Publication Detail

Cultivating Cooperation without Control: A Study of California's MPO-Driven Smart Growth Programs


Research Report

Urban Land Use and Transportation Center

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Suggested Citation:
Sciara, Gian-Claudia and Susan L. Handy (2013) Cultivating Cooperation without Control: A Study of California's MPO-Driven Smart Growth Programs. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-13-07

California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, or SB 375 establishes a new framework for the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that plan and allocate federal funding for regional transportation investments in California. The law places these largely advisory planning bodies in a tricky position. On one hand, MPOs must plan for transportation investments that would support land use and development patterns to reduce automobile reliance and transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions; this plan is called the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS). On the other hand, MPOs themselves have no direct control over land use and development patterns. Because MPOs have no land use authority, SB 375 anticipates that they will instead leverage the federal transportation funds at their disposal to incentivize local land use decisions compatible with their SCS (and ultimately SB 375 GHG reduction goals). Thus SB 375 does not ensure that local governments’ zoning and development choices will align with the region’s SCS, but in principle local governments that make SCS-compatible choices stand to benefit more from MPO-directed federal funds than those local governments that do not.

How well will such incentives work to achieve SB 375’s desired results, and how will MPOs measure progress and goal achievement? Experts in land use and transportation acknowledge that present efforts to propel California toward smart growth will bear fruit most visibly in the long term. To answer these questions, we looked to four longstanding MPO-driven programs to encourage smart growth in the state’s four largest metropolitan regions. Through these programs, MPOs in the Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco Bay, and Southern California metro regions have supported local capital and planning projects serving smart growth objectives since even before SB 375 was passed. The programs have typically favored projects that emphasize compact development; transit-, walk- and bike-friendly communities; jobs-housing balance; vibrant downtowns; and mixed-use centers.