Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Guardian rewrites history

Steve Jones rewrites history in the current SF Bay Guardian about our litigation last year that stopped the city from implementing the Bicycle Plan. The city is now under an injunction to stop doing so until it does an Environmental Impact Report on the Plan:

At issue is the San Francisco Bicycle Plan and its stated goal of making "bicycling an integral part of daily life in San Francisco." City resident Rob Anderson and attorney Mary Miles don't share that goal — particularly when it translates to taking lanes and parking spaces from cars — and they challenged the plan in court last year after it won unanimous approval from the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom ("Stationary Biking," SF Bay Guardian, May 16, 2007).

Anderson and Miles understand that for a minority of city residents bikes are already a part of life in SF. We have no objection to that. Let a thousand transportation "modes" bloom! It's the "taking lanes and parking spaces from cars" that require some serious study beforehand. That's what our suit was about.

As the plan was being developed, some bike advocates and city officials had called for more resources to be put into doing the detailed studies CEQA calls for, and that's what now appears to be happening.

This is apparently true, but no one outside the cycling community heard about it at the time. As members of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, Greg Hayes and Marc Salomon apparently called for more "detailed studies" in the Plan before its adoption, which caused a rancorous split in the bike community at the time. We only heard about it after the litigation was filed, since their "calls" were only addressed to their bike comrades, not to the larger political community in SF. This is one of the problems with the way the city and the SF Bicycle Coalition pushed the Bicycle Plan through the process: The general public---even the city's political community---knew little about what the bike people and their enablers in city government had planned for our streets.

"It was a logical outcome to the city's undercommitment to the bike plan," [Andy]Thornley said of the lawsuit. "There wasn't the commitment from the mayor on down to doing this right."..."We had discussions about what it means that the plan doesn't have any benchmarks," said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SFBC and a member of the MTA board. Sure, it had the goal of having 10 percent of all vehicle trips be by bicycle by the year 2010. "Only later did we realize that the 100 pages behind it didn't support that goal."

"Undercommitment"? The city spent a lot of money doing the Bicycle Plan update---there's no real way of calculating how much----and CalTrans gave the SFBC $250,000 to do public "outreach" for the Plan, which was a bad idea, since the SFBC is an advocacy group that has an interest in the outcome of the process. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority gave them another $50,000 for that project when the CalTrans money ran out. There are 5[actually, there are now 12] full-time people in DPT alone working on bicycle projects.

Thornley suggests that somehow it's the mayor's fault, even though Newsom has given the bike people everything they've asked for, except for his veto last year of the Healthy Saturdays ordinance. The truth is that the city's entire political elite---the Planning Commission, the Planning Dept., the City Attorney, the Board of Supervisors, and the mayor---were remiss in their duty because they pushed the 460-page Bicycle Plan through the process and into the General Plan without any environmental review, not because they were "undercommitted" to the Plan. Both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors passed the Plan unanimously---hard to be more committed than that---with little discussion, even though those two bodies regularly deal with CEQA issues and should have known better. Of course the City Attorney's office and Planning's Paul Maltzer were also negligent, since they told the Board of Supervisors what they wanted to hear: No environmental study on the ambitious Bicycle Plan? No problem.

"Dave Snyder was always an advocate that the bike plan should be a bike plan and lay out what we'll see for bicyclists," Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, told the Guardian. "But the decision was made to do a bike plan in the abstract, not laying out specific routes."

