Toward a Multimodal California: How the State is Investing in Walking, Biking, and Transit

In the summer of 2011, I said goodbye to the 1997 Honda Accord I had driven since high school. Rather than upgrading to a newer vehicle, this was the beginning of my car-free lifestyle. I was moving from Minneapolis to Washington, DC, and knew I would soon be living in a city with many transportation options, and where a car is generally more of a burden than an asset. Over a decade later, and now living in California, I am still car-free.

You might be thinking, “You live in California without a car?” Yes, it is possible, and although it is my choice, many others who live car-free do so out of necessity rather than by preference.

It is for all of us who wish to or have to go car-free — whether that is due to economic circumstances, age, ability, or other reasons — that I value the work we are undertaking at the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) to reduce Californians’ dependence on driving and provide more multimodal transportation options.

California has the most complex transportation system in the nation and, for the better part of the last century, the state focused its transportation investments on the private automobile – so much so that “car culture” has become almost synonymous with California. I knew this when I decided to make the move from Washington to Sacramento sans car, and I looked forward to opportunities to help make this very car-centric place better for all transportation users. 

It’s not actually that difficult to live in Sacramento without owning a car. The central city provides a wealth of transportation options, from light rail to bus, car-, bike-, scooter-, and ride-sharing, as well as the country’s largest microtransit system. In addition, the streets are arranged in an easy-to-navigate grid system (letters and numbers, just like DC) with sidewalks on every block and many bike lanes. The flat topography and weather also make it easy to walk, bike, or take transit 365 days a year. Even so, living here without a car has been an eye-opener, and working to try to make the car-free lifestyle less of a novelty is not easy.

In most other parts of California, getting around without a car is much more difficult. This is a problem not only from a mobility perspective, but from an environmental and equity one, too. California’s reliance on the automobile has contributed greatly to climate change— transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the state — and communities of color often bear the brunt of pollution and climate change-related impacts caused by our transportation system.

CalSTA no longer accepts this as the status quo. We know that many people will be left behind if we continue to prioritize the automobile, and so we have embraced the daunting but vital challenge to reverse this trend. To be very clear, we are not trying to take away anyone’s car; we are simply trying to bring equilibrium to a transportation system that has favored one mode over all others for so long.

A big way we aim to advance multimodal transportation in California is through Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2022-23 budget proposal, which includes a $9.6 billion transportation infrastructure package focused on meeting the state’s climate goals by reducing our dependence on driving. As such, the budget proposal contains $4.2 billion in voter-approved bond funding for California’s high-speed rail project to advance an electrified, two-track segment between Merced and Bakersfield; $3.25 billion for other transit and rail projects statewide; $1.25 billion for active transportation, reconnecting communities, and bike and pedestrian safety projects; $500 million for high-priority grade separation projects; and $400 million for climate adaptation projects. This level of funding is a massive and historic investment toward a greener, more equitable, and more accessible transportation future for California.

Governor Newsom’s budget proposal complements executive orders he issued in 2019 and 2020 to leverage discretionary state transportation funds to help meet our climate goals and move toward a zero-emission future. In response to these executive orders, CalSTA published the Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI), which details the state’s recommendations to invest billions of discretionary transportation dollars annually to aggressively combat and adapt to climate change while supporting public health, safety, and equity. Released just last year, CAPTI is already serving as a roadmap for transportation project prioritization and funding. 

One of the discretionary programs already helping to meet the goals in CAPTI and support a multimodal transportation system is CalSTA’s Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP). TIRCP provides grants for transformative capital improvements that will modernize California’s passenger rail, bus, and ferry transit systems. Funded through the state’s Cap-and-Trade Program, projects that receive TIRCP funding must demonstrate how they will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled, while addressing the needs of disadvantaged and low-income communities. In the four prior cycles of TIRCP since 2015, CalSTA awarded $5.8 billion to 73 projects throughout the state, and we are on the cusp of announcing up to $800 million more in grants. 

In addition to providing funding, the state is also prioritizing multimodal transportation through policy. For example, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), one of the departments under the CalSTA umbrella, announced a new Complete Streets policy last year under the leadership of then-Director Toks Omishakin, now CalSTA secretary. The Complete Streets policy directs all transportation projects funded or overseen by the department to provide safe, comfortable, and convenient facilities for people of all ages and abilities to walk, bike, and take transit.

For a department that oversees more than 52,000 lane miles across 250 state highways, this is a big commitment. The benefits of Complete Streets apply not only to urban and suburban contexts, but to rural ones as well. Many state highways serve as main streets for rural communities throughout California, providing essential connectivity. Furthermore, some of the state’s most underserved communities are in rural areas, and investing in Complete Streets here will help bring economic, equity, climate, health, safety, and environmental benefits. 

CalSTA and Secretary Omishakin are committed to making meaningful investments to reduce Californians’ dependence on driving, which will help us reach our climate and equity goals. The task ahead isn’t easy, but we are dedicated in our efforts and are putting forward significant levels of funding to support this objective. As someone who both works on this issue and experiences daily what it is like to rely on a multimodal transportation system, I am enthusiastic about the progress we are making to break California’s car-centric mold and the successes in accessibility, equity, and climate that will follow.

Avital Barnea is deputy secretary for transportation planning and equity manager at the California State Transportation Agency. She serves on the Eno Board of Regents and was an Eno Leadership Development Conference Fellow.  

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