Since its inception, the California Environmental Quality Act has considered automobile congestion to have a significantly bad impact on the environment, causing projects that removed a car lane to put in a bike lane would to jump through additional hoops to get approved. Failure to take that requirement seriously enough scuttled the San Francisco Bike Plan in 2005 and delayed its approval by four years while the city was forced to analyze every second of traffic delay caused by new bike lanes. By law, even a sidewalk extension that increased traffic delay by a few seconds at the most congested time could trigger an expensive and time-consuming analysis. Conversely — perversely — a project that replaced a bike lane with a regular traffic lane to speed up car traffic would not be subject to environmental analysis.
SB 743 last year required the Governor’s Office of Planning & Research (OPR) to revise those rules. Last week, OPR finally released its proposal. Sensibly, OPR’s proposal goes just a bit farther than required by law by suggesting that the new rules should apply statewide instead of just to certain transit-oriented urban areas as required by law.
It’s great news for bike advocates. The proposal says that a project’s impact on car traffic should be analyzed on the basis of how many new miles of vehicle trips it causes instead of how many seconds of delay are caused by the project. A project that removes a traffic lane for a bike lane doesn’t add a single new mile of vehicle trips so an expensive environmental analysis would not be required.
It’s great for proponents of infill development, too. Currently a housing project in a dense urban area whose residents wouldn’t drive much but just enough to cause congestion on neighborhood streets would be subject to much more environmental analysis than a project of the same size in the distant suburbs where the residents would drive much more but the streets could absorb the traffic. Furthermore, a project’s impact when measured by vehicle miles traveled can be mitigated by adding bike facilities instead of by widening the road.
The Office of Planning & Research is accepting comments on their draft proposal until October 4. Tell them “congratulations” by sending an email to CEQA.Guidelines@ceres.ca.gov today. Their proposal is critical not only to facilitate bicycle projects but also to facilitate infill development that helps to create a “bicycle habitat” of short trips and slower, safer car traffic.