California Emerges as Leader on Climate Crisis, According to Next 10

October 13, 2020 by Sean Trambley

SAN FRANCISCO — On Sept. 23, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an Executive Order banning the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035. California has served as a market leader in driving environmentally sensitive changes to the auto industry for decades. 

In his public statement, Newsom said that “the transportation sector is responsible for more than half of all of California’s carbon pollution, 80% of smog-forming pollution and 95% of toxic diesel emissions – all while communities in the Los Angeles Basin and Central Valley see some of the dirtiest and most toxic air in the country.”

A new brief from the nonpartisan group Next 10 found that expanding equitable access to clean transportation choices is critical, particularly in rural communities and urban settings, to address the climate crisis and protect public health in areas with historically high air pollution levels.

While solutions may differ across urban, suburban, and rural counties, the brief articulates that each must tailor a plan to best support clean transportation alternatives if California is to successfully address its largest source of climate pollution.

F. Noel Perry, the founder of Next 10, which commissioned the paper, said, “In every corner of the state, the link between our transit choices, the environment and our future has never been more critical.” 

He added, “As fires rage throughout the west, the importance of urgently acting on climate change has become all too real. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation sector will be a critical component to meeting our climate goals.”

The paper, “Expanding Access to Sustainable Transportation in California,” was prepared by Beacon Economics. 

Lead paper author Hoyu Chong of Beacon Economics, said, “In California, reducing emissions from the transportation sector is no easy feat — the sector is our largest contributor to statewide emissions at more than 41% of the total share, and on-road passenger vehicles alone represent 28% of the state’s total emissions. While transit ridership is down and the economy is currently in recession, thinking about building a cleaner future for all Californians can help state leaders invest in a healthier and safer California.”

Beacon looked at twelve sustainable transportation indicators across four main categories — vehicle miles traveled reductions, clean vehicle adoption, and active transportation and public transit use — to compare how California counties and some of the largest regions are doing at providing equitable access to clean transportation choices, in both rural and urban counties.

Rural counties are leading vehicle miles traveled reductions by driving less.

Surprisingly, despite their higher daily average VMT, several rural counties have cut VMT through innovative planning and programs. Six rural counties, Calaveras, Merced, Napa, Nevada, Placer, and Plumas, saw a reduction in VMT per capita between 2013 and 2018, while Nevada County reduced VMT per capita by 6%, the largest decline statewide.

Clean vehicle adoption rates are growing in rural communities

While urban California counties lead on clean vehicle adoption as adoption rates are generally linked to higher incomes, some rural counties are catching up. 

According to the paper, California’s urban centers are leaders nationwide in terms of clean vehicle adoption, with the state home to the top five U.S. cities in terms of EV adoption. 

However, rural counties are not far behind. Yolo County, with its 220,000 residents, boasts a nearly 6% adoption rate on clean energy vehicles in large part due to the expansion of and continued investment in the deployment of clean vehicle charging stations.

Rural counties lead on active transportation to work, too

Active transportation includes walking, biking, scooters, and working from home. Four rural counties have a higher share of commuters by active transportation than San Francisco, 22% — Sierra County, 24.5%, Trinity County, 24.2%, Modoc County, 22.7%, and Mariposa County, 22.2%.

Working from home improves air quality and addresses climate change

While the nationwide pandemic has changed commute patterns, new evidence shows state and local policies encouraging employees to work from home could provide new opportunities for improving air quality and addressing climate change.

Data from the report show that social isolation policies are clearly affecting traffic volumes across the state. In Los Angeles County, VMT dropped 34% from 96 million miles in early March to 63 million miles in early April, contributing to a 31% decrease in PM 2.5 pollutants. Overall, Southern California experienced a 20% improvement in air quality during this period.

Some California companies, such as Twitter and Square in the Bay Area, have already announced that they will allow most employees to work from home indefinitely — even after the pandemic ends. 

Studies suggest that as many as 29% to 37% of workers nationwide could potentially work remotely full-time – if these trends continue post-COVID-19, it could have a meaningful impact on air quality improvements and GHG emissions reductions.

Long-term investment needed to boost public transit ridership

Largely due to the pandemic, ridership has been dropping on California’s largest public transit systems.In Northern California, ridership on BART had been growing prior to the pandemic but has dropped dramatically due to COVID-19.

In Southern California, transit ridership has been falling and Southern California has been struggling to attract and retain riders. Between 2013 and 2018, transit use fell 16.7% in San Bernardino County, serving 1.5% of total commuters as of 2018, and 7.1%in Riverside County, serving 1.3% of total commuters in 2018.

Home to more than 40 million residents, California is the nation’s largest state by population, with a diverse economy and unique regional challenges.

“The state of our housing and economy has driven people further from their homes. We need to give people clean commute options that are equitable, appropriate and affordable regardless of their zip code,” Perry said. “If we can encourage urban development of flexible and affordable transit solutions and statewide deployment of clean vehicles, we can not only help California address the climate crisis—we can provide cleaner and healthier communities for all Californians.”

“This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” said Newsom. “For too many decades, we have allowed cars to pollute the air that our children and families breathe. Californians shouldn’t have to worry if our cars are giving our kids asthma. Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse – and create more days filled with smoky air. Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”

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