In November, California’s voters defended a landmark opportunity to upgrade the state’s long-neglected transportation system. In rejecting Prop 6, voters supported funding for safer roads, stronger bridges, and better public transit — as well as better bike infrastructure. As a result, $52 billion will flow into state coffers over the next 10 years specifically designated to transportation.
CalBike’s policy team and our allies are keeping a close eye on how this money is spent and the priorities that shape its distribution. So far, we see serious problems deriving from decisions by the California Transportation Commission (CTC) that privilege private industry interests over the interests of the California residents most negatively affected by the policies of the past and most in need of visionary transportation leadership.
An eleven-member body, including nine appointed by the governor and two by the Legislature, the CTC has enormous power to allocate these funds. According to their recent annual report to the Legislature, the commission’s priorities are not those defended by the majority of voters or by climate and transportation advocates: clean, sustainable transportation, connecting safer and healthier communities across the state.
The stakes are incredibly high: California’s transportation system is our biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and transportation-sector emissions continue to rise.
Commission’s Annual Report Falls Short
Our analysis suggests the CTC’s recommendations are underpinned by three foundational priorities:
- Preparing for and facilitating the adoption of emerging technologies
- Limiting state governmental review of local authorities and their relationships to local industries
- Soliciting more public discussion as a solution for both new and old challenges
Unfortunately, we can’t agree that these are the most important or pressing legislative priorities if creating a better transportation system is one of the commission’s goals.
The general public and even many people who work in transportation policy are completely unaware of the CTC’s critical role in making transportation decisions. Operating outside public scrutiny, the commission can freely work to please those who are paying attention; the private and local agency interests the commission oversees and too often caters to. The CTC’s annual report to the Legislature reflects these influences.
The commission’s recommendations appear to be motivated by fairly implicit goals:
- Bringing emerging and profitable products to market through changes in public policy
- Increasing GDP through transportation “efficiencies”
- Eliminating governmental regulatory power which, they argue, creates barriers to economic growth and local/regional prosperity
- Allowing fragmented local governments to control their land use priorities, with the approval of state officials
This often sets the stage for much of the CTC’s broader formulation of state policy and their role in advising and assisting the Legislature, too often setting aside safety, public health, environmental impacts, and disparities in mobility but also pitting these more people-centered social needs at odds with economic growth. In reality, safe and sustainable transportation and the livable and equitable communities it supports creates and fosters economic opportunity and growth.
Bigger, Faster, Worse
Since its inception in 1978, the California Transportation Commission has prioritized policies to expand freeways and roads at the expense of people; freeway and road-building projects too-often served dominant interests that ignored or neglected significant social costs that have proved catastrophic, particularly for low-income communities of color: climate change, toxic air, vast inequalities in access to mobility, persistent racial and social segregation, and the disenfranchisement and marginalization that accompany them.
Over time and thanks in part to citizen pressure, the California Transportation Commission has slowly adapted to new industries and transportation technologies, new paradigms of transportation planning, and an increased focus on advancing opportunities for low-income communities of color. Bicycles are a perfect example of a ‘transportation technology’ that the CTC has been slow in assessing and adopting. The CTC was instrumental in 2013 in consolidating various biking and walking funding programs into what is now known as the Active Transportation Program (ATP). Unfortunately, between the paltry funding allocated to the program and the disinterest of industry leaders and local governments, this incredibly important technology, a key feature of sustainable urban planning and a critically important and accessible form of mobility for many, hasn’t been fostered by transportation leadership with the support it would need to transform our state.
Instead, interest and policy development is predominantly focused on electric and autonomous vehicles; a perfect example of the way an industry, and its proponents in local government, can work its way through the CTC and shape its own policy priorities. Most importantly, we can use the electric vehicle as a case study that serves the interests of private industry and local-regional governments in maintaining the status-quo of transportation policy (i.e. ‘eliminating barriers for increased throughput, velocity, and reliability for private vehicles’.)
This has to change. We’re not on track as a state in moving to meet our climate goals around transportation. In fact, emissions from transportation are on the rise due to an increase in the number of miles we travel in vehicles (VMT). The Air Resources Board (ARB) has made clear that even with the most ambitious adoption of electric vehicles (half of all new car sales in 2030 are to be Zero-Emission Vehicles), California still needs to reduce VMT. ARB’s recent Progress Report called for a dramatic shift in our investments in infrastructure to make it easier for Californians to get where they need to go without driving. According to research from UC Davis from 2018: “the state has not reflected its ambitious policies for GHG reduction and climate action in its practices for allocating state transportation funding.” It’s increasingly clear that state dollars have to be aligned with state goals. This is a priority that’s received scant attention from the CTC.
Our Transportation Platform certainly acknowledges the need for smart and responsive policy to guide the fast-moving world of ‘new mobility technology’, but we can’t endorse tech as the panacea to our transportation problems. Although transitioning to zero-emission, autonomous, and emerging mobility technology vehicles is an important element in any transportation platform, recommendations like requiring all new AVs to help meet state climate goals, ensuring mobility services improve access for those most in need, and making piecemeal improvements in safety can only go so far. Designing California’s transportation system to prioritize single-occupancy cars over safety, clean air, public health, or livable communities has brought us to our current crises, and we can’t make the radical changes needed by reinforcing the status quo.
Making the change will be challenging. Behind advocacy for electric and autonomous vehicles stand powerful economic and political interests deeply motivated to protect the status quo. Interests like increasingly profitable vehicle and technology sales, natural resource and fossil fuel extraction, the privatization of mobility options as a paid service, the financialization of land use and real estate development, increased funding for road-building infrastructure projects that subsidizes private profits, and the hunger for short-term increases to economic productivity and output all serve to incentivize the unchecked rise of the automobile as California’s most highly-prioritized mode of transportation.
Intractable Problems Need Radical Solutions
By centering these priorities in its annual report to the Legislature, the commission simply reproduces many unsustainable and inequitable actions through the public policy process.Our work with stakeholders, local advocates, and planners in communities across California has shown us how great the need for action is; we can’t make real strides in the fight against climate change until the Legislature thinks critically and honestly about what’s being focused on by our state agencies.
We don’t come to this assessment without good cause; the California Environmental Justice Alliance released its Environmental Justice Agency Assessment in 2017, revealing that the commission’s efforts to integrate environmental justice into their decision-making have so far met with little success. According to the assessment, the CTC still makes policy decisions that actively harm the communities in California who are already the most impacted and disenfranchised by our transportation system, and fails to meaningfully prioritize their health and quality of life.
This assessment is a start. But action must be taken to finally address the massive blindspot of the transportation sector in meeting our important state goals. The California Transportation Commission has so far shown little to no interest in taking meaningful steps, despite their authority to allocate 25 billion dollars to transportation projects last year alone.
Can the deeply-entrenched motivations and misplaced priorities we describe be reformed by new leadership? The grip of private industry and local-regional government is strong and largely aligned with the motivations and interests of the commissioners. But we see opportunity for hope. A larger budget to give the commission more resources to hold local-regional governments accountable to state goals would help. Progressive new appointments to the commission would also help. A new commitment to truly transformational “technologies” like complete bicycle networks is essential.
Most importantly, state lawmakers need to revisit these imbalances. They control the budget. It’s time for fresh policy viewpoints; for a set of meaningful and transformative policies committed to state goals around climate, air quality, and social equity.
CalBike urges the state Legislature to truly lead, and to represent all of California’s communities instead of protecting the interests of a narrow few.