Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The DEIR on the Bicycle Plan: "significant unavoidable impacts"

The first thing that needs to be said about the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) on the city's Bicycle Plan is that it involves a lot more than 60 projects; 24 of the proposed projects include an additional "option," which means that there are in effect 84 projects. The idea is apparently for the city to test the political winds and select the options that are politically feasible before it screws up city traffic for the 97.5% of city residents who don't ride bikes to work.

The next thing to note is that the DEIR tells us that 26 of the proposed projects---they are all called "improvements" in the document, of course---will have "significant unavoidable impacts" on traffic and transit, which means there's no way to mitigate the negative effects of those projects on traffic and, more importantly, Muni, since buses and cars share the same city streets, a reality the bike people routinely ignore.
 
Leafing through my hard copy of the 700-page DEIR, I count 56 traffic lanes that will be removed to make bike lanes for projects under the Option 1 proposals and only 12 under the Option 2 proposals; I count 1,914 parking spaces that will be removed to make bike lanes under Option 1 proposals and 1,169 under Option 2 proposals. In practice of course the city will choose a mix of different options, presumably depending on how disruptive the projects are to city traffic.

In short, the DEIR confirms what we tried to tell the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors way back in 2005: taking away traffic lanes and street parking not only will make traffic in San Francisco worse---obviously an environmental impact---but it's also clearly illegal to do so without any environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). We were dismissed contemptuously by both bodies and vilified by many in the city's political community when the Superior Court imposed the injunction against implementing the Bicycle Plan until the city completes an environmental review of the ambitious Plan.

The DEIR discusses that sequence of events:

In response to the approval of the 2005 Bicycle Plan Policy Framework, a concerned citizen sued the City, charging that the City did not conduct adequate environmental review of the project. In November 2006, a Superior Court judge ruled that the City must immediately stop all Bicycle Plan activity, including any improvements and policies approved and adopted under the plan. This injunction was to remain in effect until the City prepared an EIR on the Bicycle Plan Policy Framework, Network Improvement Document, and implementation phasing plan...Since the imposition of the injunction in 2006, City Staff have worked to refine the Bicycle Plan. Based on public input and dialogue with City staff and the SFMTA Board, the Bicycle Plan has been further refined and now includes the Network Improvement Document (page III-2, DEIR).

In fact the city did no environmental review of the Bicycle Plan at all, even though the "adequate" usage suggests otherwise. And there was also a preliminary injunction imposed by Judge Warren in June, 2006, before he retired, since we were able to show him that the city was implementing the Plan one street at a time even before the hearing on the merits of the litigation took place.

Note too that the DEIR includes the Network Improvement Document as part of the Bicycle Plan. From the beginning to the bitter end, the city insisted that the Network Document was not part of the Bicycle Plan, which, they implausibly claimed, was only the Framework Document passed unanimously by the Planning Commission and the BOS. The problem with that argument: every city document drafted before the litigation described the Bicycle Plan as consisting of both documents. The city tried to hide the Network Document over at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) disguised as a funding document, an obvious attempt at "piecemealing," prohibited under CEQA, which says you can't break a project into pieces to avoid environmental review of the whole project.

In an effort to keep both the Network Document and evidence of its duplicity out of the administrative record, the city argued that the SFCTA wasn't really a city agency and therefore their records and proceedings shouldn't be included in the record! The DEIR now calls making the Network Document---which contained nothing but detailed plans for the proposed bike projects----part of the Bicycle Plan a "refinement," even though in reality Judge Busch ordered the city to include the document in its environmental review of the Plan.
 
How are the "significant unavoidable impacts" on traffic calculated? By measuring the amount of time traffic takes to move through specific intersections:
 
The operating characteristics of signalized and unsignalized intersections are described by the concept of level of service (LOS). LOS is a qualitative description of the performance of an intersection based on the average delay per vehicle. Intersection LOS ranges from LOS A, which indicates free flow or excellent conditions with short delays, to LOS F, which indicates congested or overloaded conditions with extremely long delays (page V.A.3‐14, emphasis added).
 
Creating bicycle lanes on Second Street, Fifth Street, 14th Street, 17th Street, Division Street, Howard Street, Townsend Street, Cesar Chavez, Portola Drive, and Masonic Ave., among others, will create "congested or overloaded conditions with extremely long delays" on those streets.
 
Creating bike lanes will also have "a significant unavoidable impact" on "loading" on some streets. North Point Street is a good example :

Because there is heavy loading activity and frequent double‐parking along the mid‐section of this corridor, the removal of one westbound travel lane with Project 1‐3 could potentially increase the impact of this double‐parking on bicyclists and general traffic because the proposed bicycle lane and/or the single travel lane would be obstructed. Double parking along the single travel lane could potentially result in a safety issue because in order to bypass double‐parked trucks, vehicles would have to use the opposing lane which could lead to conflicts with oncoming vehicles. No designated yellow commercial freight loading spaces would be removed as part of Project 1‐3. However, as a result of Project 1‐3, there may be safety issues resulting from vehicles crossing into the opposing travel lane to navigate around double‐parked vehicles. Therefore, there would be a significant loading impact (pages V.A.3‐206, V.A.3-207).

That is, all the businesses on that part of North Point Street would find it difficult, if not impossible, to get deliveries if a lane is taken away to make a bike lane.

But the DEIR claims that the city can implement the Bicycle Plan even if it screws up traffic for everyone else that uses our streets:

Any project environmental impacts which cannot be mitigated to a level of less‐than‐significant are identified as significant and unavoidable impacts. The decision‐making body that reviews the EIR may adopt the Bicycle Plan even if significant and unavoidable impacts are identified, by citing “overriding considerations” which they believe to justify the approval of the Bicycle Plan even in light of the Plan’s potential to create significant and unavoidable impacts on the environment (page III-5).
 
My understanding, however, is that the city can't simply invoke "overriding considerations" to make the unavoidable significant impacts go away. Somewhere along the way they will have to show "substantial evidence"---that is, actual facts---to justify screwing up city traffic for everyone but a small minority of cyclists, not to mention the political danger this sort of arrogance would present to supervisors elected by district.

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