For all the talk in California about leading the world in fighting global warming and resisting President Trump’s climate-denial agenda, the state faces one powerful obstacle that limits its environmental activism: Touch their cars and Californians will revolt.
Any effort that limits, constrains or makes driving one’s car more expensive or inconvenient — no matter how civic-minded the proposal — is immediately controversial in California, and often a nonstarter. Getting between Californians and their cars can spell the end of a political career. Just ask former Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled in large part because of his decision to triple the state’s vehicle license fee.
Two separate, unrelated efforts launched last week are a reminder of just how difficult it is to make public policy when it involves people’s cars.
At the state level, a group calling itself “Reform California” announced that it was proposing an initiative to repeal the new gas tax and vehicle fee increases approved by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in April. The increases, including a 12-cent-per-gallon tax hike, were passed after years of negotiations over how to pay for an estimated $73 billion in deferred road repairs and infrastructure maintenance.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a group of Westside residents has begun a campaign to recall City Councilman Mike Bonin to punish him for his support of so-called road diets that have eliminated traffic lanes. Bonin has been one of the council’s most outspoken advocates for Vision Zero, the city’s program to reduce traffic deaths by slowing traffic speeds. But two projects in his district — one in Playa del Rey and one in Mar Vista — have created a huge backlash, with residents complaining that the road diets have created clogged streets, slower traffic and longer commutes.
Of course, these are different campaigns launched by very different groups, and there are nuanced arguments on each side. But there is a common theme running through the criticism of the gas tax hike and the negative response to the road diets, and that’s the belief that people should be able to drive their cars in the cheapest, fastest way possible.
That belief is a big problem for policymakers because it ultimately conflicts with key priorities in Los Angeles and California.
Brown and lawmakers have committed to dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help slow climate change. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases in California. To meet its targets, the state will have to persuade residents to drive less or drive pollution-free vehicles, such as electric cars.
The purpose of the gas tax hike was to raise money for infrastructure repairs, not to change drivers’ behavior. But if the expense of keeping the state’s roads and transportation systems well maintained means the cost of driving goes up and people are incentivized to use other modes of travel, well, that’s good for California and good for the planet. If, on the other hand, the initiative to repeal the gas tax increase is successful, the price signal disappears and it’s likely that fewer Californians will change their habits as a result. Then the state will have a harder time reducing greenhouse gases from vehicles.
Likewise in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council have committed to help slow climate change and to make the city more sustainable. They’ve adopted policies, including the city’s Mobility Plan 2035, that are designed to encourage people to drive less and take public transit, bike and walk more.
How do you get people to walk or bike more? Make them feel safer. That means slowing vehicle speeds, adding stop signs and crosswalks and building protected bike lanes. The city’s plans also call for more bus-only lanes so people riding transit get the benefit of faster, traffic-free travel. Making travel easier and safer for non-drivers often means removing traffic lanes and, yes, slowing travel for cars.
But, as the Bonin recall campaign and the backlash to road diets in other neighborhoods demonstrate, drivers do not like this change. What does the political pressure on Bonin portend for other elected officials? Are they going to stick by their commitment to a more walkable, bikeable, sustainable city when motorists complain? And what about state leaders, who now face the possibility that the repeal of the gas tax hike could be on the ballot next year? One of their colleagues, Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), is facing a recall over his vote to pass the fuel tax package.
Will California lawmakers stick to their climate change goals when drivers threaten to revolt? We certainly hope so.