California’s Push for Sustainable Communities (SB 375)

1      Introduction

In 2006, the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) was passed – requiring that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the state be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. An executive order called for emissions to be reduced even further to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. These landmark climate actions necessitated many follow-up bills designed to create a new regulatory framework that would make these ambitious goals attainable.

Policymakers knew that transportation was one of the biggest sources of GHG emissions in the state (specifically emissions from people driving automobiles), so their next task was to find ways to limit the impacts of this activity. They quickly realized that California’s long history of inefficient, sprawling development was actually a key reason why Californians needed to drive so much in the first place – and this revelation began the process of crafting what eventually became SB 375 (the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008).

SB 375 was the nation’s first law to connect the dots between land use (sprawl), transportation, and global warming. It has long been contentious (having gone through twelve amendments and still debated today) but more than a decade later we can now look back and evaluate its impact.

2      What SB 375 Does

2.1     Sets Regional GHG reduction targets

First, SB 375 required that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) define regional targets for GHG emissions reductions (from cars and light trucks) for all of California’s metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). These targets would need to be achieved only through land use and development pattern changes, as opposed to increasing vehicle fuel efficiency or reducing the carbon content of fuels (the other two legs in the “three-legged stool” to address GHG emissions generally).

CARB worked with MPOs to define “ambitious yet achievable” targets that would be enough to meet the mandates set for 2020 and 2035 by AB 32.

2.2     Creates Sustainable Communities Strategies

SB 375 requires that each MPO develop and adopt a regional “Sustainable Communities Strategy” (SCS) that integrates land use and transportation planning to achieve the GHG reduction goals set by CARB. Each SCS acts as a “blueprint” for feasibly reducing VMT in a region and is expected to be integrated with an MPO’s state/federally mandated Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).

MPOs are directed to include the following details in their SCS:

  • General location of uses, residential densities, and building intensities within the region
  • Areas sufficient to house all the population of the region (aligned to the RHNA process)
  • Transportation network to service the needs of the region
  • A forecasted development pattern that integrates the above

If an SCS cannot feasibly achieve the GHG reduction targets, the MPO must develop an Alternative Planning Strategy (APS) that identifies the principal impediments and shows how the goals could be achieved through (non-binding) alternative policies. Notably, an APS does not become part of a region’s RTP, but the other provisions of SB 375 still apply if a region takes this path. This provision was added so that a region could comply with SB 375 requirements separately from their federal mandates in their RTP.

Either way, CARB must approve either an SCS or APS before adoption.

2.3     Establishes incentives through transportation funding

To incentivize local jurisdictions to help achieve the regional GHG reduction targets, MPOs are instructed to prioritize transportation funding to cities and counties in ways that are internally consistent with the RTP/SCS. That is, proposed projects that are not part of the SCS could have funds from the federal government withheld or delayed, which should in theory lead local governments to conform their plans with the overarching regional SCS goals.

This “carrot” provision was necessary because local city governments ultimately have the power and control to decide how development unfolds within their borders, per long-standing California and federal law. They are under no obligation to actually follow or implement the regional SCS, but this financial incentive was the state legislature’s attempt to make it worthwhile to do so.

2.4     Ties transportation and housing elements together

In an attempt to make cities consider the impacts of sprawl and jobs-housing imbalance, SB 375 also requires that planning for transportation and housing occur simultaneously. This is done by synchronizing the required general plan Housing Element update period with the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) period and the RTP/SCS adoption schedule, ensuring that all these plans are updated together every eight years.

It also mandates that a region’s SCS must accommodate the housing need defined by the RHNA process, and further requires zoning changes to be consistent with the development pattern defined in the SCS. This ostensibly means that local city governments, faced with increased RHNA numbers, should be forced to allocate more housing as infill (within existing developed areas) and along existing key transit corridors (as opposed to sprawling from the outskirts of their borders).

2.5     Introduces new CEQA exemptions

The bill provides a major incentive for developers to build new projects along transit corridors (or otherwise staying consistent with the SCS/APS) in the form of a drastically streamlined environmental review process, even if they conflict with local plans. Firstly, residential or mixed-use projects (>75% residential) consistent with policies in the SCS or APS are eligible for a number of exemptions to the traditionally lengthy and expensive CEQA process – e.g., not needing to describe or discuss growth-inducing impacts or impacts from auto trips generated by the project.

