skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

SoCal's new sustainability strategy is impressive step forward

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 12, 2012

, , , , ,
Share | | |

  Los Angeles (by: Kevin Stanchfield, creative commons license)

We expect forward-looking sustainability planning from places like Portland, Vancouver and Copenhagen.  Los Angeles?  Not so much.  Southern California is a region much better known for environmental problems than solutions, which is precisely why its new, 25-year Sustainable Communities Strategy, adopted unanimously last week by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), is so significant.

SCAG is the nation's largest metropolitan planning organization, representing six counties:  Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura and Imperial.  Its planning area covers an astounding 38,000 square miles, including 191 cities and more than 18 million residents.  If southern California were a state, it would be the 5th most populous in the nation.  If it were a country, it would have the world’s 16th largest economy

In an area renowned for clogged freeways and sprawl, the region’s sustainability challenges are immense.  Riverside-San Bernadino, for example, claimed the number one spot as the nation’s most sprawling metro area in Smart Growth America’s definitive 2002 study, Measuring Sprawl and its Impact.  In a separate index, the southern California area was identified by the Brookings Institution (using 2006 data) as having the nation’s highest rate of driving per person volume of traffic on arterial roadways.  The transportation analysis firm INRIX, which issues an annual “National Traffic Scorecard,” ranks the region as also having the nation’s worst traffic congestion, based on sophisticated measurements of travel delays.  Indeed, five of the nation’s ten most congested freeway corridors, INRIX reports, are located in Southern California. 

  the 6-county SCAG region (by: SCAG)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the region’s air quality is notorious:  it is the worst in the country for pollution by ozone smog, which can impair breathing function, according to the American Lung Association.  It is the second worst for particle pollution, which causes heart and lung disease and premature death.  In addition, two southern California counties – Los Angeles and Orange – are among the nation’s 20 riskiest for developing cancer from breathing toxic air pollution, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  The region is fifth worst for per capita carbon emissions from transportation (though its mild climate and resulting low residential energy demands help keep overall emissions relatively low).

While the environmental facts are daunting, the good news is that the region is doing something about it.

Last week, after years of preparation, SCAG adopted its first-ever Sustainable Communities Strategy.  The new plan is impressive, relying on increased investment in public transit and more walkable, transit-accessible land use patterns to reduce pollution while conserving farmland and natural areas.  Indeed, the strategy has been hailed by my California-based colleague (and NRDC’s deputy director for sustainable communities) Amanda Eaken as a “roadmap to cleaner air and a healthier economy” for the region’s residents and visitors.  These are some of its highlights:

  • Riverside County (by: Catherine Snodgrass, creative commons license)The new strategy will invest $246 billion in public transportation
  • It will fund 12 major transit expansion projects in Los Angeles over the next 10 years, under LA Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan
  • It will increase funding for bicycling and walking over threefold, from $1.8 to $6.7 billion
  • It is projected to reduce traffic congestion 24 percent per capita despite the addition of four million residents
  • It will place 60 percent more housing in transit-accessible locations
  • It will create 4.2 million jobs in the region, and place 87 percent of all jobs within a half mile of transit service
  • It is projected to reduce pollution-caused respiratory problems by 24 percent, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings
  • It will save over 400 square miles of farmland and other open space from development

For all the details, go here.

Amanda’s blog entry quotes Jane Warner, President and CEO of the American Lung Association in California, as calling the new plan “the best prescription for improving the health of all Southern California residents.”  That’s a pretty significant endorsement from a pretty significant source.

SCAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata told Andrew Dalton of the Associated Press that “this plan looked at land use for the first time since we started doing planning.”  That’s fairly amazing for the largest metro planning agency in the country, but Ikhrata and his colleagues deserve our praise and thanks for doing so now.  Dalton summarized the moment:

“The government group that oversees transportation for Southern California voted Wednesday to approve a $524 billion agreement that aims to make train tracks, bike lanes and clear skies as much a part of the region's image as boulevards and freeways.

city of Ventura (by: Robin Kanouse, creative commons license)“The unanimous vote from the Southern California Association for the 25-year Regional Transportation Plan provided a moment of consensus and celebration for the government officials and advocates who worked on it for four years, a feeling that could fade as it now needs to be put into play by local agencies and paid for by citizens.

“Still, the plan, a blueprint of priorities created by the group's 191 cities based on the federal, state and local funding the region expects to see, represents a huge shift in emphasis.”

Dalton’s story was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The new plan, which will be updated every four years, was required by California’s landmark planning law, Senate Bill 375, passed and signed into law in 2008.  SB 375 requires that a Sustainable Communities Strategy to reduce carbon pollution be incorporated into regional transportation planning.  NRDC strongly supported the law and has been working on its implementation.  

Related posts:

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.

Share | | |


Tom RubinApr 12 2012 08:13 PM

You may wish to review your source documents and what you have stated they say, as in your statement above, "In a separate index, the southern California area was identified by the Brookings Institution (using 2006 data) as having the nation’s highest rate of driving per person."
The table that you link to shows the LA Metropolitan area with the highest TOTAL number of arterial vehicle miles traveled of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, but, on a per capita basis, LA was the 39th highest -- certainly not first.
This is a rather curious statistic to utilize for several reasons. First, because the LA urbanized area is almost dead last in centerline freeway miles per capita (yes, you DID read that correctly), LA has higher than average VMT on Arterial roadways. If the metric were total VMT per capita, then LA would be in the lowest third (so my meaning is clear, meaning over two-thirds of the other 99 have greater VMT/capita).
Also, some of the top 100 don't even have 4% of the LA population and are far smaller areas geographically -- which generally tends to require less driving.
While no one will claim that LA air is anything remotely close to what it should be, to be complete, your paper could have mentioned that great progress HAS been made in cleaning it up, the improvement is continuing, and will continue into the future -- even if no other changes are made -- as older, dirtier vehicles are replaced by newer, cleaner models and other improvements are made.
Tom Rubin

Neal PaytonApr 12 2012 11:08 PM


Thanks for writing this. While SCAG has no enforcement tools, this is an important, and dare I say historic strategy document nonetheless. This is why I find this such an exciting time to be in L.A and while, even thought I miss DC, I'm glad to be here. The transformation of the L.A. over the next 2 to 3 decades will be enormous. It will become THE case study in decades to come. Yes, you heard it here first. Of importance, folks don't try to explain away L.A's differences anymore by saying, "you east coasters (and SFers) don't seem to understand that our urbanism is experienced differently, that is by car." Now they are saying, what can we learn from DC, or SF, or Chicago, etc., How can we do it faster, better, etc. How can we make it more climate sensitive? or culturally sensitive, i.e., how can we make it uniquely L.A.,, but urban nonetheless.

Equally important, no one, (at least no one who's thought about it very much) says, "no one walks in L.A.." Indeed, with the most glorious climate on the continent, we're asking why don't we walk more? and we know exactly why. The business community has learned that they can no longer compete with the rest of the nation with climate alone. If we're going to compete economically with the Austin's, SFs, Chicagos Seattles, and NYCs throughout the nation, we have to have streets and spaces worth walking, and great places to walk to.

Thanks for noticing what we're up to, and check back with us periodically on our progress.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 13 2012 12:15 PM

Thanks, Neal. Keep up the great work.

Tom: You are correct that the Brookings data show SoCal to have the nation's highest volume of traffic on arterials, not the highest VMT per capita. The statistic remains highly relevant to the need for measures to address sustainability, along with the data on sprawl, congestion, and air pollution. We can all be glad that the region is doing so.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In