California Forum

What if the state encouraged growth away from our big cities?

A woman walks on a bridge as heavy traffic moves along the 110 Freeway during rush hour in Los Angeles.
A woman walks on a bridge as heavy traffic moves along the 110 Freeway during rush hour in Los Angeles. AP file

Recent attempts at a ballot measure to split up California highlighted widespread doubts that the state has the political will, or perhaps the ability, to effectively govern itself.

At the same time, exasperated drivers are paying some of the highest gas taxes in the nation – with little likelihood of ever seeing reduced congestion or faster commutes as roads and highways are falling into ever more serious disrepair.


With a population anticipated to increase by another 25 percent, or 10 million people, over the coming decades, the question of how to plan for and manage this growth should weigh heavily on the minds of state, regional and local policymakers and elected officials.

Currently, half of our state’s population is compressed into just four counties. While smart strategies for residential and commercial infill projects are essential to make the best use of our existing infrastructure and limit the impacts of growth, these strategies are inadequate to meet the state’s broader social, economic and environmental needs.

Some will reflexively argue that the answer to our state’s transportation future is to simply continue adding ever-more-expensive lanes and overpasses on heavily congested urban highways, to shuttle more and more people into existing centers of commerce. I would argue for a different approach.

Ten years ago, the state passed Senate Bill 375, a paradigm-shifting piece of legislation that forced local and state policymakers to consider the intersection of housing and transportation policies. It was obvious then, as it is now, that these issues cannot be addressed in isolation.

The bargain that brought people together across the aisle was a provision that streamlined the California Environmental Quality Act to make it cheaper and faster to build infill housing where transportation was most accessible.

I suggest that it is time to update SB 375 by adding jobs and economic activity to the equation. California’s urban centers rank among the most expensive locations to build new freeways and additional housing, yet they are the focus of significant infrastructure investment because this is where most jobs are concentrated.

An updated and more ambitious version of SB 375 would craft state policies that link transportation, housing and jobs to encourage new planned communities in growth-ready areas of the state where environmental impacts are low and opportunities for social and economic prosperity are high.

For example, what if the CEQA streamlining in SB 375 for residential infill were available to economic development zones in parts of the state where housing and transportation costs are markedly lower than in our major cities?

Amazon recently announced the opening of two facilities in Stockton, where housing prices are low and access to Interstate 5 is straightforward. Instead of this being a unique or newsworthy development, such news could become the norm. Rather than seeing facilities leave for places such as Texas, California could compete by providing commercial CEQA streamlining in targeted growth areas, coupled with investment in transportation that supports housing and commerce.

​With such an approach, we can make meaningful progress ​to reliev​e​ congestion in major transportation corridors, shorten commute times, lower the cost of housing, and give​ businesses the incentive to grow in California.

Christine Robertson is vice president of community engagement and advocacy at Visit SLO CAL and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. She can be contacted at Find the series (with more Monday on transportation policy) at