Early in August, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released their draft of changes to the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) Guidelines which will have important impacts on transportation planning throughout the state.

The California Environmental Quality Act requires that any new development go through an environmental analysis to determine the impact of the project on a range of factors, from traffic to noise, water, air quality and more. This is called an environmental impact report. If there are significant impacts, the developer must propose mitigation techniques. This is in general a great process to lessen impacts on the environment from new development. However, the transportation criteria have long been flawed.

In summary, the way the analysis is currently structured means that developers are required to mitigate for impacts to traffic flow using the criteria vehicle Level of Service (LOS), which is graded A-F. A Level of Service F means that traffic moves very slowly with maximum delay, Level of Service A means fast-flowing traffic. Mitigation to address this typically involves increasing traffic capacity, which has ended up having adverse effects: increased capacity leads to increased vehicle use and greenhouse gas emissions, while making alternative forms of transportation less easy or convenient. The potential impacts of a project to people who bike, walk or take transit are not considered, whether the project benefitted or obstructed these modes.

Luckily, the California legislature figured this out and in 2013 passed Senate Bill 743, which will revise the CEQA guidelines. The bill will establish alternate criteria to determine the traffic and transportation impact of projects within transit priority areas that promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the development of multimodal transportation networks. Is is important to note that not all projects in the state will be held to this new criteria, only those within transit priority areas. These areas were set by another law, SB 375, as those within a ½-mile of an existing or planned high quality transit stop with a frequency of service of 15 minutes or less. Thus, many of the cities on the Peninsula and in Silicon Valley can be considered transit priority areas, and would be held to these new guidelines.

What does all of this have to do with biking? Well, the draft changes to CEQA propose that automobile delay (LOS) will no longer be considered an environmental impact. Instead, the primary factor in the transportation section of an environmental analysis would be the amount and distance that a project might cause people to drive. The criteria to evaluate this is proposed to be:

  • Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) – a project that results in VMT that is greater than the regional average might be considered to have a significant impact, though jurisdictions are welcomed to impose more stringent standards.
  • Induced travel – some projects, like adding new traffic lanes in areas that already are congested, actually leads to more people choosing to drive.
  • Safety – consider safety impacts for all roadway users.

This will make a huge difference in how developments and transportation projects are evaluated and therefore how their impacts are mitigated. Not only would projects that could cause significant amounts of traffic now be required to mitigate that impact through alternative transportation programs and facilities, but transportation projects that benefit people who bike, walk or take transit would no longer be forced to account for their impact on traffic flow.

Read the full draft and submit comments by October 10.