California's secret SUV ban.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 4 2004 2:42 PM

California's SUV Ban

The Golden State has outlawed big SUVs on many of its roads but doesn't seem to know it.

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But local officials either don't realize they've banned big SUVs, or they're hoping no one will make a stink. For example, Lombard Street   and Los Angeles ban 6K vehicles on numerous streets (including one of San Francisco's main tourist draws, the famously twisty Lombard Street). One L.A. city council member, Janice Hahn (the sister of L.A. Mayor James Hahn), recently proposed that fines for breaking this law be hiked from $50 for a first offense and $100 for a second to $250 and $1,000, respectively. Hahn told me her district, near L.A.'s huge port complex, is plagued by trucks cutting through residential streets.

When I informed Hahn that all the big SUVs also break the 6K barrier, she seemed surprised. "That's interesting," she said.

I asked if she thought the ban should be enforced against them. She answered bluntly: "I don't favor that." Even for 10,000 pound Hummers?  "I have my own issues with Hummers and SUVs, but this was not the intent of this ordinance."

She's right—it wasn't the intent. But that's because these weight limits generally predate the 1990s SUV craze that lured suburbanites out of their lighter sedans and minivans.It's the vehicles that have changed, not the law. These ordinances remain on the books and they're not obscure. They're clearly marked on signs in many California cities. In fact, three of L.A.'s affluent neighborhoods have the signs almost everywhere you look.

In Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena, vehicles over 3 tons are prohibited on every street unless specifically allowed. (Click here for a caveat about Beverly Hills.) The exemptions are a handful of larger roads meant to be used as truck routes. 

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That's right—every single residential street.

It probably won't shock you to learn that Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena are also home to a large number of heavy luxury SUVs.

(Similar bans exist not only in cities across California but in other places around the country. Some examples I found online: Minneapolis and Edina, Minnesota; cities in Wisconsin including Wausau, Kenosha, and Brillion; and the Brooklyn Bridge, along with countless smaller bridges all over the nation. [Click here for more on other states.] The penalty in California is usually a fine.)

However, as I can attest from standing on my front porch, prosecution of the Golden State's ban on big SUVs isn't what you'd call robust. In fact, it's a contender for the least enforced traffic regulation in America. Since realizing the connection between weight limits and SUVs, I've noticed streets all over the L.A. area—including major ones like Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood—where the drivers of metal monsters thunder past clearly posted 6K limit signs without a glance. "I would be surprised if it's routinely enforced against SUVs," Santa Monica's transportation planning manager, Lucy Dyke, told me.

And don't expect to see stickers on new SUVs with warnings like "CAUTION: This Vehicle May Be Illegal On Many California Roads." At a GM dealership in Santa Monica, I asked a salesman (who declined to give his name) whether he informs buyers that the Tahoes and Suburbans he's selling them are banned on most streets in the city. "I'm not aware of it," he said.

I suspect the biggest impediment to enforcing these bans is political will—SUVs are wildly popular, and it will take brave city and state officials to challenge the right of residents to use their own streets. (Of course, like a FedEx truck, heavy SUVs are allowed to use local roads for a few blocks if they have business there—like going to or from a house. But in general, they're supposed to take the shortest possible path between designated truck routes.)

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