Back-Seat Driver

Tony Bizjak writes about traffic and travel in the Sacramento region

Back-seat Driver: The drought, and your car

01/23/2014 6:43 PM

01/23/2014 9:14 PM

Gov. Jerry Brown this week in his State of the State speech made a pointed connection between the drought and the cars we drive.

It’s pretty clear human action is affecting the climate, and that means more droughts, he said. California needs to continue leading the way in limiting climate change by using renewable technology, including more electric vehicles instead of gas-powered cars.

“In terms of greenhouse gases, our biggest challenge remains the amount of gasoline Californians use. Each year, our motor vehicles use more than 14 billion gallons of gasoline to travel over 330 billion miles,” the governor said. “Reducing our oil consumption, two-thirds of which is imported by ships and tank cars, will take time, breakthrough technologies and steadfast commitment.”

While Brown invoked the drought to push for more green cars, Sacramento’s leading transportation planner, Mike McKeever of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, offered a more localized view of how the drought might change the way some people here live in upcoming years.

The drought is only weeks old, but already it is spotlighting the fact that the region has a limited supply of water for household use. Not only could there be continued threats of water restrictions, but also the cost of water could go up and up.

McKeever said it is likely that fewer people will want to live in traditional big-lot houses with lots of land, grass, and plantings that can suck up the bulk of a family’s water use. Marketing studies by developers already suggest more younger homebuyers, as well as some older buyers, are looking for housing on smaller lots with less outdoor maintenance.

Developers and cities throughout the region have been tinkering with small-lot detached housing, as well as townhouses with minimal or no yards. Rancho Cordova has led the charge among older suburban-style communities experimenting with denser, urban-infused developments like the popular Capital Village, where you can live in a condo or a detached house with just enough of a backyard to fit your Weber, and where you can walk across the village green to the supermarket.

If more people begin looking for that kind of housing because of water worries, it will put the pressure on cities, counties and transportation agencies to provide a transportation system – including expanded light rail and express buses – that allows more people to get where they need to go without getting caught in a traffic jam just outside their front door.

The city of Sacramento this week moved forward on plans for higher-density housing at the west end of Broadway, with the hopes that a streetcar line will be built through there – soonish – to make it easy for those people to get to downtown jobs.

“If you are going to make communities work and be attractive in that more medium- and higher-density format, you have to be able to provide alternative forms of transportation beyond just the car,” McKeever said. “Otherwise, you just make people mad (by offering) compact living patterns, but everybody has to get in their car to drive everywhere.”

About This Blog

Tony Bizjak has covered local transportation issues for The Sacramento Bee since 2003. Prior to that, he covered Sacramento City Hall and local government issues. A California native, Bizjak has a journalism degree from San Jose State University. Contact reporter Tony Bizjak at or 916-321-1059. Twitter: @TonyBizjak

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