AB 417: Short Cut to Safer Streets for Cyclists?

Active transportation enthusiasts may recall that a lawsuit filed in San Francisco in 2005 put the brakes (so to speak) on making bike-friendly improvements in that city. It was a five-year pause as SF conducted a full environmental review of the anticipated environmental impacts posed by treatments identified in its Bicycle Plan. For bike advocates, that was a costly lesson in our quest for safer streets. A bill before the Governor, AB 417, would exempt bike plans totally from environmental review under CEQA and it awaits the governor’s signature. Let’s take a look.

The process of piecemeal environmental reform (at least as affects cyclists) started with the San Francisco experience. There a lawsuit filed by blogger and gadfly Rob Anderson, who spearheaded localized opposition to bike-friendly treatments, successfully challenged the city’s categorical exemption of its bicycle plan from  California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review. The courts ruled that the city had not conducted an environmental review and properly disclosed the impacts as required by the CEQA.

That was a major setback for riders and bike advocates because the San Francisco plan presented an ambitious implementation schedule for some innovative treatments. By stepping ahead of CEQA, the court said, it was back to the environmental review drawing board. And as in any CEQA review process, that meant time, and lots of it.

Background to CEQA

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was signed into law during an era when breakneck growth in the state had collided with a waxing environmental consciousness to sensitize folks to the tangible impacts of land development. Legislators responded to the outrage with a law patterned on the federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Signed by Nixon, the crux of NEPA (and CEQA) is disclosure: the public must be informed of potential environmental impacts before policymakers approve a ‘project’ as defined under the law.

Burton Way after Pilot lanesAs any activist can tell you, policy-making includes land development and other projects that affect traffic. Sometimes bike-friendly measures like a road diet does indeed affect traffic (though not to the extent feared) while other treatments like bike lanes may have no effect. (When Beverly Hills implemented a Pilot program to install lanes on north Crescent and Burton Way (right), they didn’t affect traffic flow at all. Indeed that was a condition of the program’s implementation.)

CEQA is hot-button because stakeholders often see policymakers and officials turning their back on community impacts because “fiscalization of land use” (the leveraging of development for generating revenue) encourages local governments to overlook localized negative effects. In turn the community grabs at the levers provided by the CEQA to slow or halt unfavorable developments.

Let’s take a local example. Metro’s Expo Line was widely hailed by regional transportation advocates for addressing our Westside congestion problems, yet local NIMBYs opposed the light rail line over a technical issue like baseline traffic counts…even though the line was forecast to reduce congestion overall. It was a hard-fought battle. ‘Neighbors for Smart Rail’ first sued Metro to put the Expo line’s Phase II extension underground. When that failed they ramped up a CEQA challenge predicated on a common allegation: that the traffic counts used in the environmental review were incorrect (a favorite tool among battle-tested Westside groups).

But opponents lost that case and then lost on appeal too. As that case percolated in the state courts, another group filed a CEQA challenge against the Expo’s bike lane. Though that case was settled in 2012, the larger challenge to Expo Phase II (the segment between Culver City and Santa Monica) dragged on until last month when all challenges were finally put to rest.

Critics can find much to dislike about CEQA. It can slow progress and be used to exact concessions in the largest projects. But bike advocates see CEQA as a barrier to safer streets, as when it’s used to derail a bike planning process as San Francisco found. Such targeted safety measures add up to a minor, if any, overall aggregate impact. Indeed that city’s proposed 45 separate bike-friendly improvements hardly stack up to an Expo-scale mega-project. Yet a simple bike plan can suffer the CEQA challenge.

In the end, SF conducted the required review and found that “overriding considerations” warranted the improvements anyway. It saw more cyclists on the streets and tallied an increase in bicycle-related collision injuries – both of which justified improvements, the city argued. The court lifted the injunction on implementation (see the case timeline) and the city was finally on its way to safer streets!

Should those improvements need to undergo a full CEQA review? The SF victory didn’t answered the question, and the issue is salient because even the prospect of full-on review puts fear into local DOTs and city councils. The time and expense to conduct a review could well derail good measures to make streets safe.

What if CEQA Didn’t Apply?

In September of 2012 Governor Brown signed AB 2245 that exempts bike lanes (aka Class II bikeways) from full environmental review under CEQA. That addressed the challenge faced by San Francisco and gives California localities a leg up on bike-friendly improvements. While the law still requires the preparation of a traffic study and the convening of public hearings to disclose impacts – steps that reflect the spirit of CEQA – localities can proceed with improvements without the need for CEQA draft and final EIRs and “overriding considerations” action by legislators. The days of holding modest bike improvements hostage to local opponents came to an end. And the sky didn’t fall.

But bike advocates and transportation engineers aren’t the only ones cheering the chipping away of CEQA. Numerous bills in Sacramento have sought to tweak or gut the act (depending on your perspective) with the most eye-catching of them focused on sports stadiums. These monsters are nothing if not traffic generators yet few legislators vote against them because of the old “overriding considerations”: jobs, sales taxes, etc.

But legislators can simply exempt such projects from CEQA review. The new bill AB 417 takes a much more targeted approach. Building on the success of AB 2245, this bill would scale-up the ambitions of bike advocates by exempting not only specific treatments but an entire bike plan from review. “Existing law exempts from CEQA a project that consists of the restriping of streets and highways for bicycle lanes,” the bill text says, the goes on to exempt a bike plan “if measures to mitigate these impacts are identified in an environmental impact report, negative declaration, or mitigated negative declaration, as provided.”

Like AB 2245, this bill requires the agency to prepare a traffic assessment (including mitigation measures) and hold public hearings. Unlike AB 2245 this bill sunsets in 2018 – time enough to either encourage sufficient adoption of bike plans ASAP or else allow legislators to formulate an improved bill.

AB 417 is very good news for bike advocates because the very technical nature of CEQA review and the many opportunities it affords for nitpicking provides a handle for opponents of even the most reasonable safety improvements to step up a challenge. It need not (and should not) be confused with broader calls for CEQA reform from developers eager to simply end-run community opposition. That battle will continue; this bill lets local governments off the hook for a time-intensive review process for the bike plan, a smaller-scale policy initiative. AB 417 awaits the Governor’s signature.

What Does it Mean for Beverly Hills?

The part we’ve been waiting for! The good news is that the Beverly Hills Bicycle Master Plan is sorely in need of an update because it expresses the best thinking of 1977 when it was penned. Nearly four years ago, the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission formed an ad-hoc bike plan update committee to do the honor, but that committee is a mere formality. Should it ever kick into action, however, cover from AB 417 will be very useful in moving the most reasonable street safety improvements through our own NIMBY-inclined neighborhoods opposition.

The not so good news is that AB 2245 and AB 417 (if signed into law) only demolish barriers; they hardly help gin up the motivation or political will to make our streets bike-friendly. And they do nothing to boost the capacity of local transportation officials to recognize the need for, say, bike lanes on dangerous corridors and to advocate for them.

If only there were state laws that talked about road safety and regulating traffic; or that mandated a knowledge test for would-be drivers; or that compelled local officials to provide for the health, safety and welfare of residents. Oh wait – all of those laws exist! It’s just that so many barriers exist to keep us from the safe streets as called for by the letter and spirit of our state laws. A couple of barriers may fall, sure. But we’ll have to continue to chip away at the rest until we get the streets we deserve.