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By Daniel Sperling, Special to CALmatters

California is well positioned to become a transportation model for the world, but it will need strong leadership and resolve to achieve its potential.

Starting more than 100 years ago, Californians built the largest state highway system, then BART, the first modern, high-speed transit service in the United States, and the world’s most expansive network of high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

But progress has faltered.

We are burdened with expensive road infrastructure, billions in deferred maintenance, worsening congestion, a failed high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) experiment, and declining transit ridership. Worst of all, many Californians are left behind because they can’t afford their own cars or are too frail to drive, and public transit fails them.

California tried to discourage the use of single-occupant car travel by spending tens of billions of dollars in dedicated HOV lanes and massively subsidizing mass transit. The result, in California and the US: a large increase in single occupant vehicle use (from 1.9 persons per vehicle in 1970 to 1.4 in 2015).

Bus utilization today is so low that buses on average burn more energy and emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than cars. And here’s the sad fact: transit costs $1.25 per passenger mile, but passenger fares pay for only 20 percent of that.

All this is bad for our environment, our wallets, and our quality of life. These conditions also reflect a poverty of good ideas developed during the past half-century. Fortunately, there is a way forward.

After decades of little innovation, transportation is evolving at an astounding rate. Only eight years ago, the idea of summoning a stranger’s car at the press of a button without having to worry about cash or tips was inconceivable. Now door-to-door personal rides and rentals of electric bikes and scooters are just a tap away.

Even more remarkable change is just around the corner. Robot cars soon will transport us; several companies plan to offer driverless mobility services within two years.

These automated services will be deployed initially in urban areas, where every physical detail can be mapped and reliability of wireless signals is assured. Eventually, automated vehicles will dominate passenger and freight travel.

Combining vehicle automation with vehicle sharing and electrification amount to the Three Revolutions. They will transform our lifestyles and reshape our cities. But it won’t be smooth sailing.

We’ll have to reconfigure streets and sidewalks to accommodate more electric scooters and bikes, new ways of delivering goods, more space for picking up and dropping off passengers, and less space for parking.

We’ll have to overhaul policy to govern emerging transportation alternatives, ensure that disadvantaged persons have access to transportation, and deal with cybersecurity, equity, and employment concerns.

And we’ll have to be wise in assuring that incarnations of these new technologies are not diverted to serve the interests of a privileged few.

We have the potential to create radically different—and vastly better—transportation that will be less expensive for travelers, less costly to taxpayers, less polluting, and less energy- and land-intensive while providing far greater mobility.

California can be a leader in making this future a reality. We are home to Waymo, Cruise, and Zoox, which are pushing the envelope on automated vehicle technology.  Uber and Lyft are the leaders on shared mobility. Tesla is upending conventional wisdom about what is possible in vehicle electrification.

We are home to the world’s leading innovators and thinkers, including the world-leading Institutes of Transportation Studies at four University of California campuses. No state or nation can match us.

But creating a more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable transportation system will not happen spontaneously.

Government agencies will need to rethink transportation funding formulas. Transit operators will need to focus traditional fixed-route bus service on heavily trafficked corridors and city centers while partnering with private companies to offer more flexible options in less dense regions.

People will need to consider abandoning car ownership in favor of shared rides, which in turn will require automakers and mobility and automotive companies to create more passenger-centric shared vehicles and services that offer privacy and comfort.

All this is to say the next governor’s leadership will be vital.

Elected leaders and their appointees will need to push for long-term change even in the face of short-term obstacles. Indeed, the National Governor’s Association recently released a report emphasizing the importance of leadership with the coming transportation revolutions.

What specifically can our next governor do? The overarching strategy should be to increase mobility and accessibility while reducing vehicle use. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Champion the use of new pooling services provided by private companies, including Lyftline, Uberpool, Via and Chariot—and encourage cities to do the same.
  • Encourage cities to place a price on congestion in concert with creating more (low cost) transportation choices, rewarding those that pool and reduce vehicle use.
  • Reform transportation funding to subsidize low-income riders who use on-demand services.
  • Invest in safe infrastructure for bikes (and scooters)
  • Motivate paratransit services to be more cost-efficient and better, and incentivize transit agencies to partner with private on-demand pooled services.
  • Expand incentives and regulations to accelerate the electrification of all vehicles.

This, then, is my message to the governor-to-be: California’s transportation system is failing. You have a unique opportunity—and responsibility—to fix it.


Daniel Sperling is a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, and member of the California Air Resources Board, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.