SCAG Takes a Pass on History, Moves Forward with Lower GHG Reductions

5_28_09_sprawl.jpgPhoto of Riverside via Miizzard/Flickr.

Last May, I had the chance to sit down with Michael Woo, the former Los Angeles City Councilman and Mayoral Candidate, urban planner, USC Professor and Climate Change activist.  Woo expressed hope that the Southern California Association of Governments would set the bar for other regions when deciding how to follow new state laws by setting high targets for emissions reductions.  The reductions are a state requirement after the passage of California’s internationally lauded Smart Growth Law in 2008, SB 375.

Yesterday, SCAG took a pass on history and sided with the sprawl lobby in endorsing reduced targets for the region which includes Los Angeles County as well as the Inland Empire, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino Counties.  Instead of setting the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 8% in 2020 and 13% in 2035 as recommended by the state’s Air Resource Board after a lengthy public process, SCAG chose to set goals of 6% reduction in 2020 and 8% in 2035.  The 8/13 targets were rejected by a 21 to 29 vote.

Unfortunately, this means that design standards and community plans throughout the region will have less density, encourage fewer transportation options, and create less vibrant communities with less open space over the next twenty five years than they would have if SCAG would have followed the state board’s recommendations.

This rejection marks a victory for the Building Industry Association which lobbied for a 5% reduction target and distributed misinformation far and wide to preserve Southern Californians right to sprawl.  The BIA claimed the rejected benchmarks would push gas prices to $9, would cripple the economy, and were completely unrealistic anyway.  That independent reviews showed that a plan to meet the 8/13 benchmarks would increase gas costs by two cents a gallon over twenty five years, would save the average working family save $3,600 annually on transportation costs, would create design standards that would encourage growth and calls for lower reductions than the ones passed in the Sacramento and Bay regions somehow didn’t make the B.I.A.’s “hysteria sheet.”

And that the SCAG Board chose to believe these phony statistics, without a methodology showing how they came to be, over the hard work of their own staff tells us a lot about the SCAG Board.

After the vote, the BIA was crowing.  Richard Lambros, the executive director of the association told the Associated Press:

They made a decision that is both aggressive and achievable and will make a significant reduction in emissions while still protecting California’s economy.

Meanwhile, environmentalists scorned the decision.  The same Associated Press article quotes a frustrated representative of the American Lung Association, while other articles quote NRDC’s Amanda Eaken, who has emerged as something of an expert on this issue.  Locally, ClimatePlan staffer and Streetsblog contributor Gloria Ohland commented simply that “we have more work to do.”

Glen Becerra.  Photo:
Glen Becerra. Photo:

The meeting itself was a wild affair that would make your average Metro Board Member wonder who was in charge of this circus.  Public comment was cut short as was debate amongst the Board Members.  Despite the close 29-21 vote, most of the Board Members who did get the chance to speak were in favor of the reduced targets including an over-the-top “dare” from Simi Valley City Councilman Glen Becerra that anyone with the gall to oppose the smaller goals should stand and face him.

Oddly, Beccera sounded a completely different tone when there was a microphone in front of him.  He told the Ventura County Star that he really, really would have liked to vote for higher standards, but just couldn’t:

“Everybody wants to meet the higher number,” said SCAG Second Vice President Glen Becerra. “In our heart of hearts if we had certainty that we could do that without wiping out an already fragile economy we would do that. But no one could give us that certainty. They could only say it’s worth trying.”

So what happened?  How did sprawl win the day?  Part of the problem is that the debate, as covered by the press and as presented by Beccera, is portrayed as a “developer vs environmentalist” debate instead of “environmentalists, public health experts, transit advocates, and developers vs some other developers.”  In addition to the “usual suspects” testifying in favor of the higher reduction goals yesterday, there were also six developers that believe that dense development and transportation options are the future for Southern California.

A second problem is that state cutbacks have led to less funds being available throughout the region to help encourage Smart Growth Development.  An email ClimatePlan sent to supporters after the vote noted that much of the debate was about this lack of funds and not that clean air, transit and vibrant downtowns were bad for the economy.  However, much of the press following the meeting reverted back to the easier-to-write story of “environmentalists v jobs.”

In a cycnical move to deflect some criticism, the Board did vote to revisit today’s vote if the state’s Air Resources Board, the body that developed the 8/13 target, came through with eleven action items.  ClimatePlan reports that it’s not likely to meet these items as many of them, including adoption of the 30/10 plan, are well outside of the ability of the ARB.

Last, a handful of local leaders who had a vote today missed the meeting.  Los Angeles City Council Members Eric Garcetti, Bernard Parks and Ed Reyes all sent letters of support for 8/13 instead of attending and voting.  Councilman Dennis Zine, who’s taken some heat at Streetsblog, was the only Council Member in attendance and deserves some praise for taking time out of his recess to attend this important meeting.

Local activist Beth Steckler expressed frustration with the rest of the Councilmen

We appreciate the letters of support from la city council members on this vote, but we need more leadership from the city to really be sure the interests of Angelinos are represented at SCAG.

