Working With What You Have: California’s SB 375

Gian-Claudia Sciara


Flickr Creative Commons, Richard Masoner

credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Richard Masoner


The US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord has raised the stakes for subnational policy and action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  California has something to teach on this score. Worth studying is the state’s effort to encourage future growth patterns that will temper the amount Californians drive and how the state is using existing, federally-required regional planning bodies to influence cities in this regard.

39 percent of California’s GHG emissions come from transportation (compare this with roughly 27 percent for the U.S.)  California has sought to reduce these emissions in three ways. First, it encourages automakers to roll out more efficient vehicles, and consumers to buy them. Second, it aims to reduce the average GHG intensity of transportation fuels. Finally, it aims to reduce the need to drive in the first place.  I examine the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (SB 375) that seeks to reduce vehicle-miles of travel by changing land use patterns and the transportation investments supporting them.

California’s SB 375 uses regional planning to nudge local decisions toward more compact center-focused development and more efficient regional transport.  Local governments’ land use policies shape the spatial arrangement of places where humans work, sleep, study, shop, dine, worship, and recreate. They consequently affect how far, how often, and by what transport modes we travel to those activities, and so they affect GHG emissions too.

MPOs and Climate Policy

Metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) operate across the U.S. in urbanized areas.  Federal law requires MPOs to develop long range plans and make near-term investment decisions for metropolitan transportation systems. An MPO’s board—comprised largely of city and county officials along with federal, state, and local transport agencies and other regional stakeholders—approves the plans and funding for any regionally significant or federally supported transport improvement, such as building and repairing roads or installing protected bicycle lanes.  This is where an MPO’s leverage over its constituent local governments resides, though that leverage can be uneven for complex reasons.

Federal statute has long required MPOs to consider how planned transport projects will interact with future growth patterns.  In California, SB375 goes one further.  The state’s 18 MPOs now include in their required plans a “forecasted development pattern” that—along with supportive transportation projects—will reduce transportation-related GHGs.

This puts California MPOs more squarely, though still indirectly, in the land use planning business.  Golden State local governments retain ultimate authority over land use.  No matter how GHG-busting or how walk-/ bike-/ transit-friendly an MPO’s suggested regional development pattern may be, its implementation rests on local cooperation.  This approach anticipates MPOs will leverage transportation dollars to incentivize local land use decisions supporting GHG reduction.

Does it Work?

Using land use policy to realize GHG reduction is hard, but vital.  Scholars acknowledge that increasing land use density, diversity, and accessibility can reduce driving but these reductions can also be modest. Competing priorities, like revenue generation, can also lead local governments to make land use decisions antithetical to compact growth and GHG reduction.  Complicating matters in some areas of California, significant developments that would reinforce car-centric patterns—including New Town projects and large-lot subdivisions—are already planned and entitled, grandfathered pre-SB 375.  “We have this reservoir of capacity due to the prior planning,” one MPO analyst explained recently to the Sacramento Bee.  “That reservoir is going to drain out very, very slowly.”

Using MPOs and their transportation funding carrot may be a “second best” but pragmatic option to nudge local land use.  MPOs are not formal units of government and possess limited compliance mechanisms for steering local growth to regional “priority development areas” or “focus corridors.”  Some local activists have also rejected the perceived empowerment of unelected regional planning boards with land use responsibilities.  However, MPOs do direct billions of dollars in transportation investment. Federal law already compels them to grapple somewhat with transportation and development interactions.

Nearly ten years after SB 375’s passage, there is a natural impulse to ask, “Is it working?” Answers will be premature, however, and will depend on how and over what time horizon we measure its effects. The arc of land use change is long. It is also observed in myriad incremental choices over matters like accessory dwelling units, building and lot size standards, housing permits, farmland conversion, and so on.  Because local governments have tended to overlook the implications of land use policy for regional transportation and for climate change, SB 375 and its GHG-informed regional planning approach could have a profound impact in the future.

To conclude, changing urban growth patterns is a long term project. Capital investments in buildings and infrastructure are durable. They have lasting transportation and GHG consequences. California’s SB 375—warts and all—has begun using MPOs to try getting local growth right. The California model is also somewhat exportable; it overlays GHG goals atop the transportation planning process already required in US regions.  Some other states may not have an extensive air quality administrative system like California’s Air Resources Board, but they will have an MPO (or more); over 400 operate across the country.

Why not use these organizations to promote local development that improves outcomes for transportation and for climate, especially where fast and abundant growth threatens to reproduce auto-centric patterns?  Not doing so may leave many US regions in the same car-dependent climate pickle some 30 or more years from now.

Gian-Claudia Sciara is Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin.