CA Poised to Reform Auto-Centric Level of Service Environmental Rules

California administrative rulemakers recently moved a step closer to
reforming the section of the California Environmental Quality Act
(CEQA) that has compelled cities to focus undue attention on the
age-old Automobile Level of Service (LOS) threshold for impacts of new
projects and has led to the construction of excess off-street parking.

SF-traffic_1.jpgPhoto: pbo31

The state’s Natural Resources Agency released the newest revisions
of Appendix G of the CEQA guidelines (the Environmental Checklist Form)
late on Friday afternoon, setting off a flurry of emails from
proponents of LOS reform, including officials in San Francisco,
Oakland, and San Jose, as well as transit and bicycle advocates.

As documented at SF Streetsblog, over-reliance on LOS considerations by planners has traditionally led
to widening intersections and roadways to improve the flow of
automobile traffic at the expense of other modes. If the amendments
made by Natural Resources stand and are formalized by January 1, 2010,
the deadline for the changes, cities and counties around the state will
have the flexibility to consider capacity metrics like LOS alongside
other metrics that prioritize transit, pedestrians, and cyclists. The
new rules would even allow city planners to walk away from LOS
completely.

From the preamble to the proposed changes:

The intent of those amendments was to recognize a lead agency’s
discretion to choose its own methodology for determining
transportation-related impacts of a project while ensuring that all
components of a circulation system are addressed in the analysis. The
proposed revisions would refocus the question from the capacity of the
circulation system to the performance of the circulation system as
indicated in an applicable plan or ordinance. The proposed revisions
also clarify and update language regarding safety considerations and
other mass transit and non-motorized transportation issues.

Bicycle
advocates in San Francisco, who have been waiting three years for the
lifting of an injunction preventing the city to build any new bicycle
infrastructure, in part because of LOS concerns, were equally
enthusiastic.  The news is also good for cyclists in Los Angeles, who have heard for years that the city cannot have an aggressive Bike Plan because the LADOT is scared of getting sued under CEQA.  Kent Strumpell, one of the Bike Coalition’s Board Members has been a local leader on getting the word out about the proposed changes and soliciting comments.

Parking Availability Under CEQA

Another
significant revision to the transportation guidelines is the
elimination of "adequate" parking supply from the environmental
checklist, a rule that made transit oriented development more difficult
and increased the supply of parking generally. Although a 2002 lawsuit against the City of San Francisco
and the developers of the Westfield Mall clarified that the supply of
parking is a social impact not an environmental impact, the CEQA
guidelines had not been updated to reflect the ruling.

From San Franciscans Upholding the Downtown Plan v. City and County of San Francisco,
"The social inconvenience of having to hunt for scarce parking spaces
is not an environmental impact; the secondary effect of scarce parking
on traffic and air quality is. Under CEQA, a project’s social impacts
need not be treated as significant impacts on the environment. An EIR
need only address the secondary physical impacts that could be
triggered by a social impact."

Public comment on the proposed amendments to the CEQA guidelines closes on November 10, 2009.

Proposed CEQA Transportation Changes in Detail:

Appendix G – Checklist

XVI. TRANSPORTATION/TRAFFIC — Would
the project:    

a) Cause an increase in
traffic which is substantial in relation to the existing traffic load
and capacity of the street system (i.e., result in a
substantial increase in either the number of vehicle trips, the volume
to capacity ratio on roads, or congestion at intersections)?
Exceed the capacity of the existing circulation system,
based on an applicable measure of effectiveness (as designated in a
general plan policy, ordinance, etc.),
Conflict with an applicable plan, ordinance or policy establishing
a measure of effectiveness for the performance of the circulation system,

taking into account all
modes of transportation including
mass transit and non-motorized travel
and relevant components of the circulation system,
including but
not limited to intersections, streets, highways and freeways, pedestrian
and bicycle paths, and mass transit?

b) Exceed, either individually
or cumulatively, a
Conflict with an applicable congestion
management program, including, but not limited to
level of service
standards and travel demand measures, or other standards established
by the county congestion management agency for designated roads or highways?

c) Result in a change in air traffic
patterns, including either an increase in traffic levels or a change
in location that results in substantial safety risks?

d) Substantially increase hazards
due to a design feature (e.g., sharp curves or dangerous intersections)
or incompatible uses (e.g., farm equipment)?

e) Result in inadequate emergency
access?

f) Result in inadequate
parking capacity?

gf) Conflict
with adopted policies, plans, or programs regarding public transit,
bikeways, or pedestrian facilities, or otherwise substantially decrease
the performance or safety of such facilities
supporting alternative transportation (e.g., bus turnouts,
bicycle racks)

4 thoughts on CA Poised to Reform Auto-Centric Level of Service Environmental Rules

  1. This is wonderful news!!! Parking and LOS (Level of Service) are two critical issues… and these appear to be excellent steps in the right direction. Woooot! Wooooot!

    Could anyone (lawyers in the room?) clarify – is this in effect right now? or does someone have to vote on this for it to go into effect?

  2. Ditto to what Joe said. This would be a very welcome turn of events. Instead of the weak-kneed complete streets language, we;d have something solid to throw back at those who cling to traffic engineering industry practice like mollusks.

  3. Joe,
    They have to wait until public comment period is over on November 10th and they must finalize the amendments by January 1. Sometime in between those dates, if Natural Resources doesn’t have a change of heart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

CEQA Reform Update: Is This the End for LOS?

|
Finally, some sanity may be coming to California’s most important environmental protection law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Under current law, all projects, be they rail lines, bike plans, or new buildings would have to prove that it would not impact local driving times or it would have to complete a costly mitigation plan. […]

Is CEQA Reform Truly on Its Way? If It Is, Should We Be Happy or Worried?

|
California Forward released this video last November making the case for CEQA reform on transportation issues. There are nine days left in the legislative session in Sacramento, and there is still no vote scheduled in the Assembly on SB 731, Senator Darrell Steinberg’s efforts to “reform” California’s landmark environmental protection law, the California Environmental Quality […]

Replacing LOS: Experts Debate How CA Should Measure Transpo Impacts

|
California planning experts continue to debate how to most effectively measure transportation impacts in a way that will foster smarter growth, after the state abandoned the car-centric metric known as Level of Service (LOS). The acronym-laden process of measuring transportation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) may be complex and wonky, but it’s certainly important. In […]