housing plans to the board. If the board rules that a plan will fall short of its emissions targets, then an alternative blueprint for meeting the goals must be developed.
Once state approval is granted, or an alternative plan submitted, billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies can be awarded. The law would allow the money to be distributed even if an alternative plan fails to pass muster.
By planning growth with traffic in mind will have huge benefits. First, keeping homes close to shopping and industrial workplaces reduces traffic and shortens drives. Simply reducing idling (by cutting congestion, for instance) without changing the distances driven, would save 13 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, and smarter growth would shorten distances driven, saving yet more carbon.
Encouraging higher density of development, and mixed use development, would also spur wider adoption of public transit, and make it easier to expand public transit to new areas. That would further reduce traffic, as well as carbon emissions. And once you have light rail or a subway system running somewhere, it signifies a long-term commitment to transit-friendly building. That encourages local grocery stores to open and serve a clientele that shops on foot, by bike, or by bus. It changes how people relate to one another, and how they think about travel.
I know that having a shopping district within a 10-15 minute walk, a farmers’ market within 20 minutes, and another within a short bus ride, changes how I think about shopping. I used to lay in massive stores of food, and try to delay shopping as long as I could. That meant I had to drive to the store, given the volume of stuff I was buying.
Now, I can buy enough for a few days at a time, eat fresher food, and do it by foot. The walk is good for me, the food is better, and I’m having a smaller ecological footprint.
This is only possible because I’m in a neighborhood with enough density to support local stores. At lower density, it’d be economically inefficient to have so many grocery stores so close together, so they’d have to be bigger and more distant from one another. And everything would go downhill.
Fixing the joint problems of sprawl, smog, and traffic requires simultaneously rethinking where traffic goes, where public transit goes, and how the population should expand. A growing population can move closer together (subdividing big lots, for instance), it can grow up (in apartment buildings, condos, etc.) or it can move out (sprawl). The first two make life more livable for all involved, and smart policy in an overpopulated state like California should encourage the latter two modes of growth. Only by integrating the different components of urban, suburban, and exurban planning can these problems be solved, and this bill is a big step in the right direction.