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Is LA’s dependence on cars hindering California’s climate goals?

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A new report shows that commute times are up and transit ridership is down

Traffic approaching Downtown LA
A report from Next 10 shows that greenhouse gas emission reductions in California are slowing, partly because more cars are on the road.

The Los Angeles area leads California in solar panel installations and rebates awarded to owners of low-emission vehicles. But in LA and beyond, a continued dependence on cars—brought on partly by a statewide housing shortage—could make it difficult for California to meet its goal of reducing emissions.

That’s according to a new report from nonprofit organization Next 10, which notes that California’s carbon emissions have declined more slowly in recent years, largely due to an upswing in emissions from motor vehicles.

California’s goal is to reduce emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

But transportation-related emissions climbed 2.7 percent between 2014 and 2015. That’s a significant bump, given that the transportation sector produces close to 40 percent of the state’s total emissions.

Los Angeles drivers are contributing significantly to the increase in those emissions. Of the 26 metro areas analyzed in the study, only two had longer average commute times (though researchers didn’t have data for two of the cities, Redding and Hanford-Corcoran).

The report also shows that fewer LA commuters are relying on public transit to get around—something backed up by Metro ridership data. The number of unlinked passenger trips in Los Angeles (in other words, the number of individual rides on buses and trains) dropped over 7 percent between 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, although LA ranks second (behind San Francisco) in transit ridership per capita, the Bay Area boasts more than twice as many per capita trips.

Why is transit ridership falling? The report offers a couple explanations: First, “[a] more robust economy paired with falling gas prices have encouraged more driving.”

But the state’s well-documented housing shortage may also be playing a role. Next 10 founder F. Noel Perry writes that “rising costs of living have pushed more residents further from job centers,” which has an impact on commute times and can make public transit options less accessible.

The report offers few specific suggestions for policy changes likely to get more drivers off the road, but Perry notes that keeping the state on track to meet its climate goals “will require innovation.”