Bike Plan Projects Heading Off to Environmental Review

Is the Mayor's promise of 40 miles of bike projects a year killed by CEQA studies? Time will tell...

Yesterday the LADOT announced through the LADOT Bike Blog that a series of projects outlined in the Bike Plan would undergo a full environmental review before construction of these projects can begin construction.  Between conversations with City Planning and LADOT, we have a good idea of how the environmental review will go forward.  City staff is concerned about lawsuits brought against projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA.)  CEQA lawsuits had delayed the implementation of the San Francisco Bike Plan for four years and continues to stall the Expo Line Bike Path.

In order to expedite the review, the City is creating project packages of a group of projects that will be reviewed at the same time.  The first package will be announced soon, but the Bike Blog’s description of the first packet as “”Bike lanes in Priority 1 of the 5 Year Implementation Strategy and the projects around NBC Universal expansion that require environmental review” gives a pretty good idea of what’s going to be in the packet.

What won’t be included in these reviews are projects that don’t require the removal of a travel lane or parking such as all of the “year zero” projects, including the 7th Street Bike Lanes, the York Boulevard Bike Lanes, and the “Bicycle Friendly Streets.”  Also, bike projects included in other plans that have or will undergo review such as the Figueroa Corridor Study or the Downtown Street Standards won’t need a second review.  City staff felt that the projects included in the NBC Universal project weren’t studied sufficiently.

An full environmental impact report for each packet is expected to take 12-18 months and the study of the first packet won’t begin until the fall of this year.  This means that some of the more controversial projects, such as bike lanes on most streets that are part of the Backbone Bikeway Network, might not even be cleared through the environmental process for two years from today.   The good news is that the first step of the process, completing the Environmental Assessment (EA), will most likely clear some of the projects and could take a couple of months from when the studies begin.

Step one is completing the EA.  The EA is a first look at the project package to see which projects would create enough of an impact on existing traffic patterns to warrant further study.  Yes, this does mean that, under current environmental law, the bike projects will be tested to see if they disrupt the car traffic at all.  Or, as Alexis Lantz, the Planning and Program Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, put it, “No matter how much better a project may improve the overall livablity and safety of our communities or the mobility of other modes, if it predicted to in anyway inconvenience vehicles it requires an EIR (Environmental Impact Review), which is not really the point or intention of CEQA.”

First, the package of bike projects will undergo an “Environmental Analysis” (EA) which will determine which projects will head to a full Environmental Impact Review (EIR) and which will not have enough of an impact to need further study and receive a coveted Categorical Exclusion.  The City is concerned that many projects in the plan could be challenged under the state’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) law unless they first undergo an environmental review.

City Planning’s Claire Bowen warns not to get your hopes too high that many projects will be exempted, “We always anticipated that many streets, particularly those on the Backbone Network, were going to require a more in-depth analysis because we could be taking away a (mixed use) lane.  That’s why many of the plans in the 1996 Bike Plan were never implemented.  LADOT didn’t have the money or the impetus to do the environmental review at that time.”

From there, the remaining projects will move into the full EIR stage.  This stage will require the city to create alternate proposals to each of the projects and have them go through an environmental and public review process.  For example, for a bike lane on Venice Boulevard, the city might offer alternatives of Sharrows on the Boulevard, an alternate bike lane on a parallel street such as Washington Boulevard, and a “no-build” option.  Each of these will be studied to show that the city considered all the alternatives, and it is possible that one of the alternatives could move forward as a final project.

One of the main questions that cyclists now have is whether or not the city is already backpedaling away from Mayor Villaraigosa’s commitment to creating 40 miles of bike facilities every year for the next five years.  One cyclists who wished to remain anonymous simply wrote, “the honeymoon is over.”

Bowen conceded that it will be difficult to meet the stated goal, but that with some flexibility it is still doable.  Projects that are tied up in environmental review might be replaced in the short-term by the politically easier projects, i.e. we may be seeing more Bike Friendly Streets and fewer Backbone Bikeway Network projects in the next couple of years.

Back when I was an advocate in New Jersey, a State Senator once told me that if we couldn’t defeat a project, we should focus on “studying it to death.”  I’m sure that at least some advocates of the Backbone Bikeway Network, who will remember the struggle to just get it included in the Bike Plan in the first place, are going to be wary of any plan to put these projects into a lengthy environmental review, but city staff is claiming that they are still really excited about these projects.

Bowen writes, “If we don’t do this environmental process, we won’t be able to do any of those 200 projects, ever.”

  • It’s ridiculous to require environmental review for bike lanes. They are just changing the pain on the street. No concrete is being poured. There is no real environmental impact.

    But we live in a crazy State where changing one free parking space is somehow an impact on the environment.

    Is there anyway Los Angeles can do an EIR for the entire overall plan, instead of each individual project, to speed things up? That’s what San Francisco seems to have done.

  • Cyclists: worried that the city/county don’t value you as a person? That’s because they don’t, as long as you’re on a road and not in a vehicle. More at:

  • Cyclists: worried that the city/county don’t value you as a person? That’s because they don’t, as long as you’re on a road and not in a vehicle. More at:

  • Anonymous

    It’s unfortunate that these lanes have to go through an environmental review. Let’s just make sure, though, that it’s done right the first time so we can get our lanes in 2 years instead of 4.

