California has had a legendary, and rocky, love affair with the automobile since they first started rolling off the assembly line in the early 1900’s. But our state’s car culture has also contributed to some of the worst air quality in the nation, endangering Californians’—and the planet’s—health. In addition, heavy-duty vehicles like trucks and buses and off-road sources such as construction and agricultural equipment are the largest contributors to vehicle-related smog-forming emissions. California needs to improve mobility for its citizens and its goods while simultaneously reducing the environmental effects of the transportation sector.
The solutions must include investment in new, less-polluting technologies, “smart growth” strategies such as building housing near dense urban centers and public transit options, and investments in infrastructure and alternative forms of transportation, including sidewalks and other footpaths, dedicated bicycle and carpool lanes, and public transit options such as buses, trains, and ferries. But declining revenues from traditional funding sources (including, importantly, the gas tax) have hindered the state’s ability to invest in improved transportation networks.
California is a leader in designing policies to reduce emissions from transportation sources. Beginning in the 1990’s, with increasing recognition that traffic congestion and air pollution required investments in alternative forms of transportation, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) began to emphasize integration between highways and other modes of transportation. Many states have chosen to follow California’s emissions standards for passenger vehicles, which are more stringent than federal standards. More recently, the state has launched programs to limit emissions by reducing the carbon content of transportation fuels and by encouraging people to drive less. However, many of California’s urban areas—including Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, San Diego, San Jose and San Bernardino-Riverside—continue to top the lists of the most congested in the nation, and 60 percent of California’s urban highways are congested.
Of course, population growth plays a major role in California’s transportation challenges. According to the US Census, California’s population exceeded 38 million in 2008—nearly 12% more people than in 2000. The state’s population increased 42% between 1980 and 2000, from 24 million residents to 34 million. Meanwhile, vehicle miles of travel increased 27% between 1990 and 2005; vehicle miles of travel are projected to increase another 63% by the year 2025. The population boom, increased goods movement traffic, and resulting increase in vehicle miles traveled, along with the urgency to reduce emissions and curb global warming, requires California’s elected leaders to develop innovative solutions, including funding solutions, to these challenges.