California Smart Growth and Improving San Joaquin Valley Quality of Life5 min read

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California is clearly the most populated state in the nation. By 2030, the Golden State’s population is projected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 48 million. This being the case then begs the question: Expected to accommodate a population growing at a rate of around two percent per year, how can the San Joaquin Valley, with its existing resources, enable its citizens to live, work and recreate in a way that will be conducive to maintaining their existing quality of life, both in the physical and psychological sense? This will be a challenge.

Fork in the Road

Inarguably, the amount of remaining land available (for agricultural, commercial, industrial and residential developmental purposes), along with water, fuel, etc., so-called “resources”, is finite. Coupled with this, improper and inefficient development, and use of resources, be they with regard to transportation, medicine, technology, infrastructure, or what have you, impedes, rather than aids society and can be a serious detriment both physically and psychologically.

The Center for Clean Air Policy attributes the pattern of sprawl, inefficient use of resources, traffic congestion and air pollution to post WWII suburban or greenfield growth and development “typically dominated by housing-only enclaves consisting of single family homes and two-car garages and a hierarchical road system (with one way in and one way out). Here, land use functions are isolated (residential, commercial, employment), origins and destinations are farther apart, infrastructure design is oriented toward the automobile, and low population densities are not conducive to public transportation. With the automobile as the only realistic transportation mode for suburbanites in these sprawling communities, commuters are faced with increased driving distances and increased congestion. All told, this pattern of growth has resulted in deteriorating urban air quality and human health, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, limited transportation and housing choice, inefficient use of infrastructure, and communities that are less able to meet the needs of their residents.” (Center for Clean Air Policy, “CCAP Transportation Guidebook, Part 1: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management,” p. 7.)

Air Pollution

According to the Sept. 30, 2006 edition of the Fresno Bee, citing other sources, there were 83 air quality violations in the San Joaquin Valley in 2005, second only to the Los Angeles Basin, which had 86, the most in the nation.

Sierra Club Tehipite Chapter representative Kevin Hall of Fresno was quoted in the same Bee article as saying, “‘We’re having 80 times more violations than’” is allowed. “’This is like saying we’re drowning in 8 feet of water instead of 10. You’re still drowning.’”

Traffic Contribution to Air Pollution

Even if all the pollution in the San Joaquin Valley coming from all mobile sources was completely eliminated, it would take some time to undo the damage that has already done not only in terms of its associated health impacts, but also with respect to their being fewer days of quite-noticeable haze. Eventually there would be improvement though. Now, without some shift in vehicle technology, or in other words, moving away from vehicles producing high, moderate and low emissions and embracing and using vehicles producing no emissions, that and/or a significant change or shift in atmospheric conditions, and/or a change or shift in the type of transportation mode use in general, or in other words moving away from personal private passenger vehicle ownership and single occupant operation of those vehicles to electrically-powered mass (public) transit, mobile source-caused air pollution will continue to plague the Central Valley.

Sprawl

Sprawl, by its very nature, creates increased motor vehicle activity and hence, increased air pollution. Sprawl in the San Joaquin Valley also has led to a reduction in farmland, and consequently, the agricultural output coupled to this. In fact, there are many areas where farmland and development (i.e., residential, commercial, industrial) abut each other, the dynamics of which continue to change on an ongoing basis. Plain and simple: California over the decades has lost a considerable amount of such fertile acreage.

Smart Growth

There are those who would argue that one definitive way of mitigating sprawl, traffic congestion and air pollution is to encourage motorists to reject personal, private passenger vehicle use and support transit-oriented development (TOD) “transit village” and mass (public) transit use; what’s termed “smart growth.” And perhaps the way to get people to switch over from private passenger vehicle operation to public mass transit use is through education and/or an incentivization. The Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) states, “more regions are developing mass transit and more consumers are choosing mass transit over driving on congested roadways.”

Meanwhile, transit-oriented development, more often than not, consists of high-density, mixed-use (residential and commercial) real estate development and is always located along transit corridors. And mixed-use, high-density, real estate development, with or without the transit component, especially in some of the larger metropolitan areas, is proving to be the quintessential “sprawl buster” and “livable communities” concept advancer. Furthermore, it is recognized by the CTOD that “without a concerted effort to develop standards and definitions, to create products and delivery systems, and to provide research support, technical assistance, and access to capital,” transit and its oft-associated TOD will remain but promising ideas only.

Where To Go From Here

In viewing traffic congestion, air pollution and sprawl and its deleterious side effects in a different light, if such should become of considerable concern and importance or become serious enough, then the probability is high that people will embrace Smart Growth Practices (SGP), which in many instances incorporates public transportation and the TOD that in many cases goes along with this.

If people are going to drive, what may be key then in traffic congestion relief and air pollution mitigation, may lie in getting people to car pool. If, on the other hand, motorists embrace the transit-oriented “transit village” development/mass (public) transit concept, the question then becomes one of in how best to transition people out of their vehicles and into the various public transit modes. This will be a real challenge.

No matter what a person’s position is on any of the above-mentioned, the bottom line is that it is prudent to not allow sprawl, traffic congestion and air pollution to continue unabated nor allow it to reach extreme levels.

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

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