No Californian Left Behind: Clean and Affordable Transportation for All

For the next six months, RMI senior associate Jesse Morris will be working as a Visiting Research Fellow with Next Generation, a California-based nonprofit focused on two core issues: energy and climate and children and families.

States and countries everywhere are experimenting with different ways to transform transportation systems and reduce reliance on oil. California especially is generally ahead of the curve compared to other states when it comes to accomplishing this task, so it’s important to watch how the country’s most populous state deals with different pieces of the transportation puzzle. And right now, California is facing a challenge that all states in the U.S. must deal with when working to transform their transportation systems.

To reduce transportation’s oil use, California has largely focused on two high-level strategies: 1) deploy lots of electric vehicles, and 2) increasingly focus on transit-oriented development by encouraging smart growth and expanding public transportation options. But the state’s focus on those two strategies risks unintentionally leaving behind an important segment of California’s population: the sizeable, largely low-income subset of Californians who cannot afford electric cars—even with generous state and federal subsidies—and who live outside the urban areas that tend to benefit from public transit.

Right now, millions of Californians drive cars and trucks that are old, inefficient, unsafe, and generate huge amounts of air pollution—a major problem for California’s Central Valley. Older cars weren’t manufactured to the same stringent smog standards as today’s new cars, and many are in a poor state of repair that compounds their environmental impact. As a result, state agencies estimate that 10–15 percent of the state’s light-duty vehicles emit over half of all vehicle-produced smog-forming pollutants. To add insult to injury, many of these vehicles use far more gasoline than is necessary to get from point A to point B.

Many of the households that depend on these vehicles are located in low-income and largely rural regions like the San Joaquin Valley, which also suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the country. And these cars and trucks are more than just a public health hazard: the high costs of fueling and repairing old and inefficient vehicles can be a tremendous burden on household budgets. Filling the tank of a 15-mpg vehicle costs about $100 more per month than filling up a 30-mpg car; in some particularly car-dependent areas of California, it’s estimated that transportation costs exceed a third of area median incomes. As if all of this weren’t enough, old cars also lack critical safety features: in the event of an accident, the driver of a pre-1993 vehicle is over 75 percent more likely to suffer a fatal injury than the driver of a six-year-old or newer vehicle.

Years ago, California policymakers and regulators recognized the air pollution challenge these vehicles present and implemented vehicle repair and retirement programs to help. These programs offer a voucher (similar to the 2009 federal Cash for Clunkers program) for drivers to repair, retire, or replace their vehicles. However, these efforts have faced difficulty targeting the most critical set of older vehicles: ones that are both major polluters and heavily used. Furthermore, state-level efforts to help households replace old vehicles with cleaner, more efficient options have so far been weak, and efficiency requirements for replacement vehicles are simply not high enough to guarantee significant cuts to oil consumption and fuel costs.

Last September, California passed a bill directing state agencies to tackle these shortcomings. The group I’m working with for the next several months, Next Generation, is getting involved in the regulatory process to help maximize the impact of reformed replacement programs. As a starting point, we recently released No Californian Left Behind: Clean and Affordable Transportation Options for All through Vehicle Replacement, a framing paper that goes into detail on the above issues.

Anyone interested in large-scale transformation of transportation systems can see why this is an important issue. Individuals, families, and businesses that 1) can’t quite afford electric vehicles and/or 2) don’t live in dense areas where public transportation makes sense are not a Californian anomaly. These scenarios exist in each and every state across the U.S.—and the problem is even more pronounced in developing nations. If we’re going to get 100 percent off oil, as RMI outlined in Reinventing Fire, we’ve got to give these folks some way to participate in transportation system transformation. In California the proposed solutions include:

  • Requiring increased baseline efficiency levels and increasing voucher amounts to bring more efficient vehicles within reach of low-income families. Although they’re not electric vehicles, cars like mid-2000s Honda Civics that get about 30 mpg would be a huge improvement for folks driving much older cars that get something closer to 15 mpg.
  • Providing low-income financing to enable cash-constrained drivers to get into higher efficiency vehicles
  • Allowing California’s electric vehicle rebates to be combined with voucher programs, potentially allowing lower-income drivers to purchase electric vehicles (especially if combined with low-income financing). The organization Charge Ahead California just introduced a bill advocating this proposal.

Personally, I’m very excited to be a part of this process and will be providing updates here on RMI Outlet as we move forward. And check out Next Generation’s blog to learn more about what California is doing to bring clean and affordable transportation to all.