By Tina Yuen
The passage of California’s Senate Bill 743 (SB 743) 7 years ago was a huge victory for public health and health equity. It’s finally slated to go into effect on July 1, 2020. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, its implementation is even more critical, given its importance in ensuring a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future for California.
Critics of SB 743 would have us believe that the law is extreme and burdensome and that it adds to an already overzealous regulatory environment in California. They claim, with scant evidence, that SB 743 will inhibit development and housing production and add to the cost of housing through a VMT fee or tax. Opponents wrongly believe that the law’s implementation will prevent road projects or that people will be forced out of their cars or into higher-density housing. As such, these critics are calling for a delay of the law’s implementation during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic crisis. They are having some success; the Fresno County Board of Supervisors recently approved a resolution that delays SB 743’s implementation for 2 years.
But let’s be clear: SB 743 will not inhibit development or housing production, add additional fees or taxes to the cost of housing developments, stop or delay road improvement projects, or force people to give up their cars or single-family homes.
In reality, what SB 743 will do is help catalyze the types of land use developments and transportation infrastructure that are needed to promote healthier, more resilient, and more equitable communities. SB 743 works by shifting how we analyze transportation impacts as part of the environmental review process. Up until now, level of service was the standard metric used to evaluate transportation impacts, and its use was problematic because it focuses on managing congestion and increasing the comfort of drivers rather than on how driving impacts the environment and our health.
SB 743 requires lead agencies – the public agencies, such as planning or public works departments, with primary responsibility for approving projects that may have significant environmental impacts — to estimate how many miles of vehicle travel a project will produce and to reduce increases in vehicle miles through mitigation strategies if the project exceeds a defined threshold. Mitigation strategies could include carpooling, expanded public transit services, or creation of pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly infrastructure. By implementing SB 743, California communities will start to shift transportation priorities from dependence on single-occupancy vehicles to other modes of transportation that decrease vehicle miles traveled (VMT). VMT reduction is critical to achieving our state’s climate goals and also provides other health, equity, and environmental benefits:
- Increased safety. Reducing VMT means fewer car trips, resulting in lower risk of traffic-related collisions and injuries both for motorists and for people who tend to rely more on walking and bicycling, such as children, older adults, people of color, and people with low income.
- Improved environmental quality. In addition to lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, less driving results in less air pollution and better air quality. Higher pollution rates are associated with increases in coronavirus deaths, especially among low-income communities of color that are more likely to live close to hazardous land uses, like busy highways. Recent evidence has shown that dramatic declines in driving during stay-at-home orders across the country have led to improved air quality and reductions in GHG emissions. However, as people return to work and communities start to reopen, driving rates are inching up. Emissions from transportation could easily soar again unless we take concerted action to curb solo driving.
- Increased physical activity and improved health. Driving exacts a toll on our health. Less time spent in cars is linked with increased physical activity, improved mental and emotional health, and reductions in rates of chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that are the result of persistent health inequities and poor overall health. As recent studies have revealed, underlying health inequities and chronic health conditions are some of the many reasons that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities and other communities of color have increased risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality.
- Improved mental health and reduced stress. Reducing VMT relieves traffic congestion and time spent commuting, reduces stress related to driving, and allows more time for other activities such as bonding with family, exercising, or fulfilling household or self-care needs.
- Increased opportunities for healthy and equitable development. SB 743 will create more opportunities for mixed-use, infill, high-density, and transit-oriented developments. These types of developments allow destinations to be closer together and therefore more walkable, more bikeable, and more easily served by transit. And if they are created with a focus on equity, such developments can spur affordable housing near transit, increasing access to jobs while slowing the pace of gentrification and displacement. Additionally, more foot and bicycle traffic along commercial corridors has been associated with increased sales for local businesses.
- Economic savings for low-income populations. Low-income families of color are less likely to own a car and are more reliant on public transit to meet their daily transportation needs. When combined with provision of affordable housing, VMT mitigation strategies that focus on a mix of uses near transit hubs can increase affordable transportation options — such as walking, biking, or taking public transit — for low-income households. Decreased reliance on private vehicles for travel also saves people money on gas and the costs associated with buying, operating, and maintaining a car — savings that can be used to pay for other needs like health care or nutritious food.
Many local governments across the nation are taking actions that push the usual bounds of what’s plausible in order to respond to the pressing needs of their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. California communities should harness this increased political will and desire for innovations to equitably meet their changing needs during the pandemic and economic recession. If implemented effectively, SB 743 can spur equitable development and community investments that enhance our quality of life and improve health and well-being while addressing our goals related to climate change and sustainability.
As our partners at ClimatePlan wrote in their blog, implementation of SB 743 has never been more of an imperative than it is right now. The choices we make during the pandemic and the eventual recovery phase will affect the trajectory of California for many years to come. We can choose to lean into our vision of healthy, equitable, sustainable, and resilient communities with increased options for mobility. Or we can cling to car-oriented development patterns that worsen health inequities and environmental quality.
We need to ensure that SB 743 is implemented without delay this July. Even during a global pandemic, we must keep our goals for public health, equity, and sustainability front and center.
Accurate, evidenced-based information about SB 743 is available from the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and the SB 743 Implementation Assistance Project. For more information about how SB 743 and measuring VMT can promote health, equity, and sustainability, please check out ChangeLab Solutions’ resource How Measuring Vehicle Miles Traveled Can Promote Health Equity.