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)