There's nothing "abstract" about the Bicycle Plan, and the record shows that Dave Snyder was intimately involved in drafting the Bicycle Plan update from the start, as the documents in the Administrative Record for the litigation make clear. It's simply untrue that he dissented from the move to push it through the process without proper review. In fact, Snyder sent an email message in April, 2004, to a city worker suggesting the strategy of deception the city ultimately adopted to get the Bicycle Plan through the process without environmental review---split the two-volume Plan into two pieces, pretend it's only the Framework Doc., and hide the Network Doc. over at San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA):

We've deliberately bifurcated the bike planning process into two sections: the "bicycle policy plan" and the "bicycle network plan." The "policy plan" refers to bicycle parking requirements, education and enforcement policies, etc. In terms of changes to the street network, it says, only very generally, "we need to make improvements to the streets that connect every neighborhood to every other neighborhood with safe streets for people on bicycles." However, it makes no specific references to what kinds of changes we will make on which streets, and therefore, by itself, cannot by its nature have an environmental impact and is exempt from CEQA. In CEQA parlance, it's a "plan" not a "project." Nobody will contest this...The "network plan" on the other hand, could have an environmental impact. At some time this year, a complete network plan will be developed that contemplates hundreds of new bicycle lanes and paths throughout the city...It is this document, the "bicycle network plan," which is subject to CEQA review...However, as each of its pieces goes for approval, the Planning Department's MEA[Major Environmenal Analysis] office can review those changes on their own and in the context of the whole plan. The first set of projects you'll get will have little or no traffic impact and therefore could either be categorically exempt from environmental review or clearly subject to a neg. dec. (Administrative Record, Volume 5, pages 941-942).

And that's exactly what the city did: It split the Bicycle Plan, which was two documents from the start---the Framework Document and the Network Document---rushing the allegedly innocuous Framework Document through the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, and into the General Plan, while pretending that the Network Document ("which contemplates hundreds of new bicycle lanes and paths throughout the city") was merely a funding document required by the State of California. The Network Document was also passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors wearing their SF County Transportation Authority hats. Once this was accomplished, the city could then cherry-pick bicycle projects from the voluminous Network Document.

Note also Snyder's recommendation about sending "pieces" of the Plan through the approval process by declaring them "categorically exempt from environmental review." In CEQA parlance, this is called "piecemealing," and it's clearly illegal. You have to give the whole project environmental review; you can't legally implement it by passing a piece here and a piece there. But this is exactly what the city was doing with the Bicycle Plan, literally rubber-stamping each new bike lane "categorically exempt" from environmental review, which is why Judge Warren gave us the original injunction against the city and Judge Busch kept it in force until the city does an EIR on both volumes of the whole Bicycle Plan.

The plan was presented as an effort to radically transform the roadways to make bicycling a more attractive option, but it didn't include the detailed transportation analysis needed to support that effort — nor did it draw any conclusions about which car spaces to give over to bikes. "The plan makes no decisions....The plan has no measurable objectives anywhere in it," Snyder said, noting that the vague nature of the final product was the reason it was so uncontroversial. "Anytime anything passes unanimously, you know you didn't ask for enough."

That's a lie, since Snyder himself admitted in the message quoted above that the Network Doc. "contemplates hundreds of new bicycle lanes and paths" in the city. In fact that's all the Network Doc. contains---more than 200 pages of specific changes contemplated for particular city streets, including detailed engineering drawings. There's nothing "vague" about it at all. What it doesn't include is traffic and environmental studies to show the impact these changes would have on San Francisco.

The city's bike people "didn't ask for enough"? The two documents that comprise the Bicycle Plan are nothing less than the SF Bicycle Coalition's wish list for what it wants to do to our streets. They asked for everything they wanted, and the Board of Supervisors gave it to them. They were clearly counting on the the idea that, in Snyder's words, "nobody will contest this" here in Progressive Land. Wrong!

Jones writes: "Yet it was clear to all involved that doing the traffic analysis and other work would have headed off the injunction." He must mean it's clear now to all concerned that the city screwed up, that an EIR should have been done on the whole Bicycle Plan in the beginning. But this is retrospective wisdom, since the City Attorney's bullying behavior and delaying legal strategy clung to the party line throughout the litigation---that the Bicycle Plan was only the Framework Doc. and didn't include the Network Doc., that the Plan didn't really contemplate any specific changes to city streets, and, incredibly, that the SF County Transportation Authority is not a city agency and thus its documents couldn't be included in the administrative record. The city made the legal process as long and difficult as it could, evidently hoping that we would tire and go away.

