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No Californian Left Behind: Clean and Affordable Transportation Where It’s Needed Most


The full Next Generation report, “No Californian Left Behind: Clean and Affordable Transportation Options for All through Vehicle Replacement,” can be downloaded here.


There’s no question that California leads the pack when it comes to aggressive climate and clean energy goals. Our sustainable transportation policy is no exception. From generous incentives for electric vehicles to the state’s increasing focus on transit-oriented development, California is pushing large-scale actions to transform the transportation landscape.

But transformation doesn’t come without challenges, and right now the state is dealing with a crucial but little-discussed obstacle – how to ensure the benefits of clean transportation extend to all Californians.

Here’s the issue: while California’s high-tech, best-in-class transportation strategies such as vehicle electrification and mass transit will benefit millions and reduce emissions, focusing our policy agenda on these strategies alone risks unintentionally leaving out an important segment of the 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 transit.

These households, many of whom are saddled with old and inefficient vehicles, deserve to be part of California’s future-focused transportation vision. While a used, late-model economy car may not stand as a shining symbol of California’s transportation future, it’s an available and affordable option that could provide huge benefits to Californians currently stuck in vehicles with far worse pollution footprints and fuel costs.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of Californians drive cars and trucks that are old, inefficient, unsafe, and cause a disproportionate share of the state’s air pollution. 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 impact on human health. As a result, state agencies estimate that 10­–15 percent of the state’s light-duty vehicles emit over half of the smog from the passenger fleet. To add insult to injury, many of these vehicles use far more gasoline than is necessary to get from point A to 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 vehicle that gets 15 miles per gallon 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 fatal injury than the driver of a six year-old or newer vehicle.

Californian policymakers and regulators have long recognized these problems particularly the impact of older vehicles on air quality. This emphasis is justified, given that California’s San Joaquin Valley and South Coast air districts are the two most smog-polluted in the nation. Existing state programs, such as the Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program (EFMP), offer cash- or voucher-based incentives for the repair, retirement, or replacement of high-emitting vehicles.

State regulators acknowledge, however, that existing programs need improvement. Efforts to scrap high-polluting vehicles have faced difficulty targeting the most critical set of high-emitters: cars that are both major polluters and are heavily used. Furthermore, state-level efforts to help households replace high-polluting vehicles with cleaner, more efficient options have so far been anemic, and efficiency requirements for replacement vehicles are simply not high enough to guarantee significant cuts to households’ oil consumption and fuel costs.

Senate Bill 459, passed by the California legislature in September 2013, provides an opportunity to tackle these shortcomings. The California Air Resources Board (ARB) now has both the authority and a legislative mandate to revamp the EFMP. More specifically, SB 459 directs ARB to rewrite regulations in a way that will both home in on the worst polluters and increase the accessibility of cleaner and more efficient replacement vehicles to low-income drivers.

In the coming weeks, Next Generation will be taking a deep look at these issues, starting today with the release of “No Californian Left Behind: Clean and Affordable Transportation Options for All through Vehicle Replacement.” Our report goes into detail on the environmental and budget impacts of these high-polluting vehicles (full report available here). We also provide an overview of several priorities the state should consider to help improve existing voucher programs, including more aggressive efficiency requirements for replacement vehicles, retooled outreach efforts, and consideration of alternative financing strategies to put more efficient cars within the reach of tight household budgets.

Don’t get us wrong: we are huge fans of California’s progress in advancing cutting-edge transportation solutions. Our electric vehicle and transit policies are best-in-class. But we must continue this trend toward transportation leadership with pragmatic solutions that work for those Californians who are sometimes left behind in these future-focused discussions. Creating a short-term, practical solution for such individuals and families would slash smog-forming pollution, reduce oil use, decrease transportation costs, and improve safety, bringing the benefits of California’s ongoing energy and transportation revolution to Californians who are in dire need of relief. 

The full Next Generation report, “No Californian Left Behind: Clean and Affordable Transportation Options for All through Vehicle Replacement,” is available here. To download the PDF directly, click here.

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