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Alex Karner: Valley needs better land, transportation planning

FresnoJuly 2, 2014 

I studied to become a civil engineer with the goal of building grand things, like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, and interstate freeways. Thanks to two inspiring professors, late in my college years, I began to think about the unanticipated consequences of these major engineering projects, from the displacement of homes and businesses to pollution and traffic.

In engineering class, such consequences were rarely, if ever, mentioned. Instead, we learned that the impacts of our designs would be handled later by other professionals during a project's "environmental review." But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if late-stage review would produce anything more than small or ornamental changes to projects. Wouldn't it be better for everyone to anticipate such effects and address them in their initial designs?

A similar question hangs over California today as it seeks to implement SB 375, a 2008 law that requires each of its regions to develop a 30-year plan to reduce the number of miles people drive.

Long-term planning is a good idea, but this law didn't require much else. It didn't require local governments to rein in sprawl by bringing destinations — work, schools, health-care facilities — closer to where people live. It didn't require cities to provide more opportunities for people to walk or use public transit. Instead, it directs regions to make plans and determine how the plans will perform in the future. There are few incentives for local communities to follow through and no penalties if they don't. The most important legal check on the 30-year plans is a computer model that evaluates them by simulating future travel patterns — and that model doesn't account for the realities of political decision-making.

Common sense — not to mention the imperatives of climate change — demands that we make changes today, not in 30 years. Even if it's too late to avoid the worst of climate change's impacts, building cities that allow people to go without an automobile for some trips can decrease risk of wildfire damage, improve resiliency to drought and reduce the "heat island" effect that makes urban areas warmer.

In collaboration with colleagues from geography and community development, I have been studying California's efforts to hit SB 375's goals. Including perspectives from beyond engineering is absolutely necessary to understand the promise and perils of long-term planning.

My colleagues and I have found that, for all the things it's missing, SB 375 has the transformative potential to spark regional conversation and local action. And nowhere is this type of regional vision more important than in the San Joaquin Valley, where planning agencies are currently adopting their SB 375 plans.

In the Valley, as elsewhere in California, development traditionally has been driven by cheap land, seemingly abundant infrastructure, and a lack of consideration of environmental and social impacts. As a result, development has expanded outside central cities, where it can produce new revenue for cash-strapped local governments and seems to meet the preferences of some consumers for low-density housing.

But this type of fringe development has been disastrous for the region as a whole. Forty percent of Valley commuters cross county lines for work. There are few reliable transit options; it would take a resident of Lanare about two hours to travel the 30 miles to Fresno by bus — four times longer than travel by car.

With so many people on the road, it's no wonder that the entire Valley fails to meet federal standards for ozone and fine particle air pollution. According to recent data prepared by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, about a quarter of the Valley's census tracts are among the most polluted and most vulnerable in the state. And sprawl consumes valuable farmland.

Unfortunately, each county is coming up with its own plan under SB 375. That's eight separate plans in the San Joaquin Valley to address similar patterns of sprawl and automobile dependence; eight separate plans for an overcommitted public to comment on; and no overarching analysis or discussion of how it all fits together.

There's nothing in the law that says those counties couldn't come together to create a strong plan that includes new regional transportation alternatives, more affordable housing, and incentives for higher-density housing in urban areas.

It's not enough to make plans for 30 years down the road with the hope that we'll make things right between now and then. Although modeling can tell us a great deal about our potential futures, the hard work of redesigning our regions, and their land use and transportation policies, needs to start right now.


Alex Karner, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, wrote this for Zocalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).

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