Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s election has the potential to inaugurate a new era in California politics. His priorities should include convening a much larger discussion on housing and transportation than has yet taken place.
We need a “grand conversation” that extends beyond specialists and interest groups to reach deeply into California society — young and old, renters and homeowners, drivers and transit riders. The conversation needs to start with agreement on basic principles and values and move on to particular solutions, where there is bound to be disagreement.
Housing and transportation problems are interrelated, and the state needs to find ways to generate productive discussions from that interdependence instead of retreating to specialized silos that limit comprehensive solutions.
Participants in The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencer series recently met in Sacramento. The group, which reflects the state’s political, economic, and demographic diversity, found several areas of agreement on principles and values.
First is a shared concern about equity. No matter how innovative a policy solution or how much impact it may have, the benefits need to reduce disparities in access, not increase them.
Community and geography are also important. Communities provide an important sense of connectedness and belonging, and we need to be mindful of forces that displace long-standing communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color. Housing and transportation solutions need to respect varying needs by geography; what works in downtown Los Angeles is unlikely to work in many parts of Inland California, which accounts for nearly a third of the state’s population.
Many of our transportation problems arise because people cannot find safe, affordable housing near their places of work. Solutions to housing and transportation also need to take into account changing dynamics in economic development and job creation.
Often, county and city economic development agencies focus on business attraction and industrial growth with little regard to where new employees will be housed or how they will get to work. Smart planning can begin with fostering greater collaboration between local government agencies and can easily expand to include businesses, the nonprofit sector, and communities more generally.
Solutions to housing and transportation also need to be much more imaginative than those offered today. Improving transportation options in the Central Valley historically has focused on one solution: adding more lanes to Highway 99, a key artery in the region shared by trucks and commuters.
Countless highway construction studies have shown extra lanes only temporarily relieve traffic — long commute times and clogged highways return within a matter of months. Meanwhile, some California cities are exploring ways to integrate ride-sharing, electric scooters, and trains to improve long-distance travel and to address the “first mile” and “last mile” problems that keep people from adopting faster and cleaner transportation options.
These changes are not without their disruptions. For example, many of us contend with ride-sharing scooters strewn on sidewalks and blocking public entrances, which can be annoying and sometimes dangerous. And many communities fear new housing proposals such as better-integrated services for homeless populations, mixed-use and transit-oriented developments and set-asides for low-income populations.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that these kinds of policy solutions would require at bay a skeptical and fearful public. Instead of fearing public engagement, California’s leaders should take the opportunity to innovate and deepen civic engagement.
Locally and at the state level, a “grand conversation” on housing, transportation, and living-wage jobs will help inform the public and invite them as partners for innovative solutions.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this piece included a misspelling of Ramakrishnan’s name.