Smart Growth Can Cure California’s Congestion Crisis

A back-up on Interstate 10 near San Bernardino, California. Traffic jams like this waste hours of productive time each week.
A back-up on Interstate 10 near San Bernardino, California. Traffic jams like this waste hours of productive time each week.


By Chris Busch and CC Huang

California’s economy is hot, but its traffic congestion is not. Since the end of the recession, the number of jobs statewide has increased 15 percent, compared to 10 percent for the nation as a whole. However, California also suffers from the worst traffic in the nation, threatening the Golden State’s quality of life and continued economic growth.

Fortunately, the recent research report, Moving California Forward, offers an essential solution with enticing benefits: Apply smart growth principles to California’s growing population to build up walkable and transit-oriented neighborhoods.

This is the only way to solve the state’s transportation woes. Los Angeles and San Francisco metro-area residents endure the worst and second worst traffic delays in the nation, respectively, and San Jose has the sixth worst traffic in the country. Peak traffic delays increase commute times by 60 to 70 percent, wasting 87 to 95 hours in a year for a person with a 30-minute commute. This equals more than two work weeks of lost productivity or irreplaceable time with family. If left unsolved, transportation woes will become a bottleneck stalling economic growth.

The solution to traffic congestion is not adding more roads. In fact, congestion is the main factor deterring people from driving, so building more roads actually entices new drivers to clog them. This counterintuitive fact is now well understood by urban planners with the evidence well-summarized by Professor Susan Handy, former director of the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, in a recent policy brief.

Demographers predict that California will add 6 million residents by 2030, and this growth presents a natural opening to create more spatially-focused urban areas and repair the legacy of California’s suburban sprawl.

Moving California Forward highlights compelling economic and environmental benefits for California to follow the smart growth path, starting with saving $18.5 billion in infrastructure costs through more focused urban growth. Sprawling development makes providing public infrastructure and services more challenging and costly for the government. Further, cars are expensive, making transportation the second largest household expense on average. More focused growth — enabling more use of public transit, some trips by foot and shorter car rides for remaining trips — would save the average household $2,000 per year on transportation costs by 2030 (all values as current dollars).

Smart urban development also creates health benefits, starting with reduced vehicle emissions saving $1 billion through lower health costs by 2030, due to the avoided emission of 60,000 tons of criteria air pollutants. This estimate does not even account for the public health improvements from fewer motor vehicle accidents or more active commutes (e.g. walking or biking), nor the increased economic productivity from better health.

Walkable, transit-oriented communities are in high demand, and companies are relocating to them to attract the best talent, as evidenced by the move to San Francisco for many Silicon Valley companies. San Francisco now attracts 74 percent more venture capital investment than the San Jose metro area, which includes the heart of Silicon Valley — from San Jose to Palo Alto — in part by offering pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use neighborhoods brimming with vibrant cultural and shopping amenities.

Silicon Valley is just a few miles south of San Francisco in one sense, but it could be on a different planet from an urban planner’s perspective. No wonder venture capitalist and essayist Paul Graham describes Silicon Valley now as being “one big parking lot.”

Traffic jams lead to wasted and uncertain travel time, missed meetings and hot tempers, and is tarnishing quality of life across California. If left unsolved, transportation woes are certain to drag down growth. California has no choice but to build walkable and transit-oriented neighborhoods, breaking the link between economic expansion and greater traffic congestion while enabling new economic growth.

Setting stronger regional targets for reduced vehicle miles traveled under California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act is an important next step to help steer development in the right direction, and should be part of the 2030 Scoping Plan the California Air Resources Board will develop in 2016.

These stronger targets should be paired with even greater support for public transit investments from the state’s cap-and-trade auction revenue. State policymakers should also explore ways auction revenue can provide even stronger incentives to local officials to overcome the NIMBY forces that too often slow development in urban areas, possibly by awarding local funds on the condition they achieve targets to expand housing supply.

The Golden State is at a development crossroads. Down one path is a traffic-choked future with higher transportation costs, longer commutes, and more wasted time. Down the other lies a sustainable outcome with walkable, locally oriented, and healthier communities. Let’s make sure smart growth becomes a smart choice for California policymakers.

Image credit: Flickr/Michael R Perry

Chris Busch is the Director of Research at Energy Innovation, where he leads the company’s work on Urban Sustainability. Prior to joining Energy Innovation, Chris served as a Climate Economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, Policy Director for the Center for Resource Solutions, Policy Director for the BlueGreen Alliance, and Senior Research Associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His work in California has helped shape the design of the state’s cap-and-trade program. In 2009, the California Air Resources Board appointed him to the AB 32 Economic and Technology Advancement Advisory Committee. Chris holds a Ph.D. in environmental economics and a master’s degree in public policy, both from the University of California, Berkeley. He received a B.A. in economics and history with honors from the University of Pennsylvania.

CC Huang is a Policy Analyst for Energy Innovation’s Urban Sustainability program area. Prior to joining Energy Innovation, she worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on international best practices of energy governance. She has also worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council in their Beijing office. CC received an MPA in Economics and Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University with a certificate in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy. She also graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in International Affairs from George Washington University. CC is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, having studied international affairs and philosophy at Peking University and was a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship.

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