SB 375 also defines transit-priority projects (TPPs) as those that:

  • Contain at least 50% residential use
  • Have a minimum net density of twenty units per acre
  • Have a floor area ratio >0.75 for nonresidential use
  • Are located within one half-mile or a major transit stop or high-quality transit corridor as defined in the RTP

These special projects become eligible for review under a streamlined “Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment” (SCEA) rather than traditional EIR, which features a shorter comment period and is reviewed under a more lenient, deferential “substantial evidence” standard. TPPs can also meet even more rigorous requirements to be declared Sustainable Communities Projects (SCPs), making them eligible for a full CEQA exemption:

  • Be no bigger than 8 acres or 200 units
  • Be capable of service from existing utilities
  • Have no significant effect on historic resources
  • Have buildings 15% more energy efficient than required under current law
  • Have landscaping designed to achieve 25 percent less water usage than the average regional household
  • Provide any one of the following:
    • Five acres of open space
    • 20% moderate income housing
    • 10% low-income housing
    • 5% very-low-income housing

3      Limitations on effectiveness

SB 375 was shaped by a large number of stakeholders including environmental advocates, developers, businesses, and local governments. Many critics point out that this resulted in a bill of compromises – legislation without teeth that would ultimately doom its legacy. (Athwal 2010) Several common critiques of its efficacy follow.

3.1     Unrealistic expectations for MPOs

MPOs are responsible for most of the execution of the bill’s provisions, but they don’t actually have much control over the outcomes in reality. For example, MPOs are expected to use their leverage over the distribution of federal funds to influence what kinds of transportation projects get prioritized, but they only directly control a small portion of these (about 15% of capital funds on average).

Furthermore, actions by MPOs require consensus among their board members, who are typically locally elected officials representative of all the cities in the region. Each member’s loyalty to their local constituents inherently prevents any joint policy action that would disproportionately harm any single jurisdiction. (Fulton, SB 375 Is Now Law, but What Will It Do? 2016)

Most significantly, MPOs do not have any authority over land use decisions, as this power is explicitly reserved for local governments. This ultimate lack of control plays out in other common critiques of SB 375.

3.2     Local governments don’t have to cooperate

Notably, local governments have no mandate to ensure their local land use policies and regulations stay consistent with a regional SCS. In fact, only 29% of cities surveyed reported actually adopting new land use policies to match SCS blueprint goals in 2012. (Barbour and Deakin, Smart Growth Planning for Climate Protection 2012)

Furthermore, the option for an MPO to adopt an APS (instead of an SCS that must be integrated back into an RTP) gives whole regions an escape hatch that allows compliance with SB 375 with no consequential effect on transportation funding.

Even with an SCS, there would be no penalties for not following it after its initial approval by CARB.

3.3     CEQA benefits not helping enough

While the concept of blanket CEQA exemptions for infill and transit-oriented development is appealing, critics say that their provisions are too narrow – making it difficult for many projects to take advantage of them. (Haney 2010)

Furthermore, as local governments review individual projects within their jurisdictions, they do not “get credit” for considering regional environmental benefits or if they displace emissions from other locations within the region. Hence, the projects would be reviewed with a local focus only, potentially hurting the chances of approval regardless of CEQA.

Finally, developers may need much more incentive than just CEQA exemptions to do infill versus greenfield development. Critics point out that developers will always build what is in demand, and the public demand for sprawling suburban homes is still massive. Market forces would guide developers towards unsustainable development regardless of the regional SCS, and SB 375’s minor incentives would not be enough to overcome these forces.

3.4     Unfunded mandate

SB 375 is really just an attempt at better coordinating and standardizing approaches to addressing GHG emissions across the state, without any additional funding or supportive legislation that would make it easier to actually make progress towards its stated goals. As such, critics have noted how unrealistic it would be to expect it to make a significant difference on its own. In fact, estimates say that the actual contribution of SB 375 towards achieving AB 32’s targeted emissions reductions from passenger vehicles would be about 6%. That is, the vast majority of GHG reductions would come from technological measures (the other two legs of the stool). (Barbour, Evaluating sustainability planning under California’s Senate Bill 375 2016)

The limits of SB 375 were somewhat validated when the initial regional CARB targets were announced in 2010. The targets were actually higher than the 2005 baseline due to expected population growth in all regions, and minimal mitigation. Supporters of SB 375 have said that land use and transportation changes take a much longer time to play out and suggest that the real effects may not be seen until 2035.

4      Outcomes

In 2018, CARB issued their first progress report after all MPOs finished their initial rounds of SCS development. Their key finding was that California was not on track to meet the GHG reductions expected under SB 375. In fact, VMT per capita had been increasing, along with the percentage of people driving alone to work in most regions. (California Air Resources Board 2018)

Notably, CARB was unable to determine GHG reduction progress per region due to the lack of a data source that could accurately track this. They had to use gasoline consumption data to estimate state-wide VMT, since Caltrans data apparently had some irregularities.

These initial results suggest that the SCS plans are not being implemented as fully imagined or they are not proving as effective as believed. Furthermore, some early indicators suggest that sprawl may even be on the rise in some regions after several years of decline.

Consequently, CARB suggests putting together an interagency body to produce a new “State Mobility Action Plan for Healthy Communities” to address the shortcomings of SB 375 thus far.

5      Recommendations

5.1     Commit stable funding for robust public transit infrastructure

The fundamental argument of SB 375 is that dense, mixed-use development near transit stations is key to achieving the VMT reductions necessary for GHG reduction goals. However, without sufficient accompanying capital and operations funding to actually build and run that public transit, the entire premise falls apart. Hence, the California legislature should back up the intention of SB 375 with dedicated funding directed at massively expanding the state’s public transit systems.

