For the last decade, California has waged a crusade to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases in the name of fighting climate change.
The state has set specific reduction goals, and spent many billions of dollars, in both taxes and added consumer costs, to achieve them.
Early on, we saw sharp reductions, but they were low-hanging fruit, achieved mostly by compelling utilities to replace carbon-based power generation such as coal and natural gas with “renewables,” chiefly wind and solar.
However, making major reductions means confronting the “transportation sector,” mostly 25 million cars and light trucks, which account for more than 40% of California’s emissions.
Several strategies are being pursued, principally persuading Californians to buy more “zero-emission vehicles” (ZEVs), drive less and use mass transit more.
So how’s that working out? Poorly.
State Counts Electricity-Only ZEVs and Hybrids Toward Goals
Sales of ZEVs are weak and transit ridership is actually declining despite big and very expensive expansions of service.
Two executive orders issued by former Gov. Jerry Brown set goals of having 1.5 million ZEVs on the road by 2025 and 5 million by 2030. Even were the 5 million goal were to be met, however, ZEVs would account for fewer than 20% of the state’s cars.
The state counts both electricity-only ZEVs and hybrids such as the Prius toward its goals but even so, is falling very short. In the last 10 years and with another 10 years remaining until 2030, total ZEV and hybrid sales have reached just 13.4% of the goal, and true ZEVs are just 7.6%.
Moreover, 2019 saw sales decline, according to the California New Car Dealers Association, dropping to just 12.6% of the market in the fourth quarter of the year, down two percentage points from 2018.
As hydrocarbon-powered automotive traffic climbs, transit supplies less than 10% of Californians’ transportation and appears to be declining.
A 2018 report by UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies reveals that despite adding more than 530 miles of commuter rail in the Southern California region, transit agencies have seen steady declines in ridership since reaching a peak in 1985.
“Driving is relatively easy, while moving around by means other than driving is not. These circumstances give people strong economic and social incentives to acquire cars, and — once they have cars — to drive more and ride transit less,” the UCLA report concluded.
Californians Aren’t Buying What Politicians Are Selling
Ditto in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Public transit ridership has been falling nationally and in California since 2014,” a UCLA report issued just last week revealed. “The San Francisco Bay Area, with the state’s highest rates of transit use, had until recently resisted those trends, especially compared to Greater Los Angeles. However, in 2017 and 2018 the region lost over 5% (27 million) of its annual riders, despite a booming economy and service increases.”
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s trains have seen a loss of nearly 10 million night and weekend passengers in the last four years.
These trends create a rather strange confluence. According to the Embarcadero Institute, a Bay Area think tank, as California transit systems expanded service, they increased their spending from $10.4 billion in 2014 to $12.3 billion in 2018 — most of it from taxpayers, not riders — but their ridership declined from 1.5 billion passengers to 1.3 billion during that same period.
California officialdom remains committed to promoting ZEV and transit use, and are busily writing new policies, such as those to relieve the housing shortage, on the perhaps naïve belief that transportation habits will be transformed.
So far, Californians aren’t buying what their politicians are selling.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.