Sperling and Nichols: How California’s Pioneering Transportation Strategy is Blazing Trails for Other Governments

By Jamie Knapp • J Knapp Communications

California, the state known for pioneering car-dependent cities, is aiming to transform vehicles and how they are used. It is adopting policies that will not only protect public health and the environment, but also cut air pollution, carbon emissions and oil use. California is blazing a new trail, providing a model for other state and national governments to follow.

In the journal Issues in Science and Technology, ITS-Davis Director Dan Sperling and California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols explain how California has become a leader in reducing motor vehicles’ carbon footprint and changing the way people travel.

Two political circumstances favor California’s climate policy leadership, Sperling and Nichols say. First, because of its history of unhealthy air pollution, the state has unique legal authority under the federal 1970 Clean Air Act to adopt its own more stringent motor vehicle emission standards. Second, the state’s political leaders have had the freedom to take decisive action, thanks to broad public support for environmental and clean-energy initiatives.

The result is a unique and comprehensive strategy of vehicle, fuel and mobility policies that present minimal cost to taxpayers, are largely performance-based, embrace and take advantage of market forces, and work together to cut carbon and other pollution from transportation.

California adopted its first – revolutionary – vehicle emissions standards in 1966 and 1970 in response to eye-stinging smog that plagued the Los Angeles air basin. It broke more ground in 1990 by adopting the controversial Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, a rule that has prevailed despite automaker opposition, lawsuits and multiple revisions. The California ZEV mandate is credited for inspiring the electric and hybrid cars now on roads around the globe today.

In 2004, California took another giant step when it adopted the nation’s first vehicle greenhouse gas rules, which have since become the model for federal GHG and fuel economy rules.

And in January of this year, the state Air Resources Board updated its entire suite of vehicle regulations. In contrast to earlier years, when industry opposed California’s vehicle emissions rules, automakers generally supported all the updated standards.

These actions serve as an international model for policies that address smog-forming and GHG emissions, Sperling and Nichols note. What’s more, California’s leadership has accelerated automotive investment worldwide, spurring a race to innovate body and powertrain designs.

California policy is also spurring a fuels innovation race. Sperling and Nichols explain how the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard provides a durable framework to transition transportation fuels away from high-carbon sources. The LCFS is a performance-based standard that applies to all transportation fuels and encourages competition in an open, transparent market. The LCFS is already stimulating investment in cleaner, lower-carbon fuels, despite legal challenges from the oil and ethanol industries.

California’s third approach to cutting transportation carbon involves mobility. Sperling and Nichols describe how California is trying to reverse its suburban sprawl development patterns and high vehicle usage. The state has set targets for local governments to reduce GHG emissions from passenger travel, encouraging them to change land-use policies, increase transit use, pursue new forms of efficient mobility services, and use pricing to reduce vehicle use. Once again the state is pioneering new ideas and approaches.

Even though California contributes only 2 percent of the world’s total GHG emissions, few countries have larger shares, so the state’s policy action is significant in its own right as well as being a model for other states and nations.

Sperling and Nichols conclude by suggesting that, although California’s top-down approach has worked, a bottom-up approach that directly engages individuals, businesses and local and regional governments is at least as important, if the results are to be sustainable.

Read this paper: Sperling, Daniel and Mary Nichols (2012) California’s Pioneering Transportation Strategy. Issues in Science and Technology Winter (2012), 59 – 66.

Learn more about California climate policy: Sperling, Daniel and Mary Nichols (2012) Cooling the Sky: Creating Climate Policy in California. Boom: A Journal of California, Vol. 2, Number 1 (Spring 2012), pp 17 – 32.

Explore future global mobility in emerging countries like China and India: Gordon, Deborah and Daniel Sperling (2011) Critical Crossroad: Advancing Global Opportunities to Transform Transportation. The European Financial Review 2011 (October-November), 71 – 75.

Envision future travel in zero-emission “pod” cars: Sperling, Daniel and Richard T. Forman (2011) The Future of Roads: No Driving, No Emissions, Nature Reconnected. Solutions 2011 (September-October), 10 – 23.

Photo: Fernie Payan, then 24, drives through Los Angeles on Oct. 29, 1965 in the city’s third smog alert in three days. California adopted its first – revolutionary – vehicle emissions standards in 1966. Credit: TheOldMotor.com