Human Journey

Five Signs California Is Ditching Its Car Habit

An Amtrak train passes through Oakland, California. Photo by Paul Sullivan


By Suzanne Russo

California is arguably one of the greenest states in the nation. Los Angeles and San Francisco both rank in the top five on the Environmental Protection Agency list of cities with the most green buildings, San Francisco was ranked the greenest U.S. city by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the state has a long list of environmental policies.

It’s surprising, then, that Californians have such an egregiously “ungreen” habit: the car. They may pay through the nose for the the state’s low-emission gas, but pay they do.

All that may be changing, though. Despite a few bumps in the road, the state’s ambitious high-speed rail plan looks hopeful, and a variety of other factors seem to be making the Golden State just a little bit greener.

Here, five signs that California is becoming less car-dependent:

1) Bike (and Scooter) Shares. At long last, San Francisco launches a bike share program this summer.  Fifty bike stations will be located in San Francisco as well as four cities along the Caltrain, making it easier and more appealing to ditch the car and take public transportation throughout the Bay Area.

But what about those crazy, daunting San Francisco hills? Enter Scoot Networks. Hailed as “the Zipcar of electric scooters,” the new company will soon be offering tourists and residents an easy, inexpensive, and green way to zoom about the city.

2) SoCal’s “Sustainable Communities.” Clogged freeways and blankets of fog have become synonymous with sprawling Southern California, but two major announcements this month give Angelenos hope for a healthier, less congested future.

Encompassing 12 major transit projects and a variety of other urban planning initiatives, the 25-year Sustainable Communities Strategy is projected to reduce both traffic congestion and pollution-induced respiratory problems by 24 percent each. And more immediate relief comes in the form of LA’s own bike share program, which promises to roll out 400 stations in LA, Venice Beach, and other hubs over the next 18 to 24 months.

3) Parking and Recreation. Parking is a headache. Lots and garages take up coveted space and reduce walkability, and drivers trawling for coveted street spots increase traffic and pollution. Now San Franciscans are reclaiming their city, one parking space at a time.

Parklets—parking spaces converted to diminutive plazas—have been cropping up at a rapid rate (31 and counting) throughout the city, increasing pedestrian traffic and a sense of community, according to a report from the Great Streets Project. And with other cities from Oakland to Chicago to Philadelphia adopting similar practices, these pleasant urban spaces have also “inspired a national movement against asphalt.”

4) On the Rail. The bullet train is still at least 10 years out, but Amtrak chugs its way up and down the coast and good old-fashioned rail travel seems to be experiencing a resurgence.

While the average train trip takes much longer than driving would, the journey—replete with breathtaking scenery, plenty of relaxation time, and lounge and dining cars—is a treat in itself. Plus, destinations like Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Napa help sweeten the deal by offering discounts to car-free travelers.

5) License to Walk. It used to be that “sweet sixteen” meant young people clamoring to get behind the wheel. But the next generation is taking note of rising gas prices, climate issues, and the stress of traffic.

A recent report issued by the California Public Research Group (CalPIRG) reveals that the average number of miles driven by people ages 16 to 34 fell 23 percent from 2001 to 2009, while the average number of mass transit miles burgeoned 40 percent for the same age group. Furthermore, many young people are skipping a driver’s license altogether in favor of getting around by other means.

The carefree cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. But as other transportation options become more available (and popular) California can work its way back to healthier, happier communities, and the open road as it was intended to be—open.


Suzanne Russo is a freelance writer and the managing editor of offMetro SF, an online travel guide featuring car-optional getaway ideas from San Francisco. Her work has appeared in various magazines and websites, including CBS Watch!,, and

  • Michael Dawson

    We’re doing our part! We just launched a website for helping our town’s residents determine how to best get around town. It calculates calories burned, CO2 emissions, fuel consumed, etc. We love being part of the greater effort around California.

  • Steve Yuhas

    California is no more kicking the car habit than an alcoholic is kicking vodka. Ridership in trains and buses are only up because more and more people are qualifying for subsidized rates and have no intention of staying off the roads. College kids and teens are not saying, “I’ll pass on the car,” as evidenced by the number of schools that are increasing the size of the student parking lot and decreasing the size of the teachers (maybe it is the teachers taking the bus, but it certainly is not the kids). As for the study, great, but it is flawed inasmuch as of course people are driving fewer miles, they moved back home with their parents – nothing in the study shows they are staying home versus going out, it just shows that they are driving fewer miles. Big deal.

    NONE of what is here is evidence that California is moving away from the car – if anything what’s happening is we are watching kids stay home, poor people stay in the state while the middle classes leave and public transportation subsidized at a rate that makes it bad for the treasury and good for the poor (who probably would have and were taking it anyway). When any of these public transit project makes a dime and doesn’t operate in deficit AND when the exodus of the producers from California ends and people begin coming here THEN measure the rates of people on the roads versus off. Everything will change and it took 30 minutes to get from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica – a ride that would take 10 minutes on a normal day if traffic wasn’t keeping the roads full.

  • […] National Geographic – May 3rd, 2012.  By Suzanne Russo. California is arguably one of the greenest states in the nation. Los Angeles and San Francisco both rank in the top five on the Environmental Protection Agency list of cities with the most green buildings, San Francisco was ranked the greenest U.S. city by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the state has a long list of environmental policies. Link to article […]

  • Jeff Khau
  • […] Four decades later, with jammed highways and astronomical parking prices a near-universal feature of life in U.S. cities, a few nonprofits and businesses have begun to see opportunity in offering car sharing as an alternative. (Related: “Five Signs California Is Ditching Its Car Habit“) […]

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