First, investments in public transit will immediately pay dividends in terms of GHG emissions due to the mere existence and availability of new sustainable modes of transportation in communities that may not have had access previously. But furthermore, system expansions would enable more housing developments to qualify for the CEQA exemptions granted in SB 375, thus leading to even greater GHG reductions as more people would be able to move into transit-oriented developments. This harmonious interaction between transportation infrastructure and housing development is exactly what the authors of SB 375 wished to see, but it will only be possible by laying down the transit infrastructure first.

One source of this funding could be created from the implementation of more HOV toll lanes along existing highways, as seen on the U.S. 101, CA-237, and I-880. These would align well to the existing RTP/SCS process, act as a form of congestion pricing during peak traffic times, and would provide a significant and continuous revenue source for transit projects. (Darakjian 2009)

5.2     Urban growth boundaries

At its heart, SB 375 is an “anti-sprawl” measure and goes to great lengths to set up a series of tools, processes, and incentives to get cities to focus development within existing urban centers. However, a much more direct and expedient way to compel this outcome would be to just dictate hard limits on where development can happen. Oregon has a similar program that is widely considered to be more effective due to the inclusion of urban growth boundaries. That is, urban development is limited within a boundary and the land outside is preserved as open space or agricultural lands.

This would also have the secondary benefit of preventing development close to wildfire-prone areas, as this has historically caused many problems for California. A city like Paradise, for example, would never have been built with this kind of regulation in place.

5.3     Direct pricing policies

In the face of intransigent local governments that are reluctant to make the substantial changes necessary to their land use policies, the state should further explore and leverage taxation policies that they have more control over. For example, the state could consider:

  • Increasing the gas tax
  • Implementing a new VMT or other usage-based tax
  • Enable regions to implement congestion pricing in their jurisdictions
  • Enact parking pricing reform (e.g., mandate unbundling of parking pricing in development or otherwise expose the full costs of parking on drivers)
  • Funnel revenues from new taxes to sustainable transportation initiatives

Pricing polices like these affect automobile users more directly, and in this way can encourage desirable behaviors (i.e., reducing car usage) regardless of what local governments may decide to do. This also makes all citizens more aware of the societal costs of their driving, which may lead to an additional benefit of them demanding more sustainable development patterns from their locally elected officials.

6      Bibliography

  • Altmaier, Monica, Elisa Barbour, Christian Eggleton, Jeffier Gage, Jason Hayter, and Ayrin Zahner. Make it Work: Implementing Senate Bill 375. Research Paper, Berkeley, CA: University of California Transportation Center, 2009.
  • Athwal, Navjot. “SB 375: Smart growth savior or just the beginning?” Environmental Claims Journal, 2010: 112-143.
  • Barbour, Elisa. “Evaluating sustainability planning under California’s Senate Bill 375.” Transportation Research Record, 2016: 17-25.
  • Barbour, Elisa, and Elizabeth A. Deakin. “Smart Growth Planning for Climate Protection.” Journal of the American Planning Association, 2012: 70-86.
  • California Air Resources Board. 2018 Progress Report: California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act. Progress Report, Sacramento, CA: California Air Resources Board, 2018.
  • Darakjian, John. “SB 375: Promise, Compromise and the New Urban Landscape.” UCLA Journal of Environmental Law and Policy, 2009: 27.
  • Fulton, William. SB 375 Is Now Law, but What Will It Do? 2016.
  • Fulton, William. SB 375: It’s An Incremental Change, Not A Revolution. California Planning & Development Report, 2008.
  • Haney, Heather. “Implementing SB 375: Promises and Pitfalls.” Ecology L. Currents, 2010: 46.
  • Hettinger, Kira. “New frontier in urban greenhouse gas emissions regulation: Overview of California’s Senate Bill 375.” Sustainable Dev. L. & Pol’y, 2010: 58.
  • Hilliard, Lauren Michele. Rethinking California’s planning frameworks to support SB 375: A white paper on local, regional, state and federal climate change policy reform. Thesis, Davis, CA: University of California, Davis, 2010.
  • Mawhorter, Sarah, Amy Martin, and Carol Galante. “California’s SB 375 and the pursuit of sustainable and affordable development.” Transportation, Land Use, and Environmental Planning, 2020: 497-521.
  • “SB 375 FAQ Sheet.” Asian Pacific Environmental Network. 2008.
  • SB-375 Transportation planning: travel demand models: sustainable communities strategy: environmental review. 2007-2008.
  • Schoradt, Brent. “Sustainable Communities Strategies Will Be Essential to the Success of SB 375.” Ecology Law Quarterly, 2009: 611-614.
  • Sciara, Gian-Claudia. Evaluating Progress toward SB375 Implementation: A Long-term View. Research Report, Davis, CA: UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, 2014.

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