    As for the 40 miles per year claim: Does it make people feel better if there are no lanes in the first year, and then 80 the next?

  • Annnndddd this is why NYC is kicking our ass.

  • Josef Bray-Ali

    Until we have some land use lawyers go to bat for us in LA, we’ll be stuck behind the LADOT’s imaginary CEQA shield – which they have learned is kryptonite to Los Angeles’ bike advocates, very few of whom have expertise in this field.

    Why is the removal of a travel lane for cars, and the installation of a bike lane an impact that will require an EIR? Can we get a plain-english white paper on this, with specific portions of CEQA mentioned?

    I have been lied to and misled enough times by the peeps writing the prose in city plans to know that when these folks quote “the law” it is as an abstract weapon to shut me up.

    Anyone want to undertake this study? I will put $100 into the pot as a bounty. Can I get a kickstarter plan going for this?

  • What’s really pathetic about this is that the city of L.A. plans spend a couple of orders of magnitude more than the bike lanes cost – to study – and then they’ll decide “oh we can’t do these.” Spending inordinate time and money for unnecessary review doesn’t even guarantee that the city will even proceed with the project.

    This has been shown in the deletion of some bike facilities in the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan – after a couple years and something like a million+ dollars in environmental review, the plan has fewer bike facilities than it began with.

  • Josef Bray-Ali

    How many $60,000+/year jobs do we need to create for these folks to get the city we want? Because paint buckets and neighborhood meetings aren’t much more expensive these days. Do we have to have a citizen’s “BPIT” and just do the meetings and installation of these ourselves? You want a political fight, or one in the courts, keep dicking around with our time and money. Bike deaths are up, as are gas prices and long term illnesses due to a lack of physical exercise and poor city design. Let’s stall everything behind millions in paperwork! Awesome!

  • Though I think her heart is in the right place, and I wish for her the backbone to stand up to John Fisher’s Dept of Transportation (LADOT), City Planning’s (LADCP) Claire Bowen is wrong in stating: “That’s why many of the plans in the 1996 Bike Plan were never implemented. LADOT didn’t have the money or the impetus to do the environmental review at that time” The city’s 1996 Bicycle Master Plan was very tepid, approving bike lanes where they could be squeezed in without removing car lanes or parking. It contains precious few reductions in car-lanes.

    According to my analysis of the 1996 bike plan over 95% of the new bike lane miles designated did not require any lane removal; car-centric LADOT and LADCP wouldn’t have approved it if this wasn’t the case. Despite this, the city only implemented about 16% of the planned bike lane miles (from 1996 to mid-2009 there were 37 planned miles implemented, out of 228 miles approved.) The overwhelming majority of the 84% of designated streets that remained unimplemented required no lane reduction, no parking reduction.

    This truth is shown in subsequent implementation of bike lanes on Reseda Blvd and York Boulevard – under community pressure, bike lanes have recently been implemented on parts of these streets, without removing any travel lanes. The reason that the city didn’t implement bike facilities on designated streets is not due to lack of money for environmental review. John Fisher’s LADOT didn’t implement approved bike lanes because they instead modified (or waited, with intent to modify) streets to add car capacity. Bike lane implementation was made less feasible by LADOT adding peak-hour parking restrictions and adding more travel lanes. The most clear example of this is Reseda Boulevard where the LADOT was caught lying about their plans for adding car capacity.

    Bowen throws her hands up saying more or less “in the past we didn’t have the money for bike lanes” – this is insulting to cyclists. The truth is that we had the money, and John Fisher’s LADOT was actively spending it on additional car capacity. If we whitewash the city’s past record it becomes more difficult to change its culture. Bowen should retract her erroneous statement.

    (The LADOT bike blog is also wrong in its EIR article. Chris Kidd states “Many of the bike lanes in the 1996 Bike Plan were listed as “experimental corridors”, meaning that they too would have needed environmental review before implementation.” This is pure fiction – nothing in the 1996 plan was listed as an “experimental corridor.” It’s unclear what Kidd is quoting… but it’s not the 1996 Bicycle Master Plan.)

  • Josef Bray-Ali

    UCLA holds a bloody CEQA conference every year packed with lawyers, academics, developers, and all the people that can pony up the cash to see what case law, the legislature, and local authorities have done with CEQA the past year. There has to someone in that group of braniacs that can place a lead shield around this radioactive argument from LADOT (that I do not, and will not buy until I see some case law and direct examples as they apply to the bike plan) that has been so effective in the past at stopping car lane removal for bike projects.

  • Josef Bray-Ali

    Maybe some donors can pony up some money and endow a fellowship or something at UCLA or another university to be the California Bicycle CEQA expert just so we can stomp all over this crap next time. Kaiser? California Endowment?

  • Anonymous

    CEQA was actually passed by Republican state legislators as an election year gimmick to appeal to environmental voters and signed by Ronald Reagan.

    No one knew what the hell the law meant when it was passed. The law didn’t define what an “environmental impact” is or even what sorts of projects it applied to. But very quickly people started using the law as a general use NIMBY tool to fight ANY project. After all, pretty much everything you do will have at least some impact on the environment.

    The result is that today the government can’t pick up someone’s trash without writing a $10 million EIR first.

    It’s time for a rewrite of CEQA.


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