A photo of a "yellow vest" protester in Paris, where high gas taxes have contributed to a wave of unrest.
A "yellow vest" protester in Paris, where high gas taxes have contributed to a wave of unrest. Benoit Tessier/Reuters

What France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Can Teach California

A lesson from Paris: Policies that reduce climate emissions at the expense of the economically disadvantaged are unsustainable.

As the “yellow vest” protests erupt in France, Californians should recognize that many of the policies provoking outrage across the Atlantic are also stoking divisions in our own cities and suburbs. French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe has now suspended the unpopular fuel tax increase that first brought protesters to the streets, but residents in rural and exurban France still feel excluded from public transportation and other government services they believe wealthy urbanites are enjoying on their dime. When the French government increased the national gasoline tax, those living outside pricey urban areas, who often drive out of necessity rather than by choice, had the most to lose.

Here in California, the gas tax that ignited the French protests brings to mind the most contentious proposition on last month’s midterm election ballot: Proposition 6, which would have repealed a gas tax implemented in 2017. The gas tax is a polarizing issue in the state and cost an Orange County senator his job. Although Prop 6 failed, a substantial 43 percent of Californians—most of them living outside urbanized coastal regions—did vote to get rid of the added cost at the pump.

San Francisco—perhaps unsurprisingly—opposed repealing the tax more emphatically than any other county in the state, with 83 percent of voters there rejecting Prop 6. It wouldn’t be wrong to ascribe this enthusiasm for the gas tax in part to San Francisco’s progressive politics, but that’s only part of the story. The city is also notable for having the most developed and well-used public transportation system in the state. Having a relatively affordable and efficient alternative to driving makes a tax on fuel less painful, especially when part of that tax goes to making public transit even better.

On the surface, the gas tax seems fair: If people choose to drive rather than get around using more planet-friendly modes like public transportation, they should pay the price for contributing to climate change and pollution. And those who make more ecologically responsible choices—whether that’s walking, riding a bike, or using transit—should be rewarded.

But this way of thinking is stuck in an outdated notion of who lives—and drives—in California’s suburbs. In contrast to France, where exurban “banlieues” are recognized as places where lower-income residents have been relegated, many Californians still imagine suburbs as “garden cities” where well-to-do white families enjoy peaceful living while eschewing the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the city. But the fact is, as wealthy millennial children of the suburbs increasingly migrate to urban hubs, many minority and low-income residents are being squeezed out.  

The Bay Area is infamous for its extreme wealth inequality and an acute housing crisis that is driving many long-term residents—particularly low-income people and people of color—to outlying areas that have fewer job opportunities and are disconnected from the region’s public transportation network. Between 2000 and 2015, thousands of low-income black households were displaced from the Bay Area, and low-income households of color were more vulnerable to displacement than low-income white households. Many people living beyond the reach of the Bay Area’s BART train system have few viable alternatives to driving to get to their jobs, and the state isn’t doing enough to change that.

Driving in California is expensive. The state’s gas prices are the highest in the continental U.S, more than a dollar above the national average. The high cost of fuel imposes a particular burden on low-income workers commuting from the suburbs into urban centers, where the bulk of high-paying jobs are located. In the Bay Area, low-income households’ third largest category of expenses is transportation, after housing and food. The rise of the gig economy means that more so-called super commuters (those who travel more than 90 minutes to work each day) are working multiple precarious jobs, often far from home, rather than commuting to and from one steady job during normal business hours.

Most low-income Bay Area workers who live outside the BART network’s reach drive to work, either in carpools or alone. In San Francisco, just over 30 percent of low-income workers get to work by car, whereas in the suburban Solano County, the figure is over 80 percent. Trains and intercity buses tend to be expensive and/or infrequent, and many people live far from their limited number of stations. If everyone in the state had equal access to quality public transportation, the gas tax would be a fair incentive to motivate people to ditch their cars. As it is, it punishes people for not having access to transit options that meet their needs.

In the face of these issues, the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) could be using funds, generated partly by the tax that California drivers pay on fuel, to expand public transportation to drastically underserved areas. But they’re not. Rather, commissioners are channeling 87 percent of MTC funds to operate, maintain, and modernize the Bay Area’s existing public transit network. Only 10 percent of funds will go to expansion projects. This means low-income workers outside the urban core are paying for a public transportation system that is explicitly designed to leave them out. To add insult to injury, many well-to-do tech workers spurn public transport and commute in private shuttles that use public transit infrastructure while paying only a negligible fee.

California has been advocating this approach of prioritizing development in urban core areas since the 1970s, in an effort to combat the state’s infamous suburban sprawl. The reasoning behind this strategy (also known as “urban infill” or “smart growth”) is that we can most dramatically reduce vehicle emissions if we focus on filling these urban core areas with housing, retail, and jobs, making it easier for people to walk, bike, or take public transit to work rather than drive. At the regional level, this reduces emissions more than putting our limited funds towards expensive transit expansion projects into less densely populated areas.  

The problem with the way we are currently pursuing urban infill in California is that we are unfairly burdening the state’s already disadvantaged communities with the costs of our transition to a greener society, while excluding them from the benefits. Exurban drivers pay fuel taxes, but don’t get better public transportation service or other benefits of curtailed driving, such as reduced exposure to air pollution. At the regional level, we may be reducing emissions, but this doesn’t do much for the communities breathing in exhaust along commuter corridors like I-80, where little effort is being made to reduce vehicle traffic.

It is also, ultimately, harmful to the project of cutting greenhouse gases. After all, as we have seen in France, policies that reduce emissions at the expense of large groups of people who are already economically disadvantaged (and, as such, pretty disgruntled) are unsustainable. Promoting equity alongside environmental sustainability in our transport systems should not be seen as a benevolent gesture, but an essential consideration for sustainable environmental policy.

California is a trendsetter for environmental policy both nationally and abroad; its urban infill approach to development is being promoted in cities around the world. But its signature programs, such as the state’s cap-and-trade system and high fuel taxes, have also been criticized as technocratic and elitist solutions that exacerbate rather than ameliorate environmental and social injustices. If California is to continue to be a leader in innovative environmental policy, we must work harder to incorporate social equity into our plans. We’ve seen what can happen if we don’t.  

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