Now that everyone agrees that an EIR on the Bicycle Plan is a good idea, is my public image going to be rehabilitated? After the original injunction last year, pro-bike commenters on my blog have called me, among other things, "a fucking simpleton," "completely stupid," "just dumb," a "lamebrain," a "magnificent jerk," a "piece of trash," a "scumbag," a "cynical dickhead," "pathetic," and a "very very small person." Mayor Newsom called the litigation "ill-conceived," though even the city seems to agree now that it's the Bicycle Plan, not our suit, that was ill-conceived.

Matt Smith of the SF Weekly came unglued after the injunction, calling us "mean," "spiteful," "cyclist haters," and "bike haters."

Is Leah Shahum reconsidering her characterization of us as obstructionists who were "perverting" environmental law with our litigation?

Jones reveals what the SFBC and its enablers in City Hall really fear about the CEQA/EIR process, that the city's neighborhoods might learn what they want to do to their streets and object:

That's because the plan will now look at the physical changes to roadways that are bound to get controversial once neighborhood groups grapple with the idea of losing traffic lanes or parking spaces. "You've got a lot of people who are afraid of NIMBY opposition, and that goes from the mayor and the supervisors to the bureaucrats working on the plan," Shahum said. She added that the political leadership of San Francisco is more supportive of bicycling than it's ever been, "but you still have to work really hard for them to do the right thing in the end."

The mayor and the supervisors are right to be afraid, since they are elected officials. If the neighborhoods---aka "NIMBY opposition"---turn against them, they are out of business, especially if they do what Shahum self-righteously defines as "the right thing," that is, take away their traffic lanes and street parking to make bike lanes.

Jones also raises another important issue that until now only the bike people and their allies in City Hall were aware of, LOS "reform":

City policy regarding bike projects—which the Planning Commission will revisit this summer when it considers changes to how it interprets traffic level-of-service (LOS) impacts under CEQA—is that anything that slows car traffic is considered a significant environmental impact that requires extensive study and mitigation. "It's imperative for them to fix the way they do CEQA," Radulovich said. "LOS reform would help us in future projects." Radulovich said that most California cities were built with a focus on automobiles before CEQA was even approved. Yet the law now requires expensive and time-consuming studies before those spaces can be converted to use by public transit, bicycles, or pedestrians. "That's why, in some ways, CEQA has become an impediment to making us environmentally sustainable," Radulovich said. "It's turned into a tool that slows down the taking of spaces back from cars."

The SFBC and its collaborators in City Hall want to eliminate the "level of service" (LOS) standard for evaluating traffic impacts in San Francisco that requires the city and other developers to calculate the impact of their proposed projects on city traffic by measuring how long it takes traffic to move through intersections. As it is, if a project is going to screw up traffic on a particular street, those pushing a project---the city's Bicycle Plan, for example---have to propose "mitigations" to prevent that from happening. The bike nuts call getting rid of LOS "fixing" CEQA or "CEQA reform."

Once they get rid of LOS, all they would have to worry about is the wrath of city voters in the neighborhoods ("Nimby opposition") as they go about "taking spaces back from cars," that is, taking away traffic lanes and street parking to make more bike lanes. A complication for the would-be reformers: LOS "reform" is included in the Bicycle Plan, and presumably the city will have to do an environmental evaluation of the bogus reform itself before they do away with LOS.

Thus it's important to understand that the bike fanatics see an anti-car agenda as central to their pro-bike agenda. To them it's a zero-sum game: If SF is to become more "bike-friendly," everyone who drives or relies on motor vehicles in the city must suffer---car drivers, taxi drivers, Muni drivers and passengers, and emergency vehicles. Radulovich talks about what's been the SFBC's aim for a long time, "the taking of spaces back from cars." The SFBC's Andy Thornley let that cat out of the bag a few years ago: "We've done all the easy things so far. Now we need to take space from cars."

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