New CEQA Guidelines Expected
to Shift Transportation Priorities

Written by Susan Vaughan. Posted in News, Politics

Published on January 23, 2009 with 6 Comments

Image courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation.

By Susan Vaughan

January 23, 2009

San Francisco environmentalists and sustainable transportation advocates have entered a period of cautious optimism – the state of California is finally getting ready to tell communities that they should disregard previous automobile-centric guidelines, called level-of-service or LOS, when complying with environmental provisions of CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.

“If you look at the way we’re using LOS now, it really privileges the automobile,” said Tom Radulovich, BART Board Director and executive director of Livable City, a San Francisco organization dedicated to the creation of sustainable communities.

Current LOS guidelines encourage communities to evaluate new transportation and development projects according to their impacts on average speeds of automobiles. Projects that negatively impact the speed of automobile traffic – such as a bicycle lane, a widened sidewalk, or a new bus lane – are assessed on their potential negative impact on automobile congestion and air quality.

“CEQA is a Reagan-era piece of legislation,” said local bicyclist, and transportation and land use policy wonk, Marc Salomon. “When [Governor Ronald] Reagan signed CEQA, Ricardo Montalban and others were driving huge, eight-cylinder cars that ran on lead fuel. The pollution from cars driven in San Francisco would end up over Berkeley and Livermore.”

New CEQA guidelines are intended to shift the focus of transportation planning away from the mobility of automobiles towards sustainability, perhaps including the creation of financial mechanisms to support mass-transit investment through mitigation fees, and the implementation of changes to encourage bicycling and walking as viable alternatives to automobile transportation.

Concerns About Global Climate Change

Though new cars emit less particulate pollution today than they did 40 years ago when CEQA became law, there are new environmental concerns.

“There have been tremendous improvements in air quality in almost every respect,” said David Fairley, a statistician with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “But in Greenhouse Gases 101, the first thing you learn is that the amount of carbon dioxide produced is directly proportional to the amount of gasoline used and the number of vehicle miles traveled [VMT].”

The number of vehicles registered in San Francisco now stands at about 450,000, a number that is expected to grow. And in recent years the American fleet-wide miles-per-gallon (MPG) average has dropped as car drivers have switched to gas-guzzling SUVs. Cars emit on average 20 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gasoline burned, resulting in five tons of greenhouse gases per car, per year. Hybrids, though an improvement over non-hybrid vehicles, are not that much better – if a hybrid gets 40 MPG, then it is still producing 5,000 pounds of greenhouse gases per year on average, according to Fairley.

Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Efforts and the LOS Obstacle

Concerns about global climate change are prompting mitigation efforts at state and local levels. In September 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, and locally some urban planners and sustainable transportation activists are working to engineer greater equality for alternative, sustainable, modes of transit, efforts that today continue to be stymied by antiquated LOS guidelines.

“There are several problems with LOS,” said Rachel Hiatt, senior transportation planner with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) who participated in a January 22 forum sponsored by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “LOS metrics, as used by many communities, are a great measure of the delay of car travel, but they do not capture the environmental impacts of carbon emissions, and they do not measure safety.”

The irony, said Radulovich, is that after World War II, “the San Francisco street system was completely co-opted to favor cars, and environmental law has been a barrier to re- prioritizing other modes of transit.”

BART Director Tom Radulovich

“Under LOS, the only way to mitigate traffic congestion is to make driving easier,” which makes walking, bicycling, or improving mass transit through the implementation of bus rapid transit, for example, harder, Hiatt said. In addition, LOS is inconsistent with San Francisco’s Transit First policy and its Climate Action Plan, which call for a reduction in total miles driven and an overall reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2012.

“The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research is now recommending that communities rely on Auto Trips Generated [ATG], or vehicle miles traveled, and the removal of parking as an impact in evaluating compliance with CEQA,” Hiatt said.

A Nexus study is currently underway to consider changes to local CEQA compliance. The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, the San Francisco Planning Department, the SFCTA, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) are all participating in the study, which is expected to be completed later this year. After that, it is hoped the San Francisco Planning Commission will recommend to the Board of Supervisors passage of an ordinance that transforms the way the City and County of San Francisco complies with CEQA.

An Ordinance to Fund 21st Century Transit Options?

Currently, developers of non-residential projects pay per-square-foot transit impact fees based on the assumption that new developments generate traffic, including increased Muni ridership. Thus, the transit impact fee revenue goes to the SFMTA. Some participants at the SPUR forum seemed to favor an ordinance extending that impact fee to the developers of residential projects as well.

However, the mentality that dominates San Francisco planning and development communities is one in which new residential or mixed-use developments are considered beneficial to the city, but the true costs of those developments – such as their impact on local and regional mass transit systems – are hidden from the general public, said Radulovich. He thinks developers should be assessed more of the true costs of their projects to benefit mass transit, including BART.

“I hope the study considers a regional impact fee,” said Radulovich, who added that BART is facing a $1.7 billion shortfall over the next 30 years for maintenance alone.

“Using an impact fee approach is going to be a major political debate. What’s an appropriate impact fee?” asked Jason Henderson, an assistant professor of Geography at San Francisco State University who also participated in the forum. Free-market neo-liberals, he said, would want the fee to be lower, but people who traditionally identify themselves as progressives will want the fee to be higher.

