From Paris to Los Angeles: Building Momentum for Local Climate Solutions

We now know that when our communities are built to be climate-friendly—with homes, jobs and services close together, and diverse reliable transportation options—we enjoy a lot of other benefits. We get safe streets and active lifestyles. We get an economically competitive region that attracts and supports businesses. We get access and opportunity: People can reach more and better-paying jobs, kids can get around without parents driving them, and seniors and people with disabilities aren’t stranded if they can’t drive.

Ultimately, we get a better quality of life. But we don’t get the benefits if we don’t do the work.

A new report, “Toward a Sustainable Future: Is Southern California on Track?” soon to be released by ClimatePlan and others, has found that changes are starting to happen in California—but we’re not moving fast enough, or doing things differently enough. Now that an international climate agreement to lower carbon pollution has been signed in Paris, California must accelerate its progress.

Sustainability Plan

In 2012, Southern California’s first Sustainable Community Strategy did an excellent job laying out the first steps to reach a more sustainable future.

The obvious question now is: what has the plan achieved so far? Will kids grow up enjoying cleaner air, living healthier lives, and finding more job opportunities?

The short answer is: maybe. We’re headed in the right direction, but policy change needs to accelerate to achieve projected results.

The report found that cities and counties are starting to invest more in public transit and safe streets for walking and biking. New “first mile/last mile” plans to get people safely and easily to public transit and destinations are being adopted.

But the region still needs more investment in these transportation options and many others to make the system work.

We are unable to answer some big questions: is the region building enough homes people can afford? Are more jobs and homes being built near high-quality transit—that people of all incomes can depend upon? Is new development focused in existing communities instead of on the last wild areas and farmland? Is the region addressing gentrification and displacement?

Knowing Where We Are

In this era of instant data, that was perhaps our biggest finding: the information isn’t there yet. We need better data and this is an important area in which SCAG can help. Its sophisticated data-gathering can help cities, towns, and regions get better information, faster.

Right now, the region and the state have set goals, mostly around climate change. We know that achieving those goals will bring many benefits—better health, more choices, and more opportunity for all.

But the region has to move ahead together, with regional agencies and local governments working hand in hand.

County Transportation Commissions decide where to invest the region’s billions of dollars for transportation. Cities and counties choose where new jobs and homes go. These two interests must align to meet overall goals.

This is particularly important in disadvantaged communities. Around the region, there are many “communities of concern”—places where investment is long overdue. Without investing in low-income communities and communities of color, both urban and rural, the region will fail to bring opportunity to all.

Every county and every city and town must make decisions that clearly lead to their shared goals and a better quality of life for all.

A Transformation Whose Time Has Come

The change is starting to happen. We’re starting to understand how much is connected. Across the state, communities are starting to plan for places that are healthier, more attractive, and more sustainable—where people of every income and race can achieve their potential.

California—perhaps especially Southern California—is the land of dreams and inspiration, leading the world toward new ideas and new realities. People can live in a way that has a lighter impact on the climate, the air, the water, and the land we depend on—so that we can keep depending on these natural resources. And perhaps nothing we do is as important as the choices we make in transportation.

Mobility Matters

As a society, we’re getting more mobile. But our freeways—which once connected the region—are clogged with traffic for longer periods of time. This leads to wasted gas, money, and time, and is costly for people and the economy.

California’s Department of Transportation recently told us why this is happening: When we widen freeways, they fill up with traffic again. On average, a new lane—which often takes years to build—fills with traffic in less than five years. It’s called “induced demand.” Traffic engineers have known this practically since the federal highway system was built.

It’s time to come to terms with the limits of this 1950s technology and find new solutions.

We’re seeing an explosion in shared mobility—everything from ridesourcing (Lyft, Uber) and ridesplitting, (LyftLine, UberPool), to peer-to-peer (Getaround) and point-to-point carsharing (car2go), to bikesharing. Shared mobility is already a $6 billion industry and expected to continue growing exponentially.

These innovative approaches will ultimately transform how we get around, potentially freeing many of us from the costs of car ownership. This will enable us to do far more than we can imagine today to clean the air and protect the climate.

The average Californian spends $9,000 per year to own a car that sits idle 23 hours a day and loses value the moment it is driven off the lot. Re-thinking our personal transportation choices is the one of the most important ways we can speed up the sustainable future we’re all dreaming about.

My family and I gave up our car earlier this year, and I can say from first-hand experience that it’s much easier than it sounds. We have saved money, had more fun, been healthier, and able to get where we need to go every time. The same is true for winning the climate change battle—the faster we move to do our part, the sooner we reap the benefits, for our families and for future generations.

Author: Amanda Eaken 

Amanda Eaken is Deputy Director of the Urban Solutions Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Her recent work has focused on implementing California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law (SB 375) to create stronger, healthier, and more resilient communities in California. Ms. Eaken was honored by the San Francisco Business Times as one the Bay Area’s top Forty under 40 Emerging Leaders of 2013, and she was the recipient of the inaugural President’s Award for Sustainability Leadership by the Southern California Association of Governments. She is a founding member of ClimatePlan, a statewide coalition of environmental, social equity, and health groups focused on successful implementation of SB 375. Ms. Eaken has over 10 years’ experience in land use and transportation planning, and in her previous positions she managed the development and construction of affordable housing and transportation infrastructure projects. Ms. Eaken holds a Master’s Degree in Transportation and Land Use Planning from U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, and a B.A. in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology from Dartmouth College.