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The Legacy of S.B. 375: Transforming Planning to Transform California


Climate Plan, a coalition of more than fifty nonprofits working on California climate policies, released a report [PDF] about what we've learned from S.B. 375, one of California's policy efforts to grapple with climate change. The coalition held a day of presentations in Sacramento on Monday to celebrate the release. Presenters—people who've been working in state and local agencies and advocacy organizations—confirm that we've learned quite a lot, that planning practices in California are changing, and that there is still more work to do to achieve state goals.

S.B. 375 requires regional planning agencies to create, as part of their already-required Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS). The SCS is supposed to identify ways regions can reach state-mandated greenhouse gas reduction targets by coordinating land use and transportation planning. This had never been done before; land use planning—which decides the location, shape, and size of housing, jobs, retail, schools, etc.—is done locally, and regions planned transportation around it. Under S.B. 375, regional agencies had to find a way to make all those plans consistent with each other and work with local agencies to shorten and reduce driving trips as much as possible.

It was a recognition that you can't just plant housing out where land is cheaper, have everyone drive to jobs in the city centers, and expect to reduce emissions.

The SCS has to take into account current development patterns (is your community a sprawled suburban place? A small town? A dense city?), local general plans (which likely don't address greenhouse gas reductions and probably need updating), housing needs (few areas are building enough housing), federal Clean Air Act requirements, and input from community residents and their advocates.

Because the regional transportation planning agencies control most state and federal transportation funding, these requirements affect what kind of projects get funding. Even self-help counties that tax themselves for transportation projects still rely on state and federal funding, so the regional requirements to address greenhouse gas emission reductions have brought pressure on local planning efforts to do the same.

Of course, this is a giant simplification of a very complex process, for which I apologize. Even the full day of talks at Climate Plan's event couldn't begin to cover every caveat, complication, and unintended consequence of S.B. 375. But it's fair to say that eight years after that bill became law, transportation planning throughout the state has changed, and generally for the better.

Climate Plan's report [PDF], “Leading the Way: Policies and Practices for Sustainable Communities Strategies,” outlines how that happened, and how the progress can continue. The Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) that were subject to S.B. 375's requirements adopted a wide variety of ways to meet the goals. One of the most profound changes, experienced in different ways in different regions, has been a new focus on public outreach and community input, which has opened up the planning process and brought new people into the conversation about how to shape our communities.

In one session, for example, Tony Boren of Fresno Council of Governments talked about the difference between Fresno's previous RTP planning sessions and the one that resulted in its 2014 RTP/SCS. What used to be a somewhat obscure planning effort among a few interested agencies became a well-attended series of meetings with widely diverse attendees.

“There were a lot more people involved,” he said, and they were people that hadn't been included previously, including representatives from local government agencies and departments, advocates, and community members. “These were different voices from what we'd heard in the past.”

Another benefit of bringing all these people together was that it “broke down silos” between planning agencies. In the past, said Boren, creating the RTP was a “staple” process—that is, all the various planning efforts that went into it were created separately and then stapled together and called complete. Under the SCS process, instead, the various agencies worked together to create a stronger, more integrated plan.

FresnoCOG's innovative approach to public outreach is highlighted in Climate Plan's report. The agency used federal funds to provide mini-grants to schools and community groups to organize workshops and provide food, child care, translation, and travel assistance to community members so they can attend meetings.

Giving a voice to the community is the first of many best practices outlined in the report. Many different ways to do it are listed, from Fresno's mini-grants to convening advisory committees and working groups (a technique used successfully by Sacramento Area Council of Governments) to creating a public participation plan to releasing an online educational survey game (as did Kern COG) to involving community members in voting for preferred scenarios (as Shasta Regional Transportation Agency did).

Climate Plan awarded Mike McKeever, outgoing CEO of SACOG, recognition for his visionary leadership. From right: Climate Plan Associate Director Chanell Fletcher, Sacramento Mayor-Elect and former Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, McKeever, Amanda Eaken of the NRDC, and Climate Plan Director Carey Knecht.
Climate Plan took the opportunity to award Mike McKeever, outgoing CEO of SACOG, recognition for his visionary leadership. From right: Climate Plan Associate Director Chanell Fletcher, Sacramento Mayor-Elect and former Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, McKeever, Amanda Eaken of the NRDC, and Climate Plan Director Carey Knecht. Photo by Sheara Cohen

A few of the other best practices highlighted in the report include:

    • Adopting performance targets and goals, rather than specific measures

The Metropolitan Transportation Agency and Association of Bay Area Governments (MTC/ABAG), who together constitute the region's MPO, set ten goals including reducing per-capita carbon emissions from cars by fifteen percent, housing all of the region's projected population without displacing low-income residents, reducing traffic injuries by fifty percent, increasing the average daily time people spend walking and bicycling by seventy percent, and maintaining the transportation system in a state of good repair.

These goals were then used to compare and measure individual transportation projects, resulting in a different mix of projects proposed for funding than otherwise would have included in the regional plan.

    • Using scenarios to create a discussion about where and how a region should grow

FresnoCOG created four potential investment scenarios that included different lists of transportation projects. One was a “traditional” approach and the other ones variously emphasized active transportation and maintenance. This gives the region a basis on which to compare outcomes from individual projects as well as the whole package of investments.

    • Develop transportation models that fully convey the many benefits of walkable communities and better travel choices

SCAG, the L.A. area's regional planning organization, is highlighted here for its work incorporating active transportation and public health into its planning process. Sarah Jepson, manager of active transportation planning for SCAG, was in Sacramento to talk about how SCAG's RTP changed over time. In 2008, for example, it allocated $2.3 billion, or ½ percent of the entire budget, for active transportation projects. By 2016, that proportion has quadrupled to 2 percent of the budget, with a plan to invest $12.9 billion in active transportation through 2040. This progress was in part due to the use of performance measurements to show the benefits of active transportation, such as showing health benefits in terms of money saved.

    • Support local implementation of the region's SCS

The MTC/ABAG's Plan Bay Area received a lot of admiration throughout the day for finding a way to get local jurisdictions to buy in to the SCS. Every possible permutation of “carrot and stick” was used by numerous speakers to describe how they did it.

Plan Bay Area included an assessment of regional housing needs, with each local jurisdiction responsible for creating its fair share of housing within its boundaries. But several local cities ignored the targets, happy with the status quo and also happy to let other cities take up the slack in needed housing.

So MTC/ABAG created the One Bay Area Grant Program, which set aside funding for conservation planning, transit-oriented development, active transportation, and affordable housing with anti-displacement criteria. Bay Area cities could not access this funding unless they complied with several conditions, including a plan showing how they would meet their regional housing allocations. The result was that every city in the Bay Area produced a plan.

That's not to imply that every one of the plans is perfect, but like other results from S.B. 375, it got the conversation started in each of the cities. And there is still a lot of work to do. Although more voices are included in the conversation there are still large parts of communities that are not well represented. Michelle Hasson of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice reminded everyone that equity is frequently still tacked on as an appendix. “Equity cannot be an afterthought,” she said.

In the day's final panel, a group of government experts and thinkers addressed the future of S.B. 375 and what else needs to be done to achieve state climate, equity, and sustainability goals. Kurt Karperos of the California Air Resources Board said that the key is to remember that these goals “are not unachievable. . . The question is, how far do we need to go? What transformation do we need to get there?” He talked about future technologies and the importance of coming up with policies to address emerging issues like driverless cars to make sure they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “What you drive will influence how you drive,” he said, “and where you drive, and how much you drive.”

Kate White of CalSTA took the mic to clarify: “And IF you drive.”

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