“How about computing the costs to Muni for each additional car space?” suggested Salomon. “I’m a bicyclist, but I know that most drivers aren’t going to bike. But they will get on Muni if it works.”

However the new guidelines are adopted to comply with CEQA, Henderson said, “I’d like to see a 10 to 15 percent mode shift in transportation in the next five years” to walking, bicycling, and mass transit.”

Luke Thomas contributed to this report.

Susan Vaughan

Bio: Sue Vaughan was born and raised in the northeast part of the country. In 1988 she turned down a reporting job at the Boston-area newspaper because accepting the job would have required her to buy a car. In 1990, she finally escaped the bitter northeast winters and sweltering summers by taking a Greyhound bus from the East Coast to the West Coast. She first lived in that suburban "hotbed of social rest" (so described by former SF Chronicle columnist Rob Morse) Palo Alto, which inspired her to commit herself to the car-free existence. She moved from there to the Richmond District of San Francisco, taught on and off for several years, worked on her masters degree, and became a sustainable transportation activist. She now freelance writes, gardens, and draws.

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Comments for New CEQA Guidelines Expected
to Shift Transportation Priorities
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  1. “Some people work very hard,
    but still they never get it right.
    Well I’m beginning to see the light.”

    ‘Glad we see that aims “pushed through without environmental review as required by law” are seen as election of the longer path… –don’t let this happen to you.

  2. Rob errs on the merits when he conflates MUNI LOS and auto LOS.

    Most streets do not have transit. If the LOS on those transit intersections falls below E or F and there is no evidence that those cars would detour around delay to impact transit, then there is no impact on MUNI LOS.

    City policy, expressed and ratified repeatedly by the voters, has been that we are a transit first city. LOS is an administratively adopted state standard that is being replaced for the purposes of CEQA transportation analysis.

    TPS (Transit Preferential Signals) are alread in place on certain MUNI lines and is an integral part of the BRT package. BRT does not work without TPS.

    The reason why we have to ride on unsafe streets is that the Bike Plan Update was pushed through without environmental review as required by law. This fast tracking was done as a political move and ended up concealing significant impacts on MUNI.

    Those who put politics before following the law–CEQA–are solely responsible for the delay in striping bike lanes, not a plaintiff who brought a valid case to court. Had the City obeyed the law, then we’d have had 2 or more years of bicycle improvements under the 2002 Bicycle Plan Update.

    The City is supposed to have a bike plan updated every 5 years. The 2002 update applied to the 1997 plan. We are now in 2009. That means that we are 2 years late for our next bike plan update.

    Has the MTA Bicycle Program been working on the next bike plan update or taking long lunches at Zuni, waiting for the EIR to be certified before looking forward?


  3. rob,

    i don’t understand what it is that you have against bikes. you just said yourself that they share the same streets as muni and cars, and that is not going to change. since you have sued the city the number of bike commuters has drastically increased. because of your lawsuit, these bikers (including myself) are riding on unsafe streets. in cities all around the world it has been proven that taking away car lanes and installing more pedestrian/bike friendly streets increases the number of bike commuters, which means people stop driving their cars and start riding their bikes.

    you live in a city that is trying to become more eco-friendly by revamping streets for bikers, and trying to come up with better transit plans. you are holding us all back. i challenge you to give up your car for a month. ride a bike and muni. see what it is like to live car-free. i highly doubt you will do this, but maybe you should try seeing things from another perspective.

  4. The problem is, Sue, Muni and cars and bikes share the same streets in SF. It’s really a zero-sum game; if you take away a traffic lane on a busy street to make a bike lane, you’re going to make traffic worse for cars and Muni buses. The EIR on the Geary BRT isn’t out yet, but I’m skeptical that we need to spend $200 million tearing up Geary Blvd. for years to get the #38 line to run faster. Why not instead install the technology to allow Muni buses to change traffic signals in their favor in the avenues? It’s all the traffic lights in the avenues that make the #38 line slow now. That would also be helpful on other Muni lines, like the #22 line.

  5. Rob,

    I live in the Richmond District, which is one of the neighborhoods that is least well-served by mass transit in this city. I ride a bike, but I also buy a monthly Fast Pass and take Muni frequently. In this city — in fact the world over — we have reached capacity for travel in personal cars. There are few places where we could widen roads or add parking lots (and why would we want to considering the environmental impacts of what we would be doing?).

    We do need transportation relief, but not for automobiles. We need it for the modes of transportation that will minimize our environmental footprints. I look forward to the days when I can travel to downtown San Francisco in a surface BRT vehicle with a dedicated lane much more rapidly than I do now — and I hope these new guidelines speed the process of for the implementation of BRT.

  6. This is nothing but long time fantasy of the city’s bike people and their enablers in local government, that somehow they will be able to take away traffic lanes and street parking and put in bike lanes wherever they want in the city without having to comply with CEQA. The bike people don’t think they should have to comply with state environmental laws, because, you understand, they don’t burn fossil fuel.

    But if you take away a traffic lane on a busy city street, you’re going to make traffic worse, not just for cars but also for Muni, a point these folks never seem to consider, because in their minds it’s all about bikes. They don’t really care about Muni, in spite of their lip service to transit.