VMT Reduction Recipe for ARB

We are guessing not many of you read the latest version of the Mobile Source Strategy.

We read it because it begins to show how the California Air Resources Board (ARB) will approach reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the Scoping Plan and how ARB may set greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets under Senate Bill 375.

Now we read a lot of ARB documents. While informative, they are not known for their imaginative writing. So, this sentence in the Mobile Source Strategy caught our eye: “The recipe for success in reducing VMT requires many ingredients, but two essential ones include a focus on equity and partnerships.”

Kudos to ARB for the metaphor. Let’s run with it.

Just how should ARB cook up a good “VMT reduction?” (See what we did there?) Here is our list of essential ingredients.

  • Use Equity as the Base. Chefs will tell you the ingredient you start with determines the quality of a reduction. Even as other ingredients are added, this first ingredient permeates. Integrating equity at the outset will help produce equitable outcomes. The process of developing VMT reduction policies must include voices from historically disenfranchised communities, including low-income, rural, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. ARB is committed to this structural change and ARB’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee is a start. But additional effort and resources will be needed to produce an equitable base.
  • Fold in Regional and Local Governments. Partnership requires the key ingredient of authentic communication. In both directions. Without it, program challenges continue to simmer. Reaching out early and often to regional and local governments will lead to the organizational change and renewed partnership called for in the original SB 150 report (pages 6 and 57). The perfect opportunity to build these partnerships is right on the shelf: Look for the spice blend labeled “REAP 2.0”. This $500 million program, being designed by ARB, the Strategic Growth Council, the Office of Planning and Research and Housing and Community Development, offers funding and technical assistance to regional and local governments to increase housing production and lower VMT in order to implement regional Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS).
  • Add Equal Measures of Accountability. Most VMT reduction policies focus on regional and local accountability. But in our opinion, the secret sauce is state accountability. As we have outlined in SB 375’s Emissions Gap: Explained, regional SCS’s alone will not reduce GHG emission enough to meet climate goals. There is a gap of about 6 percent. Other than identifying the need for “additional state actions” to close that gap, the state has developed no comprehensive plan or analysis for achieving these additional GHG reductions. The Mobile Source Strategy includes some initial VMT reduction strategies. But it’s difficult to know whether these are designed to support SCS implementation, or address the emission gap, or both. The Scoping Plan should be clear on these questions: What are the state strategies for supporting SCS implementation? And what are the additional state strategies for addressing the emissions gap?
  • Forecast and Account for Changed Revenues. Electrification is an essential element of climate policy. But it’s not a VMT reduction strategy. Electrification will likely result in fewer gas taxes. Since fuel taxes are the largest revenue source for transportation funding, less gas taxes means less funding for all transportation projects, including projects that help reduce VMT. A recent Mineta Institute Report found that achieving two state goals (use of ZEVs and lower VMT) could reduce state transportation revenues by as much as $4 billion a year by 2040. Failing to account for these losses is kind of like leaving the pan simmering so long that it begins to burn. While emerging programs—like congestion pricing—show promise to offset the declining gas tax, more work is needed. The conversion to electric vehicles requires conversations across state agencies and with regional, local, and equity partners.
  • Embrace Regional Varietals. Variety provides food its splendor. What grows in one region may not flourish in another. Adding regional and local context (and innovation) to the statewide recipe should be encouraged. We should not expect areas like Shasta, Merced, or Monterey Counties to follow the exact recipe that works in Alameda or San Bernardino Counties.

Finally, monitor the reduction as it simmers. As with different ingredients, strategies and policies can interact in unexpected ways. The relationship between VMT reduction, GHG reduction, housing, economic development, and equity must be considered in relation with each other. The urgency of the climate crisis might tempt us to under value a deliberative process and careful analysis in the name of quick action. But authentic partnerships, careful communication, and accountability will assure the recipe is a success.

This may be one case when we cannot have too many cooks in the kitchen.

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