Wed, Jun

A ‘Diet’ to Give California Drivers Indigestion


NEW GEOGRAPHY-In the past, it was other people’s governments that would seek to make your life more difficult. But increasingly in California, the most effective war being waged is one the state has aimed at ourselves. 

The Jerry Brown administration’s obsession with becoming a global model for reducing greenhouse gases is leading to an unprecedented drive to completely reshape how Californians live. Rather than focus on more pragmatic, affordable steps to reduce greenhouse gases – more efficient cars, rooftop solar systems and promoting home-based work – the goal increasingly seems like social engineering designed to force Californians to adopt the high-density, transit-oriented future preferred by Brown’s green priesthood. 

The newest outrage comes from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research in the form of a proposed “road diet.” This would essentially halt attempts to expand or improve our roads, even when improvements have been approved by voters. This strategy can only make life worse for most Californians, since nearly 85 percent of us use a car to get to work. This in a state that already has among the worst-maintained roads in the country, with two-thirds of them in poor or mediocre condition. 

The OPR move reflects the increasingly self-righteous extremism animating the former Jesuit’s underlings. Ironically, the governor’s proposals to impose this road diet rest partly on expanding the California Environmental Quality Act, which Brown, in a more insightful moment, described as a “vampire” that needs a “stake through the heart.” Now, instead, the inquisitors seize on vague legislative language and push it to what the Southern California Leadership Council has dubbed “an undesirable and unmanageable extreme.” 

In essence, the notion animating the “road diet” is to make congestion so terrible that people will be forced out of their cars and onto transit. It’s not planning for how to make the ways people live today more sustainable. It has, in fact, more in common with Soviet-style social engineering, which was based similarly on a particular notion of “science” and progressive values. 

Brown’s green political theology already has done much to devastate the state’s heavily minority working class. Despite its improved economy, California ranks the very worst in such measurements as poverty, once the cost of living is factored in, among all states, including Mississippi. By the most recent estimates, roughly one in three California households, largely minorities, lives close to, or in, poverty. 

The higher electricity costs caused by Brown’s policies impact the poorer, heavily minority inland areas, where residents are more dependent on heating and cooling than in the wealthier, and generally whiter, more temperate coastal areas. It also makes manufacturing and other blue-collar industries that employ them ever less competitive. The state’s policies have also made it, according to one recent survey, “the worst” state in America in which to be a trucker. Policies that make the roads worse won’t make that situation any better. 

Brown’s green jihad is also burdening housing development. Despite high prices and demand, California has consistently failed to build enough housing, both single-family and multifamily structures, largely due to regulatory constraints. What is being built, after leaping over numerous hurdles, tends to be very expensive, or, in the case of affordable housing, can be achieved only with massive subsidies. 

Some suggest that policies promoting higher density lead to more affordable housing and a lower cost of living. Given the high costs of building such housing, this notion is absurd. Indeed, research consistently shows that dense cities – Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco – are also among the least-affordable in the nation. 

Increasingly, California’s middle class is also suffering from these policies. High housing costs are already putting ownership out of reach even for fairly affluent families, something that does not bode well long-term for our human capital. Some tech workers have started to relocate, notably to lower-cost areas such as Texas and Arizona. Many more, suggests a recent Beacon Economics study, will migrate in the future, as they enter their thirties. 

In a sense, the “road diet” can be seen as the state adding insult to injury – and in a way that is seriously detached from reality. Los Angeles, for example, has spent $16 billion on a rail system, but the share of people taking transit in the entire region has actually declined. One has to be utterly delusional, as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti arguably is, to think that anti-driving policies and transit will actually make Angelenos more mobile. 

But for the bureaucratic clerics at OPR, how regular people live does not constitute the Holy Grail. Instead, they want to use “the coercive power of the state,” recently celebrated by Gov. Brown, to make driving ever more miserable. OPR even is considering mandating devices on cars that measure mileage. Oddly, the “road diet” makes no distinction between electric cars, hybrids or economical cars as opposed to gas guzzlers. 

For the OPR, driving is intrinsically undesirable. Hence, road improvements are bad because they “likely lead to an increase in [vehicle miles traveled].” For most Californians, cars remain easily the more efficient option; in Southern California, the average transit commute takes nearly twice as long as driving alone. And federal data shows this to be the case across the nation, including in New York, the city with by far the nation’s best transit system. Indeed, Hong Kong, with its high density and high-quality transit system, comes the closest to the goals of folks like OPR and Mayor Garcetti, with work trip travel times 75 percent greater than in Los Angeles. 

Even as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases, the road diet won’t be much help. In fact, ever more congested freeways – the likely result of the road diet – could actually increase carbon emissions, as well as other pollutants, something the OPR planners largely ignore. More pragmatic ways to address congestion and reduce greenhouse gases – promoting improved mileage, electric cars, ride-sharing as well as more telecommuting – can accomplish these objectives without purposely inconveniencing Californians. Meaningful greenhouse gas reductions, notes a report by McKinsey and Co., can be achieved without reducing driving and without living in denser housing.

Basically, the road diet, like much of the Brown agenda, will do little to suppress warming even as it succeeds in making Californians more miserable. For one thing, California is too small to have any measurable effect on a global phenomenon. Indeed, these policies could prove self-defeating, as they chase residents and industries to other states and countries with more energy-consuming climates and less-strict regulation. 

In a more rational world, such hostile policies would lead to push-back from the citizenry. But California is an increasingly left-leaning, one-party state where issues are rarely debated. Pockets of resistance inside the Democratic Party to Brown and his agenda – many of them minorities from the state’s interior – are being criticized by the state’s gentry class, an effort financed by the omnipresent hedge-fund billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his legislative minions. 

Sadly, it may be years before the public is fully aware of these issues, and what they mean for people’s daily lives. Voters may soon find that, if they pass a bond measure, such as one being proposed for Los Angeles that includes road improvements, that Gov. Brown’s planning elite will eliminate them. This classic “bait and switch” would leave drivers shelling out money for investments that don’t make their commutes easier. 

Ultimately, congestion will become more and more the norm, while governments pour ever more funds into transportation systems that don’t really take cars off the road. There will be manna from heaven – in the form of Sacramento spending – for politically connected developers, construction unions and contractors, as well as for those politicians they so generously fund. But for most Californians, the memory of greater mobility will fade into oblivion. 

Ultimately, only Californians can slow or reverse this unwise drive toward a society that is gridlocked not only on the roads, but also in terms of class and upward mobility. The middle-class dream of better incomes, good public schools and up-to-date infrastructure is slowly being erased by an over-reaching regulatory state that rewards the well-connected but devastates the middle class. This process can only be reversed when Californians finally stand up and say, as a people, basta ya! Enough already!


(Joel Kotkin is a R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston. His newest book is “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.” This was first posted at newgeography.com.)  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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