Today’s vote was hardly the last step in the saga of how standards will be set for Greenhouse Gas reduction mandates for Southern California.  Streetsblog will let you know how you can be involved in making sure that today’s vote isn’t the last word in how Southern Californians feel about Climate Change, clean air and transportation options.

  • Putting condos next to bus stations is not going to save the world from global warming. All it is going to do is generate yet another wave of unwanted high density development that will rot in the marketplace just like the last batch of Sacramento driven developement. You know, the one we needed to do because millions of new residents were going to show up in our state any day? Seems so laughable now.

    This is just a lobbyist driven boondoggle designed to prop upmthe BIA and their economically crippled clients.

    Greenhouse gas emissions will be handled through home officing and the next generation personal transporation. No emission automobiles will be here way before 2035, and a fully wired virtual workplace will make commuting a waste of valuable time. In which case people will be able to sprawl out just as far and wide as they want and have little impact on the environment. Something that will make “high density transportation oriented urban development” about as desireable as living in a chicken coop.

    SB 375 is a dinosaur solution predicated on current conditions. It has much more to do with pay-to-play corruption in Sacramento and Washington than it does saving the world.

  • Eric, paving over vast areas of open land does not harm the environment?

  • Not sure I understand your post. Are all those “green condos” the BIA will be building going to somehow be suspended from space?

  • Sam

    Telecommuting only works for certain types of work or industries.

    A bus cannot be driven by telecommuting.

    Trucks carrying cargo from the Ports to the inland distribution centers cannot be driven by telecommuting (and cannot be replaced by rail – it doesn’t make economic sense).

    Restaurants can’t be operated by telecommuting.

    Hotel rooms can’t be cleaned by telecommuting.

    The list can go on and on.

    People live in these outer suburban areas due to cost of housing. Particularly people working lower paying jobs (that can be done by telecommuting).

    Its a complex challenge, and increased transit and housing density is part of the answer.

  • LAofAnaheim

    Eric….wasn’t that same comment had back in 1990? How’s it going so far?

  • You will have to be a little more specific, Lanaheim. A cite might help. And in that spirit we could always go back and look at some of SCAG’s now laughable Compass predictions of what the future would look like. Certainly there is a precedent there that lives on today.

    But to my original point, the notion that building high density housing next to bus stations is somehow going to get people out of their cars and therefore save the world from global warming is daft. No matter what year you might care to cite. Unless forced to do so, most will do all they can to avoid the so-called “transit village lifestyle.”

    One recent commentator on the “condos will save the world” canard had an interesting observation. What is it your average Californian is likely to do with the money he is saving by living in new low income housing? Why buy a car, of course.

    This all has a lot more to do with Sacramento trying to pay off some chits to development and real estate lobbies than anything else. All the “green” talk is just marketing designed to sucker in the credulous.

  • Streetsblog LA- Please stop using this photo to illustrate “generic sprawl” and especially stop calling it “Riverside.” While the photo was taken FROM the City of Riverside, specifically Mt. Rubidoux City Park, the photo-taker was standing in the midst of Riverside’s dense downtown, which is in the midst of a recovery. You would see several 14 and 15-story buildings if the photographer took this picture 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The photo depicts the area across the river, an unincorporated part of Riverside county called “Rubidoux.”

    Furthermore, the empty space in the foreground isn’t just sprawl for sprawl’s sake, it’s an airport, and the right-hand side of the photo is actually quite walkable (WalkScore 70)- it’s Rubidoux Village, a small community that historically served the needs of the agricultural laborers that served Riverside’s citrus industry. It’s mostly small-lot homes, small apartment buildings and a mobile home park, with plentiful shopping served by wide sidewalks. It’s also a poor area that is rather savaged by property crimes, but it’s not generic sprawl.

  • Some great, Creative Commons-licensed photos of sprawl: (Palos Verdes, with cars) (Yorba Linda) (Brea) (Temecula) (Anaheim Hills, smoggy)

    None of these has the disadvantage of including an airport, a non-sprawling community or being taken from a dense downtown.

  • Justin,

    Sure, I’ll stop using it. In my defense, the title of the picture is called “Southern California Sprawl,” and it doesn’t look good without the context you provided.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  • Damien-

    Thanks. Sorry, it’s hard work being an urbanist out here in Riverside without my Angeleno brethren mistakenly concluding that my city is all sprawl all the time, so I get a bit touchy.

  • Chuen Ng

    Setting the right GHG reduction targets was political, but also heavily technical. SCAG has the responsibility of modeling the implementation of these targets, but at the same time, consider local input, dependent on individual jurisdictions’ land use and zoning plans. It’s a complex process that sometimes gets oversimplified in journalism.

  • Chuen – hear what you’re saying and agree – something to keep in mind, the SCAG Executive Director and Staff were recommending the 8% and 13%.

    Justin – I got a love of love for Riverside – both the city and county – they’re doing great work with Safe Routes to School – and Riverside Mayor Loveridge is a great champion, it’s inspiring and a great best practice for other cities to model.


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