Earlier this year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced its goal of reducing state residents’ vehicle miles traveled (VMT), even using zero-emission electric or autonomous vehicles, by 25 percent in 2030 and 30 percent in 2045. Despite CARB’s earlier, more modest targets, per capita VMT rose by 15 percent, to 8,561 miles per year from 2009 to 2019. In 2020, pandemic lockdowns and high unemployment slashed per capita VMT by 1,111 miles, but vehicle use recovered when the state reopened. CARB’s new target means that the state will pursue a 2,137-mile per capita VMT decline over the next six years, reaching a 2,573-mile decline by 2045—more than double the temporary 2020 decline in VMT.
No one knows how California can achieve two and a half pandemics’ worth of VMT reductions without causing pandemic-scale misery. CARB wants to double local transit capacity by 2030, but transit use has fallen by 32 percent since 2005 and accounted for just 2.2 percent of all commuting trips by 2019, despite billions of dollars of bus and rail spending. Low-income riders have increasingly shunned transit in favor of driving. Transit ridership dropped by another 50 percent post-pandemic, prompting a $5.1 billion state bailout, as transit operators vowed to find “a new business model.”
Pushing residents into higher-density walkable locations, CARB’s long-sought land-use goal, also failed to cut VMT despite years of state “sustainable-community” planning and programs. Most of California, beyond a handful of the most expensive urban areas, lacks sufficient “key destination accessibility” for residents to avoid driving. The state’s construction of even more high-density housing in existing low-VMT locations has already contributed to its highest-in-the-nation rental costs, and building more such housing will needlessly degrade the state’s few walkable communities, unless jobs and business follow new residents. Most employment growth took place outside of dense urban areas before the pandemic, and that trend intensified post-pandemic. Meantime, California’s single-family-home construction, the type of housing people overwhelmingly prefer, has dropped by a third since 2005. California has by far the largest number of unaffordable housing markets in the country.
CARB proposes “reimagin[ing]” roadways to support “people over cars.” This means reducing existing road and freeway capacity that residents have already paid for by eliminating lanes or reserving them for bikes, scooters, or buses, converting freeways into high-priced toll roads, and raising parking costs. State planners eventually want to track and tax every mile that each state resident drives.
These schemes are proving wildly unpopular. Culver City suspended high-profile bike- and bus-lane projects after public backlash. San Diego officials overwhelmingly voted to eliminate a VMT tax from its regional transportation plans.
The potentially astronomical cost of triggering the dramatic VMT cuts that CARB envisions is becoming clear as new projects grapple with California’s VMT-mitigation laws. Southern California transportation agencies, for example, plan to spend $413 million on 16 miles of new toll roads to reduce chronic delays along portions of Interstate 5. State-approved models, however, project that even this minute addition to the thousands of miles of existing freeways will “induce” over 100 million additional VMT per year. To offset those projected increases, the agencies would allocate yet another $442 million for new transit, bus passes, housing densification, and bike lanes, amounting to $20 per vehicle-mile reduced.
Current population estimates and CARB projections indicate that to meet the new targets, annual state VMT must fall by about 85 billion in 2030, and by close to 100 billion in 2045. At a rate of $20 per vehicle-mile reduced, these efforts would cost state residents $1.6 trillion over the next six years, and nearly $2 trillion by 2045.
And these sobering estimates may be optimistic. By 2030, for instance, nearly 20 million Californians, or about 3 million people per year, would need to reduce VMT by 50 percent, to 4,280 miles per year, a four-pandemic-sized cutback, to cut total state VMT by 25 percent. Inducing anything like this scale of change in six years will require inconceivable amounts of new housing and “key destination.” Doing so will also require lawmakers to impose punitive mileage taxes to reduce otherwise-unavoidable driving, along with major new aid programs to compensate for the disproportionate road-tax burdens on the state’s millions of car-dependent citizens.
While state officials have not yet endorsed CARB’s plan, another option for VMT hawks may be to encourage more people to leave California. Unlike the European Union, CARB counts only emissions caused by human activity within the state borders. Since 2020, California’s population has fallen by over 500,000, which, in CARB’s accounting, reduced in-state VMT 4.5 billion miles per year. The state can hit its total VMT reductions without further inconveniencing its remaining residents just by persuading another 9.4 million people to move by 2030, and 11 million by 2045.
CARB’s anti-driving aspirations directly clash with the duties of state highway transportation officials charged with maintaining safe and efficient highways. A bike advocate at the state highway department recently filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging that she was demoted for objecting to highway safety and carpool lanes. A coalition of 60 Green groups followed quickly with a letter criticizing Governor Newsom for allowing these types of highway safety and carpool projects to proceed.
Climate risks, of course, are related to global emissions, not state-by-state figures. It’s comical to think that moving VMT from one place to another lowers these risks. But California already refuses to account for the emissions associated with the vast amount of new electrical-generation equipment, vehicles and appliances, batteries, crude oil, and natural gas that its climate plans contemplate. As thousands of businesses leave the state, CARB also doesn’t count emissions related to the goods and services residents increasingly import from higher-emission producers. It would be similarly absurd for the state to claim a victory against automobiles if it cuts VMT by losing population.
CARB has never explained exactly how much future climate harm Californians will avoid by unilaterally pursuing such a draconian climate policy. State residents deserve an answer before they are forced to endure such unprecedented VMT reductions—a policy never specifically considered, let alone approved, by popular or legislative vote.