Could Californians soon be paying for parking at a grocery store or retail shopping center?  Or even to park on a residential street?

Local government officials statewide are expected to consider this and other policies in the near future that could put a price on public parking spaces that previously were free to Californians.

The reason? Local governments, including regional transportation planning agencies, will soon be under pressure by state environmental agencies, environmentalists, and lawmakers to reduce residents’ car trips, which are seen as a large source of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.

The main culprit in this instance is, of course, carbon dioxide (CO2) from tailpipes. CO2 is the main greenhouse gas targeted by state regulators, and soon federal lawmakers.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law SB 375 (Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento), which requires the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to work with local governments to set greenhouse gas reduction targets for the transportation sector in each region of the state. Read the law here

CARB is the state agency responsible for regulating air pollution in the state.

A new report to the Air Resources Board outlines how regional greenhouse gas targets for SB 375 should be set. This document is important for local governments and regional transportation planning agencies, kicking off a year-long process to figure out how to implement the law.

SB 375 was a follow-up to the controversial – but pioneering – 2006 law AB 32, which requires California to roll back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. CARB last year adopted a plan for how it intends to reach those goals through regulations and is currently working on a variety of those rules to be enforced within the next few years.

Schwarzenegger has traveled the world touting these new laws as a model for how governments can address global warming.

But in order for SB 375 to be a success, local governments will have to make tough decisions about how to reduce residents’ car trips, and sprawl in general. They will have to make a number of decisions during general plan updates and other regional transportation planning.

One of the strategies local governments are seen likely to pursue is charging motorists for parking at shopping centers and many other public places– in an effort to curb driving.

This policy was a topic of discussion at a state capitol hearing earlier this year. Last February, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing to discuss with University of California experts, local government officials and environmentalists possible reforms to existing parking policy.

Environmentalists, strong supporters of SB 375 and AB 32, are backing the concept of putting a price tag on public parking spaces.

In a brief report to lawmakers at the February hearing, UCLA researcher Dr. Donald Shoup argues that the high cost of land, construction and maintenance to provide free parking adds significantly to the cost of economic development.

Shoup also argues that free parking at retail stores, for example, is paid for by all customers through higher prices in goods. Free employer parking is paid for by lower wages for all workers and free on-street parking is paid for by entire communities in the form of higher taxes, the paper argues. “Free parking encourages vehicle trips, thereby increasing traffic congestion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, one study showed that employer-paid parking increases employee vehicle trips by 27 percent.”

To read the entire background paper, check out this link.

SB 375 was environmentalists’ priority bill last year, and it received a lot of initial opposition and resistance from local government groups, including the California League of Cities. They stressed lawmakers to include as much flexibility as possible to meet the regional global warming targets.

Environmental groups are already arguing that parking pricing must be sought if SB 375’s goals are going to be achieved.

It will be interesting to see what local governments, if any, decide to seek these public parking reforms.

Greg Hyatt is a journalist in Sacramento where he covers California environmental issues, with an emphasis on environmental legislation, litigation and regulation. His blog with will focus the local government effects of the more controversial environmental policy issues.