Recent CEQA streamlining means stronger environmental protections

Reforms of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) recently enacted will make it easier to build bike infrastructure and design our roads for people instead of cars. While touted as a “streamlining” of the law, it actually refocuses CEQA back to its original purpose: to protect California’s environment.

Level of Service

Before: CEQA requires cities to measure how a development will alter roadways’ Level of Service, an official measure of how many vehicles can be accommodated.

Why this was a problem: Level of Service doesn’t care how many people a vehicle carries, nor does it measure pedestrian or bicycle traffic also using the road. A car carrying 1 person is equal to a bus carrying 45 in the measure’s eyes. A wider sidewalk or the presence of a bike lane, which take road space away from cars, reduces Level of Service and so gets dinged in CEQA even if it might move more people along the road. In other words, by using this measure CEQA prioritizes driving over walking, biking, and transit, to the detriment of the environment.

Now: If a city wants, it can designate an area as a “transit priority area,” provided it meets certain criteria of transit service, thanks to SB 743. Instead of Level of Service, the city can use alternative measurements of road efficiency when evaluating a project. Or, it can ignore the reform entirely. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog has more details.

Bike lanes

Before: Like all projects, bike lanes and bike projects were required to undergo CEQA analysis.

Why this was a problem: It subjects bike projects to a costly analysis to prove biking doesn’t harm the environment. In San Francisco, plaintiffs sued the city to stop its bicycle master plan under CEQA, a counterintuitive proposal. And, with Level of Service measurements putting cars above bikes in CEQA, it forced the city to rework its bike plan to allow maximum vehicle throughput, rather than maximum usefulness for bicyclists. In the end, San Francisco’s plan was stalled for years.

Now: Under AB 417, on-road bicycle lanes that are within “urbanized areas,” though what qualifies isn’t explained in the law [see update below], as well as retiming traffic signals and adding signage, are exempt from CEQA and environmental impact reports under state law. Off-street paths aren’t included. Marin or a town could require an environmental impact report, but the state will no longer ask for it. Cyclelicious has more details on the law and what it means.

A stronger environmental law

The purpose of environmental law is to protect our environment, not to conserve the status quo. Driving is, at best, not very environmentally friendly. By removing the provisions that promote driving from environmental protection law, the reforms allow cities and counties to choose for themselves how to approach their transportation-related environmental problems. One hopes Marin’s environmentalists will jump at the opportunity.

UPDATE: Reader Eric Fischer clarified that California goes off the federal Census definition, which is any census block with 1,000 or more people per square mile as well as adjacent blocks of at least 500 people per square mile. Essentially all of developed East Marin qualifies.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

2 Responses to Recent CEQA streamlining means stronger environmental protections

  1. letsgola says:

    I have to think developers are pretty pumped about this too. Reduces demands for off-site improvements and gives NIMBYs less leverage. On the other hand, if air quality is still a metric, ignoring LOS will theoretically make pollution worse, so there is that.

    • Well, COULD. If the alternative metric takes air quality into account, the increase in pollution from individual delayed cars might be offset by the shift in mode share away from cars in general.

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