Southern California’s transportation leadership is at the forefront of the dual challenge of meeting state mandates to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) while improving mobility. It’s a commonly cited statistic that the transportation sector is responsible for approximately 38 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state. In fact, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) 2022 Scoping Plan recognizes the need to address the transportation sector specifically by encouraging local governments to adopt CEQA-qualified Climate Action Plans (CAPs) to address three priority areas: transportation electrification, VMT reduction, and building decarbonization. With two of the three priority areas within the realm of transportation, transportation leaders are facing the road ahead with a renewed focus.
While Southern California continues to feel the effects of climate change, including one of the wettest winters on record, leaders in the transportation community have a vested interest in reducing GHG emissions associated with transportation with the added challenge of improving access to and convenience of mobility within the region.
Impact Sciences spent some time reconnecting with industry colleagues at recent conferences to get their opinions on the challenges and opportunities facing transportation in Southern California. Several key themes emerged around connectivity and new transit infrastructure.
Connectivity was the major theme of our discussions. Southern California’s traditional mode of transportation is the single-occupancy vehicle, and many cities and communities in the region were built with the car in mind. This can be seen in the freeways that crisscross the region down to the mini strip malls set back from the main street with a sea of parking in front of the buildings. Multi-modal transportation encourages a variety of modes of transport including trains, buses, bicycles, walking, scooters, and more. However, many existing roadways do not have adequate bus, rail, bicycle and/or pedestrian infrastructure and it can be difficult to add these facilities on an existing road without expanding the right of way. Experts in the field indicate that a little bit of creativity can go a long way to make our streets safe for not just motorists, but bus and rail patrons, bicyclists and pedestrians.
The goal of multi-modal transportation is to have a successful and accessible transit system and connect different modes to reduce congestion. Projects that pair dedicated bus lanes with bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure are the most successful as they allow people to reach their destinations as seamlessly as possible. Many agencies and municipalities have made a U-turn and are now championing multi-modal transportation systems in order to accommodate people of all ages and needs. These first and last mile connections make it easier for people to use multiple modes of transportation and reduce the need to use a vehicle from point A to B. The state has recognized the challenges facing transportation professionals in implementing these projects, and in response, the Governor signed Senate Bill (SB) 922, now Section 21080.25 of the Public Resources Code, which creates a new Statutory Exemption under CEQA for active transportation projects. This Statutory Exemption is a full CEQA exemption, meaning no CEQA analysis is required. However, there are specific requirements for projects valued at over $50 million and $100 million. Several agencies including the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) and the City of San Francisco have used this exemption, and we expect its use to continue to grow as more multi-modal projects are implemented.
Another challenge facing our industry is the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our transit system. While many transit systems, such as Metrolink, have restored ridership to near pre-pandemic levels, many others are still battling low ridership. While the long-term impact of remote work is still being determined, it’s clear that travel patterns have changed as a result of COVID-19. Many people are no longer required to endure morning / evening commutes into downtown Los Angeles or similar urban centers., The changing economic landscape also has some transportation professionals wondering what comes next. Economic concerns, such as high interest rates and discussions of a looming recession, could impact the region’s economy, particularly in the goods movement sector. However, with 2028 and the Los Angeles Olympics just around the corner, the demand for goods and efficient infrastructure does not seem to be waning.
Projects on the Horizon
While there are undoubtedly many challenges facing the transportation industry in the region, there are some exciting transit and mobility projects happening that Impact Sciences and our partners are looking forward to, including local open space trails that promote bicyclist and pedestrian mobility, improving safety, recreational opportunities, and active modes of transportation. Rail infrastructure is also rapidly expanding, with the Brightline West High Speed Rail Project that will connect Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and the Redlands Passenger Rail Project (Arrow), that opened October 24, 2022, that takes passengers from San Bernardino to the University of Redlands. The Tunnel to Ontario International Airport Project will provide direct access between the Cucamonga Metrolink Station and the Ontario International Airport. The Automated People Mover at LAX Airport, an electric train system on a 2.25 mile elevated guideway with six stations, is also due to open soon for passenger service. Lastly, our team is most excited for LA Metro’s Regional Connector, which was completed in June of 2023. The new A Line offers improved access to Impact Sciences’ office adjacent to the 7th and Metro station.
In order to serve our clients’ mobility projects with the most accurate environmental reviews, our team keeps a pulse on the industry to be sure we are always up to date on the latest methods. As a core service area offered by Impact Sciences, our team has completed environmental review for numerous mobility projects throughout California, including CEQA analysis for bus rapid transit, pedestrian, and bike improvements; intelligent transportation system (ITS) projects; and others. We also provide our clients with guidance on how to use new statutory exemptions or categorical exemptions that might apply to their projects.
Mobility is constantly evolving, so let’s talk more about it. We’d love to hear from you! Shoot us a message.
Impact Sciences’ Annalie Sarrieddine and Jessica Kirchner contributed to this article.
 Haley Smith, “L.A. traffic behavior is changing. Is post-pandemic gridlock inevitable?” Los Angeles Times, June 2021. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-06-18/post-covid-l-a-traffic-analysis-has-rush-hour-changed, accessed January 12, 2023.
 Katherine Shaver, “Why hybrid work schedules have made some commutes worse,” The Washington Post, September 2022. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2022/09/16/hybrid-work-schedules-pandemic-commuting/, accessed January 12, 2023.
Photos: LA Metro; Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Los Angeles World Airports.