New California environmental regs will (hopefully) boost active transportation

Changes to the transportation analysis guidelines specified in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should ease approval of infill and urban development, but may result in challenges for local governments that depend on Level of Service mitigation requirements to fund their road infrastructure projects.

Find the sad bike?

TL;DR Summary

  • Under current California environmental law, if a project creates significant impact to traffic “Level of Service” (e.g. through longer delays at nearby intersections due to increased cars), the developer may be required to pay for expanded road capacity to mitigate the impact of this development. This policy encourages sprawl development and more motor traffic, contrary to California’s greenhouse gas emissions policies.
  • Under proposed guidelines, Level of Service mitigation will go away, to be replaced with “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (VMT) analysis. If a project will increase the number of miles traveled on nearby streets in vehicles, the developer may be required to pay for mitigation to reduce this increased vehicular traffic.
  • Many cities and counties depend on Level of Service “improvements” paid by developers for their road infrastructure funding. They’ll need to develop new funding models.
  • This discussion pertains to changes in California, but these Level of Service mitigation policies are common across America. Read below to learn how LOS analysis policies that encourage capacity “improvements” make traffic congestion worse, not better.

LOS discourages infill development

Level of Service Primer

Under current environmental rules, projects that create or increase road congestion are considered an environmental impact that must be mitigated, often by expanding roads for more cars, even if that mitigation actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Discretionary development projects in California may trigger an analysis of the “Level of Service” (LOS) impact the project will have on motor vehicle traffic. LOS is graded on a level of A to F, with A used to designate free flowing traffic with no delay to motor vehicles, and F indicating near gridlock and long (80+ seconds) waits at intersections. Many cities aim for Level of Service “C,” which means less than 25 seconds of delay at intersections, and comfortable spacing between cars. LOS “C” is considered a good balance between capacity and utilization. A discretionary project developed near roads operating at LOS “D” and worse will likely trigger a traffic analysis.

Caltrans requires a Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) for any project that generates more than 100 peak hour trips on any state highway, with lower thresholds for state highways operating at LOS C or below. Local agencies have their own thresholds that can trigger an LOS analysis on surface streets near a project.

Palo Alto University Avenue cyclists

Under the flawed theory that stalled traffic leads to more air pollution, “environmental mitigations” might be required of developments with significant impacts on LOS. A new hotel in my town, for example, will result in longer waits at a major intersection between the freeway and the hotel. The required environmental mitigations will be (1) addition of a second left turn lane and (2) removal of a pedestrian crosswalk to “reduce overall delays for the other movements (of car traffic) at the intersection,” all because the delay will be a few seconds longer during the peak hour. Never mind the fact that these intersecting six lane arterials are vastly overcapacity for a town of 12,000 for 23 hours of the day. Awesome, huh?

LOS Problems slide

Every state highway in the populated portions of California operate at Level of Service C or below, so even relatively small projects will trigger a traffic impact analysis and may require expensive mitigation. Developers are thus tempted to build out in the boondocks, where freeways are free flowing, the cost of performing the traffic analysis is zero, and no mitigation is required.

Before long, traffic from the near suburbs fills up because of this new development, so builders must set their sights even further afield. Eventually, people drive a hundred miles from their inexpensive homes two or three counties away. Our current policy of mitigating LOS with capacity expansions encourages sprawl and significantly more miles traveled in a motor vehicle.

Willow Road morning traffic

SB 743

SB 743, which dramatically changes CEQA state law on the transportation impacts, was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013. The California Office of Planning and Research (OPR) are now in the final phases of accepting comments before completing their rulemaking process to implement SB 743, which will remove LOS analysis and replace it with an analysis on “vehicle miles traveled.”

“These new rules help remove a quirk of California environmental law that made it harder to build projects that improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ken Alex, Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. “Not only does this proposal remove barriers to infill development, walking, biking and public transportation, it also explicitly recognizes that such projects have less-than-significant impacts under environmental law.”

