Goodbye, “Level of Service” for Cars! New CEQA Guidelines Support Sustainable Transportation

Thanks very much to this week’s guest author on ClimatePlan’s blog and our partners at Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

March 1, 2016

Guest post by: Bill Sadler, California Senior Policy Manager, Safe Routes to School National Partnership

New CEQA guidelines will make it easier to build sustainable, equitable communities across California

It’s taken years to develop this, but the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has finally released its proposed update of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) guidelines on evaluating transportation impacts.

The new guidelines are a major step forward. For too long, CEQA actually measured delay to cars as a negative environmental impact – as if cars speeding around was good for the environment. In fact, slowing cars down makes streets safer and helps get people into other, healthier forms of transportation.

This step will advance the healthy, sustainable, equitable communities that all of us in the ClimatePlan network are working hard to create.

A rational step, and a national precedent

The new guidelines remove “Level of Service” (to cars) as a significant transportation impact of new development. The new measure is Vehicle Miles Traveled.

Now, instead of evaluating a project by traffic congestion, cities will instead ask whether that project will make people drive more—a truly negative environmental impact. This change will remove one of the biggest barriers to infill and transit-oriented development. It will finally reflect the fact that these projects are better for the environment, because they enable people to take shorter trips and go by foot, bike, bus and rail.

Other states and the U.S. Department of Transportation are looking to California as they consider similar changes to environmental laws. This is a critical time to get these guidelines right and set a good precedent for the rest of the nation.

More benefits

Besides removing Level of Service, the new guidelines also now include these benefits:

• Assume that active transportation projects will cause a less-than-significant impact. (More walking and biking is, at the very least, not bad for the environment.)

• Facilitate development within a half-mile of transit stations. This will make infill and transit-oriented development more attractive.

• Promote consistency with Sustainable Communities Strategies. These will now be considered in determining whether a project has a significant impact on transportation.

• Provide flexibility and guidance depending on the community. This will help in the consideration of different issues in urban and rural areas, for instance.

• Promote public health, environmental justice, and climate goals.

• Set a floor, but not a ceiling, for VMT thresholds. This allows cities, if they choose, to set higher targets for reductions than the state’s 15% target, reducing driving more.

• Include “induced demand” as a factor in determining VMT for roadway expansion projects. In other words, “if you build it, they will come”—wider highways mean more driving and so more VMT.

• Recognize that proximity to transit alone is not sufficient for a determination of a less than significant impact, and adding other factors such as parking to this analysis. This is smart. It’s not enough to just be near a train station, for example; projects must encourage transit use, through reducing parking, designing for easy walking, and more.

Recommendations to make the new guidelines even better

While the proposal makes huge strides forward in terms of shifting how we analyze transportation impacts through CEQA, there are still a few areas where the guidelines could be stronger—particularly on displacement and gentrification.

Led by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, several ClimatePlan network partners submitted a comment letter to the State Office of Planning and Research (OPR) with the following recommendations:

● Narrow the scope of the use of “safety” as a potential environmental impact. 
The current definition of “safety” in the guidelines is too broadly defined; it could be used in unintended ways to oppose and/or deny good projects by considering only drivers, not the safety of all road users.

We recommend using the number of serious injuries and fatalities to pedestrians and bicyclists in the study area as the metric to measure safety. This would further the goals of the state’s Complete Streets policy and emerging Vision Zero policies across the state, by making it easier to build projects that promote safe walking and bicycling.

● Align with the state’s Complete Streets policy, AB 1358, by exempting review of pedestrian and bicycle projects that already comply with local Complete Streets policies. As noted above, the changes to the guidelines will make it significantly easier for jurisdictions to implement Complete Streets policies.

We recommend going a step further and providing an exemption for pedestrian and bicycle projects that are in compliance with local Complete Streets policies to streamline these projects in places where they are sorely needed.

● Provide guidance on avoiding the impacts of gentrification and displacement. The guidelines will make it easier to build higher-density housing near transit, but they may also increase the potential for gentrification and displacement. Part of this is a legacy of past CEQA guidelines, which restricted the supply of high-density multi-family housing over concerns about traffic congestion.

We see a need for these guidelines to provide high-level recommendations on mitigating these impacts, including best practices from communities across California that have confronted these issues while building more infill and TOD. Our hope is that these guidelines will facilitate rather than hinder affordable housing production across the state, especially in areas that need it most.

● Increase the VMT threshold over time to align with long-range climate goals. We recognize the hard work that went into determining the proper threshold for measuring the significance of an increase in vehicle miles traveled, and applaud OPR for aligning the metric with other state and regional goals. However, we encourage OPR to ratchet the threshold up over time to mirror the state’s climate goals. Many Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategies in the state are setting goals above 20% for the year 2040 and beyond in their 2016 updates, and the Air Resources Board is expected to increase the SB 375 targets within the next year.

To ensure these goals are achievable, OPR should look to the future in setting the VMT threshold and update it over time to align with new SB 375 targets and the state’s climate programs.

● Prioritize consistency with Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategies by adding this consistency as a criterion, both in the actual guidelines language and when using citywide VMT to analyze transportation impacts. The state has ambitious climate goals set out by SB 375, and regions have worked hard to create SCSes that meet and exceed these goals. These revisions to the guidelines are one of the primary mechanisms that regions will use to achieve the land use and transportation changes identified in their SCSes, and the language should reflect that.

Consistency with an RTP/SCS should be a basic criterion for analyzing transportation impacts. RTP/SCS consistency should also be required if a jurisdiction chooses to use citywide VMT to determine transportation impacts from new development.

This is particularly relevant in situations where a project proposes to use citywide VMT, and the citywide VMT is higher than the regional average VMT. In those cases, growth in that area may then result in higher-than-average VMT. Will this be consistent with the region’s SCS, or will growth in that area undermine the region’s ability to meet its SB 375 GHG targets? We suggest OPR close this loophole by adding consistency with the RTP/SCS as an additional criterion when using citywide VMT to avoid streamlining projects that would fail to meet the region’s climate goals.

Next steps

This is the final round of revisions that OPR is making to the guidelines. Once the final version is released, the guidelines will go through the Natural Resources Agency formal rulemaking process and undergo another round of public comments. The guidelines are expected to be adopted in late 2016 or early 2017.

Once the final version is adopted by the state, there will be a two-year phasing period where cities and counties will have the option to use the new guidelines.

After this two-year period, the guidelines will apply to all California jurisdictions.

That’s a long wait, but it doesn’t have to be. Some cities, including San Francisco, are getting a head start and adopting these changes before OPR even finalizes these guidelines.

More can act now as well.

More resources

View the full comment letter here.
The full guidelines are available here.
For more information, see the guidelines website here.
View OPR’s webinar on the guidelines here.

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