Opinion: Getting between motorists and their cars has become the new third rail of California politics

People sit in traffic along Venice Boulevard in a Westside neighborhood where a recall effort was launched against L.A. Councilman Mike Bonin over road diets in his district.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For all the talk in California about leading the world on climate change and resisting President Trump’s anti-environment agenda, the state has a third rail of environmental policy. 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 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 peoples’ cars.


At the state level, a group calling itself “Reform California” announced that it was launching an initiative drive aimed at repealing the new gas tax and vehicle fee increases. Those increases were approved by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in April after years of negotiations over how to pay for an estimated $73 billion in deferred road repairs and infrastructure maintenance. The 12-cent-per-gallon increase will take effect Nov. 1.

In Los Angeles, a group of Westside residents have begun a campaign to recall City Councilman Mike Bonin 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 plan 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. (See here and here.) But there is a common theme running through the criticism of the gas tax hike and 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 a pollution-free electric car. What’s one of the quickest ways to get people to do either of those? Make gasoline more expensive.

The purpose of the gas tax hike was to raise money for infrastructure repairs, not to change drivers’ behavior. But if the initiative to repeal the gas tax increase is successful, the price signal disappears and it’s likely 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 also 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-driving individuals 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. Or back away from the third rail?

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan