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 we documented on 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 introduction 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.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the City Attorney have been collaborating with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) to replace LOS with a new metric for measuring the projected environmental impacts of a development or a project by the total number of new automobile trips it will generate (ATG). The city and county believe this new metric would move the focus away from how many cars move through a particular intersection to how many additional cars would be added to the total traffic picture. By default, this metric would prioritize transit improvements, bicycle infrastructure, and pedestrian safety measures, none of which would add automobile trips.

"This is a fantastic development with tremendous impact for transportation analysis in California," said TA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich in an email. "We are optimistic that, after two rounds of hearings and comments, the CEQA guidelines will drop references to congestion and automobile LOS. The Authority is proud to have worked hard with our partners at the Mayor's office and City Attorney's office to bring about this exciting reform."

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.

"Together with SB 375... and other state-level direction for plan/ordinance/policy-based transportation evaluation, this checklist language puts us in a much better place for nurturing bikeways and livable neighborhoods in San Francisco and across California," said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Program Director Andy Thornley, who also noted that the important shift from capacity measurements to overall performance of a transportation network would by necessity prioritize transit and other modes in a network, not just cars.

In Oakland, LOS thresholds have been raised to thwart proposals for bicycle lanes on key corridors linking the bicycle network to BART and other transit nodes. "The most critical proposed change in the Transportation Guidelines is the removal of the word 'capacity,'" said East Bay Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Robert Raburn. "The concept of capacity has acted to guard and promote automobile traffic to the detriment of any other mode of travel. In place of this unhealthy fixation, we can look forward to an inclusive consideration of 'the performance of the circulation system, taking into account all modes....'"

In San Jose, where officials adopted a policy in 2005 that ignored auto LOS impacts [PDF] in sections of the city where they wanted to encourage transit ridership, increased cycling, pedestrian safety, and livable neighborhoods, the CEQA revisions validated the city's position.

"It is not a coincidence that the state's policy mirrors San Jose's flexible approach to reforming outdated, auto-centric LOS policies," said Hans Larsen, Acting Director of San Jose's Department of Transportation. "These proposed state policy guidelines give every city in California the opportunity to follow the progressive 'smart growth' direction that San Jose adopted in 2005."

Parking Availability Under CEQA

Another significant revision to the transportation guidelines is the elimination from the environmental checklist of the guarantee that a project provides "adequate parking capacity," a rule that has made transit oriented development more difficult and has 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."

UCLA Professor Donald Shoup elaborated on the point in a letter to be submitted to Natural Resources:

No one knows how much parking is “adequate.” Adequate for what? Does “adequate” mean enough parking spaces so that everyone can drive to the project and park free when they get there? Providing so much parking that no one can say a project has “inadequate” parking capacity has done great damage in California.... In effect, urban planners treat free parking as an entitlement, and they consider the resulting demand for free parking a “need” that must be met. Off-street parking requirements create an abundance of parking spaces, drive the market price of parking to zero, and thus explain why drivers can park free for 99 percent of their trips. Off-street parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.



Cities require off-street parking spaces because the market supposedly fails to provide enough of them. But the market fails to provide many things at a price everyone can afford. It fails to provide affordable housing for many families, for instance, and those who argue for affordable housing usually find themselves in an uphill battle. But cities have without a second thought imposed planning requirements to ensure affordable parking. Rather than charge fair market prices for on-street parking, cities require ample off-street parking for every land use. As a result, most of us drive almost everywhere we go.



CEQA’s parking policy makes this bad situation even worse. Rather than try to force up the parking supply and automobile trips, CEQA should focus on reducing automobile trips, or should at least not have a policy that will increase automobile trips.

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

POST UPDATED: 5:30 pm

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)