Transportation, Real Estate, and the Future of Los Angeles

SB 375 Explained (Urban Planning degree not required)

California’s Senate Bill 375 (passed in 2008, sponsored by Senate President Pro tempore Darrell Steinberg) is often discussed and frequently misunderstood, even by urban planners.  In this entry, I attempt to explain the Act to an audience with no background in urban and regional planning, using fewer than 1000 words.  To be up front, I think the goals of SB 375 are good goals, although I could think of many ways to improve upon the language of the bill.

For several decades, metropolitan areas in California have engaged in separate processes to plan for housing growth and new transportation infrastructure.  A side effect of these separate processes, which have not always been coordinated, is that the transportation system has not always been able to accommodate new growth.

Senate Bill 375 requires that regional governments coordinate their regional housing and transportation planning activities into a single process and plan.  This plan is known as a Sustainable Communities Strategy.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires state and local government agencies to understand the potential environmental impacts of their actions, and, where possible, to lessen the environmental impact of their actions.  One of the many actions a local government takes is approving new real estate development projects.  For a real estate development, a normal part of the environmental review process has been to examine the effects of traffic coming to and from the development, including the air and noise pollution from that traffic.

In the environmental review process, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation is somewhat counterintuitive.  When evaluating an individual real estate development, it appears that a local government, or a developer, can reduce the air pollution emitted by a new housing development by building fewer households on a given lot (a decrease in density).  However, when all of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by traffic coming households, businesses, and other buildings around a region are examined, it is found that greenhouse gas emissions are lower per person in areas and regions where households and other buildings are closer together (an increase in density).  This is because people drive less, and fewer emissions, when the places they want to go are nearer to each other.

Rather than require California local governments and real estate developers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traffic going to and from individual buildings, with SB 375, the California legislature decided that a regional plan (the Sustainable Communities Strategy) was the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traffic.  There are three primary reasons for this.   The first is that the options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are most effective at the regional level. The second is that greenhouse gas emissions have local effects, rather than global effects, and are not immediately harmful to local health, unlike other air pollutants.  The third, as previously mentioned, is that regional greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced (on a per person basis) when emissions in certain areas are increased.  

Regional governments have computer simulators that forecast where new real estate development will locate, and how much people will travel between the various places they want to go in a metropolitan area.  These computer simulators can also predict what the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will be. 

When preparing and submitting a Sustainable Communities Strategy, the regional government must use these simulators to demonstrate that their plans will meet or exceed regional targets for per person greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  This will require that in the Sustainable Communities Strategy, a region commit to funding transportation infrastructure and implementing transportation policies (in the Regional Transportation Plan), and to steer new housing into areas near transit, jobs, and retail (in the Regional Housing Needs Plan).  Specific transportation infrastructure projects could include new highways, but also passenger rail, busways, bikeways, and carpool lanes.  Specific transportation policies may include transit improvements, unsubsidized parking, and congestion management.

The Federal Government requires that a Regional Transportation Plan only include projects that the region will be able to fund. In some cases, a regional government may not have enough money to fund sufficient transportation infrastructure and policies to demonstrate that it can meet its per person greenhouse gas reduction targets.  In this case, a region can submit an Alternative Planning Strategy instead of a Sustainable Communities Strategy.  The Alternative Planning Strategy requires that the regional government demonstrate how they would meet their per person greenhouse gas reduction targets if more money were available.

Legislatures decided to provide regional governments with incentives to pursue a Sustainable Communities Strategy instead of an Alternative Planning Strategy.  One of these allows real estate development projects consistent with the Sustainable Communities Strategy and that meet certain criteria to be exempt from a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirement that the greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles be considered as part of the environmental review process.  The impact of these greenhouse gas emissions will have already been considered as part of the regional transportation plan’s environmental review process.  

The California Air Resources Board will administer SB 375 rules.  The Air Resources Board is currently developing these rules. 

I hope you found this basic information useful.  Of course there are many more intricacies to the SB 375 and regulations than are covered here.  Email me if you’d like to discuss these.