LOS encourages greenfield development

Important changes have happened to the OPR draft guidelines since Streetsblog published their report on the initial draft guidelines in 2014, although many of the important parts remains the same. OPR continues to recommend vehicle miles traveled as the most appropriate measure of project transportation impacts. This proposal continues to recommend that development proposed near transit, as well as roadway rehabilitation, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects, should be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact. OPR continues to recommend application of that measure across the state. Finally, OPR continues to recommend that implementation be phased in over time.

OPR also introduced important changes between the preliminary guidelines and the current proposal. Many of the guidelines have been moved away from the regulatory text to a “Technical Advisory” section, which removes the force of law requirements. A new methodology to analyze safety impact to pedestrians, cyclists and transit users was among those moved to this advisory section.

The current proposal will allow a two-year transitional period, allowing existing projects to continue and giving agencies and local governments time to adopt the new rules. Local governments also have additional flexibility in adopting VMT thresholds. The new draft includes new guidelines for rural development and small projects. Finally, new threshold recommendations are now more closely aligned with SB 375 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

San Jose Bike Party

Local funding for infrastructure?

I’m told many local jurisdictions depend on LOS mitigation requirements for their capital improvement dollars. These changes to state law will eliminate this source of revenue. Those in the know tell me some of this revenue loss can be replaced by implementing impact fees on new developments. Local governments need to be careful when using impact fees to fund local infrastructure projects through the use of good planning documents.

Some local and regional agencies are on the ball, with VTA in Santa Clara County, for example, already recommending VMT calculations as part of a traffic impact analysis. Other local governments will likely do a last minute mad dash when VMT finally becomes the law of the land in 2019.

City and counties throughout California will still have planning documents on the books with Level of Service requirements. These requirements will be found in the local zoning code and in the transportation element of the general plan. The general plan in particular can be a decade long process to update, so local advocates should watch for opportunities to update these items. If your town or county has a BPAC, initiate discussion now for a study session on how SB 743 will require changes in local code.

Public Comment

The entire document is only 57 pages and fairly easy to read if you can learn the three-letter-acronyms. The public can comment on the rules by submitting comments to by 5:00pm on February 29, 2016. The OPR provides these tips for providing public input.

  • In your comments, please clearly identify the specific issues on which you are commenting. If you are commenting on a particular word, phrase, or sentence, please provide the page number and paragraph citation.
  • Explain why you agree or disagree with OPR’s proposed changes. Where you disagree with a particular portion of the proposal, please suggest alternative language.
  • Describe any assumptions and support assertions with legal authority and factual information, including any technical information and data. Where possible, provide specific examples to illustrate your concerns.
  • When possible, consider trade-offs and potentially opposing views.
  • Focus comments on the issues that are covered within the scope of the proposed changes. Avoid addressing rules or policies other than those contained in this proposal.
  • Consider quality over quantity. One well-supported comment may be more influential than one hundred form letters.
  • Please submit any comments within the timeframe provided.

After this final public comment period ends on February 29, the final proposal moves from OPR to the California Natural Resources Agency to commence the formal rulemaking process under the Administrative Procedure Act. The regulations are anticipated to be effective statewide in 2019.

Photos shot by Yours Truly; slide images come from OPR presentation on the topic (see link below). A huge thank you to my bus buddy Anais Schenk, a professional transportation planner who tolerates my inquisitiveness on these topics. To learn more about SB 743 and changes in CEQA law, see:

One Comment

  1. In addition to VMT I’d like to see transit ‘reach’ analysis – in other words, how far from the planned development is there a contiguous bike path/lane, transit line, etc. Santa Clara (city) is currently reviewing plans for their new ‘city center’ development adjacent to the stadium, and the EIR is LOS-based as usual, because that’s all that planners and engineers know. A discussion in the BPAC on bicycle access left them pointing to the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail, which we had to point out is frequently closed for events. The development is intended to be mixed-use, meaning there will be office space there, so it still boggles my mind that it’s 2016 and we still can’t figure out how to build new developments (of any size) in a bronze bike-friendly community with plenty of bike-related ordinances in place that one can actually bike to. (For example, when the new Target opened up – next to a bike shop – we had to point out it didn’t meet city bike parking requirements, just like the new Westgate won’t when it’s done, and I’m betting the new city center won’t either).

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