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Planning to Prevail Against Transportation Pollution

Last week, my colleagues in San Francisco filed a lawsuit against Plan Bay Area on behalf of Sierra Club along with Communities for a Better Environment. Plan Bay Area is the master transportation plan for the San Francisco Bay region. It’s an important plan because of its far-reaching scope covering transportation planning through 2040.

In another part of California last week, Jamie Holter, a transportation analyst, wrote an L.A. Times op-ed calling on people in Los Angeles to treat every day like “Carmageddon.” Holter made the point that the data he crunches shows that when there is a will, there is a way to change the way we move throughout our cities.

It is no coincidence that transportation issues receive so much attention in the nation’s first- and third-most congested cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. We are at a critical crossroads for the health of the planet and the health of our communities. There are no better metropolitan regions to lead a transformation than Los Angeles and San Francisco. California’s strong efforts to combat harmful climate pollution make these two large urban centers the perfect places to advance a modern vision for transportation.

In the Bay Area, the Sierra Club and Communities for a Better Environment are calling for transportation planners to do better. They are fighting an antiquated notion of drawing lines on a map for new or expanded highways, instead of focusing on cleaner and more efficient transportation solutions like enhanced public transit to deal with increasing populations. These same efforts are happening in Los Angeles where groups like Move LA, Safe Routes to Schools, Sierra Club, the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition, and many other groups advocate for more transit, more bike infrastructure and fixing our aging pedestrian infrastructure.

A key part of the Bay Area lawsuit is the challenge to the complete abdication of any effort to address freight, increasingly recognized as a critical health threat particularly to low-income communities of color. It is absurd to develop a transportation plan and turn a blind eye to freight-adjacent communities like those that live in West Oakland.

In the most recent transportation plan for the Los Angeles region, there was great focus on promoting innovative zero- and near-zero-emission freight solutions to protect vulnerable communities. Grassroots groups and environmental groups are pushing to turn those plans into reality by actually putting shovels in the ground for these innovative projects. In addition, they are fighting backward-looking projects like the Southern California International Gateway project that, despite promises to move into the modern era of freight movement, falls the way the Plan Bay Area did. So, in L.A., while our planners did not flatly ignore freight in the transportation plan, there still is a long way to go to clean up the toxic pollution from the trucks, ships and trains that move freight through the region.

The Plan Bay Area lawsuit also raises important equity issues about displacement of low-income communities and communities of color away from high-quality transit. These issues are equally important in Los Angeles. There is a growing concern that as transit-oriented development occurs around the massive expansion of the L.A. transit system currently underway, low-income and communities of color will be displaced. In Los Angeles, coalitions have formed to address this important issue, including the Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles. So, both regions need to make sure they address this important issue.

There is a current of cohesion between the efforts in the Bay area and Los Angeles. I hope our elected leaders take note and push forward-thinking transportation solutions, not just pursue continued obsession with antiquated road expansion and new roadway projects. For now, groups have to resort to the court system to vindicate their rights to cleaner transportation, but I hope we’re on the brink of a breakthrough to transform our transportation systems. There is no better time than the present to make that change.

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.