New Legislation From Sacramento (and a Veto)

Governor Brown shamefully vetoed for the second time a bill designed to facilitate safe passing of bicycle traffic in California. SB 1464 would have required drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing from behind. That’s right: safe passing room is veto-worthy to Governor Brown. Even though the bill was backed by the California Bicycle Coalition and advocates across the state, and ultimately watered down to make it palatable to the CHP and Auto Club, our wonderful governor with a stroke of the pen keeps cyclists in danger. Read on about the bills the Governor did sign.

First a Reminder: Roads by Law Need to be Safe for Cyclists Already!

There is no good reason for those of us who ride our public highways to fear getting assaulted by a driver behind the wheel. US law by precedent allows bicycles where motorized vehicles travel (with very limited exceptions). So feel free to ride most anywhere you like; enjoying the right to travel in and between states regardless of mode is as American as pie. Second, the state vehicle code very clearly directs the driver of an overtaking vehicle to take care in passing:

The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions hereinafter stated. (Section 21750)

(The following section advises road users that “the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall safely move to the right-hand side of the highway in favor of the overtaking vehicle after an audible signal or a momentary flash of headlights by the overtaking vehicle.” But note that the code defines a bicycle as a ‘device’ and not a ‘vehicle,’ and in any case the driver of an overtaken vehicle need not drive on the shoulder or hug the right – as in hug the curb – if it is not safe to do so.)

The legislation that Brown vetoed would have made explicit the responsibility that drivers have to offer those on a bike a discrete and specified buffer (3 feet). The bill also afforded drivers protection to legally pass even if that means momentarily crossing the double yellow line. (According to the current code, “If double parallel solid yellow lines are in place, a person driving a vehicle shall not drive to the left of the lines” except on a broken yellow line.)

Most crucially, the legislation would have offered those who bike a way to demonstrate categorically that a driver failed to pass safely by allowing a safe (e.g., 3 feet) buffer. Perhaps that’s why Governor Brown vetoed it. Denying those who bike the means to hold accountable motorists who pass unsafely is reason enough to drop the Governor a line to say you’re reconsidering your support for his proposed budget-saving California Tax Increase Initiative if he’s unwilling to support your safe travel on the road.

For more on the laws that legislators have seen fit to apply to those who choose to ride, see our Laws page. Now on to the new laws.

Legislation That Was Signed By the Governor

While the Governor gave the raspberry to cyclists with his veto of SB 1464, he did sign legislation that might make a long-term difference in how we engineer our roads.

Foremost, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 2245 to exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act the re-striping of streets and highways for bicycle lanes as consistent with a bicycle transportation plan. (The bill is not clear on whether it must be a Metro-approved ‘BTA’ plan which is necessary for certain state funding.) The upside here is that the legislation removes some uncertainty with regard to local implementation of on-street bicycle facilities by calling such projects ‘exempt.’ That takes facilities that don’t impact traffic out of the CEQA process entirely – a victory for local governments trying to make change at the margin.

Of course, the downside is that it is one of several bills that whittle away at the CEQA process. Indeed one of those efforts to circumvent CEQA was Assembly Bill 890 signed by the Governor. Until January of 2016 it exempts from CEQA review roadway projects including repair, maintenance, and alteration if within the existing right-of-way and if the activity (whether or not determined under CEQA to be project) is carried out to improve public safety. Here’s the rub: this Republican-sponsored, Chamber-supported law wants to distinguish between “legitimate” activities that would move through CEQA review and those viewed by the Chamber as merely a “hook” for frivolous (read:NIMBY) litigation.

Now, the focus here is on commerce and road throughput. But there’s no reason why AB 890 couldn’t also justify road improvements to make cycling safer as long as they fit within the existing right of way. Let’s hope a local DOT looks creatively at the latitude offered by the new law.

Continuing the transportation theme, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 819 to permit cities’ departments of transportation to employ the more progressive National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) standards (as presented in the outstanding Urban Bikeway Design Guide) in lieu of the widely accepted American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) standards. Why? A clue is right there in the latter organization’s name: the state highway and transportation officials who crafted those standards aren’t necessarily the most creative thinkers in the room about how to make our roads accessible.

Indeed we’ve heard from various sources that one of the key barriers to better bike planning is the seat-warming in local DOTs by long-in-the-tooth transport engineers. Until they retire out, getting better ideas to filter into these departments is a challenge. That’s slowly changing, of course, but why wait it out when NACTO offers better ideas today in its fantastic online guide? As proposed the legislation would have shifted standards-setting to NACTO; as signed the legislation now offers a choice between AASHTO and NACTO standards. So it is new flexibility, and that’s good. Together with last year’s law that added two active transportation-sympathetic members to our state’s advisory California Traffic Control Devices Committee, we’ve seen some real progress at the institutional level.*

These laws were championed by the California Bicycle Coalition, officials of which remain optimistic so we will reserve judgment about the merits of AB 819. But it is a sad commentary on Sacramento when good legislation can’t make it through the legislative process without losing the ‘good.’

Lastly there is Assembly Bill 1915 that puts a funding set-aside behind programs to create safe school bus stops. Today, the state awards grants competitively for construction of bicycle and pedestrian safety projects and traffic calming measures. The new law sets aside 10% of those program funds for safe routes school bus stops away from the schools. It’s a boon for rural areas because it extends the Safe Routes program reach. One more plus is the equity aspect: the law requires the state agency making the grants to “fully consider the [safety] needs of low-income schools.” Too often it is the affluent districts that make the Safe Routes school grant applications.

That’s the roundup. A mixed bag for those who want to ride safely, and, at least in California, not much incentive to get would-be riders to get on a bike.

*At this latest Pro-Walk Pro-Bike conference in Long Beach, health crusader Dr. Richard Jackson called out AASHTO representative John Naughton for his organization’s backward active-transportation planning standards. NAACTO, he said, offers a better alternative (as many people feel). For more from Dr. Jackson and participants and attendees from Pro-Walk Pro-Bike, listen to our podcast.