Think California is the land of fast-flowing freeways and drop-top driving under the endless sun? Think again.

The California Air Resources Board is now writing rules to implement a law passed two years ago that will require regional reductions in vehicle miles traveled.

In other words, the state that epitomized car culture and suburban sprawl in the 20th century is working actively to discourage driving in the 21st century.

Google Maps traffic - LAX

Google Maps traffic - LAX

Less driving, lower greenhouse gas emissions

The goal is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles; the net effect could be wide-ranging changes to local development and land-use patterns. Think of it as the Less-Travel-From-Less-Sprawl initiative.

Senate Bill 375, signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008, requires CARB to set regional goals for greenhouse gas reductions. Land-use planning and zoning remains in the hands of local officials, but their decisions must contribute to reductions in regional emissions.

The regulations will require a reduction of 7 to 8 percent by 2020, and 13 to 15 percent by 2035--despite growth projections showing state population increases over the same period, with more vehicles owned by those residents.

Changing the zoning

Possible ways to achieve the reductions include denser housing closer to existing commercial centers, allowing commercial and residential zoning within developments, and encouraging walkable, bikeable, and public-transit-friendly development.

As critics have long noted, the history of postwar development in North America--a few cities like Portland excepted--has been one of developing new suburbs farther and farther from dense urban cores.

'Feral House' by James D. Griffioen

'Feral House' by James D. Griffioen

Sixty years of suburban sprawl

Those developments are typically low-density residential, most without sidewalks, and usually several miles' drive from any commercial areas.

This leads to the anomaly of a single 150-pound person driving a two-ton vehicle 5 to 10 miles round-trip to buy a half-gallon of milk, paying almost as much for the gasoline as for the milk. In former ages, parents simply sent their kids to the corner store to pick up that milk, but such is not suburban life today.

Both critics and supporters of the new laws--the loudest critics are land developers in the southern part of the state--agree that any changes will take time and will be incremental. Different regions will adopt different solutions, and all are at the mercy of the biggest unknown: gasoline prices.

Both sides acknowledge that suburban sprawl becomes significantly less appealing if gasoline prices rise sharply again, especially if they stay high. In 2008, at the peak of $4-per-gallon gasoline, houses in the farthest-flung suburbs of Southern California fell significantly in value due to their lengthy (and hence costly) commute times.

[Capitol Weekly]