Friday, February 17, 2012

LA's bicycle plan: "We looked at what was happening in San Francisco"


Photo by Sharon Mollerus

Smart Planet's article on bicycle plans and the environment (Are bicycle lanes really green? Some city residents see red, below in italics) tells us that our successful litigation is now a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions.

The litigation that forced the city to do the legally required environmental review of its ambitious Bicycle Plan has prompted Los Angeles to do an EIR of their plan before they suffer the same fate as San Francisco. 

While Anderson’s fight over bike lanes began as a neighborhood issue, the impact of his lawsuit is having a ripple effect in other places. The most dramatic example is in Villaraigosa’s Los Angeles where, fearing similar lawsuits, the city put the brakes on its biggest bike lane projects to conduct the costly environmental review Anderson’s suit forced San Francisco to do.

Though San Francisco's Bicycle Plan was always a citywide project, not "a neighborhood issue," L.A. will save money by following the law in the beginning and avoid losing in court, which is what would happen if they made the same mistake as San Francisco.

The writer makes an issue of the lack of studies showing that bike lanes cause pollution, but that puts it backwards: With California's most important environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the burden of proof is on those supporting a project to show that it won't have an impact on the environment. Under CEQA if a project clearly will have an impact on the environment, its proponents must propose mitigations.

And there's an important part of CEQA that the bike lobby and other developers often ignore: public notification and participation in the environmental review process:

Yet some do see a benefit in slowing down the process and taking a longer look at these projects in major cities, as well as giving the public more time to comment. “The benefit of CEQA review is it does slow things down and allows the public to more fully engage in the process,” L.A.’s Bowen said. “When you just go and put something out there and the public’s not prepared for it, there’s a backlash.”

Are bicycle lanes really green? Some city residents see red
By Jason Dearen
February 16, 2012

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pedaled his bicycle in a bike-only lane in Venice Beach when a taxicab swerved suddenly and stopped in front of him. The mayor clutched his brakes but it was too late. He fell and broke his elbow.

When the mayor’s accident made headlines in July 2010, the incident energized the city’s cyclists and bike commuters around Los Angeles’ ambitious plans to make 1,600 miles of bike lanes in this auto-centric metropolis. Yet little progress has been made in the year and a half since the mayor’s fall because of an unlikely hurdle: California’s environmental laws.

Much of the blame — or kudos, depending on where your politics lie — for the delays can be placed on Rob Anderson, a 69-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard who lives 400 miles north in San Francisco. To the fixed-geared hipsters and bicycle utopians he’s a pariah. The city’s cycling boosters have called him a “magnificent jerk” for standing in the way of safer streets for cyclists, a “scumbag” and a “cynical dickhead” in comments on his blog.

Anderson has heard it all since 2006, when he successfully sued San Francisco over its bike plans, arguing the city had not done a proper environmental study as required by state law. While the city had spent years preparing to line its streets with bike lanes, a judge agreed with Anderson and forced San Francisco to stop implementing its bike plan for more than three years in order to finish the costly review.

“The city insists on screwing up our streets on behalf of the Bicycle Coalition and a small, obnoxious minority of bike people. It’s political correctness run amok,” said Anderson, sitting in a café in the Western Addition neighborhood, where he lives and writes his muckraking blog “District 5 Diary.”

Bike advocates called the ruling a “perversion” of state environmental laws and blamed Anderson for blocking an “obviously pro-environment action.”

While Anderson’s fight over bike lanes began as a neighborhood issue, the impact of his lawsuit is having a ripple effect in other places. The most dramatic example is in Villaraigosa’s Los Angeles where, fearing similar lawsuits, the city put the brakes on its biggest bike lane projects to conduct the costly environmental review Anderson’s suit forced San Francisco to do.

The irony is not lost on city leaders or bicyclists, whose collaborations to improve bike lanes in one of the world’s largest, most polluted metropolitan areas are being stymied because of California’s Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. In essence, the law requires a thorough study of any project that will effect traffic on any street. And while the jury’s out about whether bike lanes have any long-lasting negative impacts on auto traffic, or air pollution for that matter, most experts think increasing cycling cleans the air and reduces traffic. But the law is clear.

“The city knew there was a problem with environmental clearance,” said Claire Bowen, city planner of Los Angeles. “Then we looked at what was happening in San Francisco.

“It’s an obstacle, and you have to work with that process to look at ways to make it work. To me, it’s all part of the mountain you’re climbing,” Bowen said. “But that’s the challenge. We recognize the irony and we are being cognizant of that.”

DO BIKE LANES INCREASE POLLUTION?
Second Street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood is often congested during rush hour. It leads drivers through narrow urban canyons to the Bay Bridge, which heads east to Oakland.

Some residents and small business owners in the neighborhood have expressed worries in public comments at meetings and in local press accounts about the plan, saying that removing lanes and parking spaces will worsen traffic and their air quality. But there is scant scientific evidence to support the theory that bike lanes worsen traffic and therefore air pollution.

The key to determining a bike lane’s effect on the traffic of any given street lies in monitoring the use of a roadway. Officials study a road’s so-called “level of service,” which calculates how many cars use the road during certain hours and gives that road a grade, A through F, with an F being gridlocked rush hour traffic.

But this level of service equation does not take into account the road’s other uses: pedestrians, bicycles or other alternative forms of transport. City planners and bike advocates say this oversight has caused too many simple bike lane projects to be forced into long environmental reviews — that if you look at all the uses of the roadway, the grades would be higher and need for environmental review lower.

“Really what the issue is, is that [environmental] guidelines designed by cities hit this trigger that requires an environmental review, and we want to get them away from that antiquated model,” said Alexis Lantz, a city planner who is planning and program director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

“If you want to improve the air quality of our communities, you should make it more possible for people to get as quickly as possible from point A to point B.”

The little science that has been done on this topic points to what most people have figured out from common sense: that increasing bicycle infrastructure in cities can reduce traffic and bolster public health. Many of the studies that have been done have been undertaken by the very cities seeking to implement the lanes, so can be skewed toward getting the project approved.

A recent independent study in the journal Preventive Medicine looked at 14 cities – including Portland, Ore., Paris and Muenster, Germany — with bike plans.

“The combined evidence presented in these studies indicates that the health benefits of bicycling far exceed the health risks from traffic injuries, contradicting the widespread misperception that bicycling is a dangerous activity,” the study found. “Moreover, as bicycling levels increase, injury rates fall, making bicycling safer and providing even larger net health benefits.”

The university town of Davis in northern California has one of the highest rates of bicycling in the nation, with 17 percent of its 64,000 residents using a bike to commute to work and 41 percent calling bikes their primary mode of transportation, according to a study by the Bicycle Federation of America.

Susan Handy, who teaches environmental policy and planning in the University of California, Davis’ Transportation Technology and Policy Program, said bike lanes could potentially cause more air pollution if they resulted in stop-and-go traffic.

But, Handy added, “I do not know of a general study that tests this possibility, but many cities have modeled the effect of bicycle lanes before installing them and found little effect on traffic.”

MIXED MESSAGES
While environmental regulations can require in-depth studies, state governments are often also huge supporters of increasing cycling in cities.

California’s Air Resource Board Web site supports increasing biking and estimates that about 7 tons of smog-forming gases and almost a ton of inhalable particles are spared from the air each day due to use of bicycles rather than motor vehicles.

And even when a city does a complete environmental review as required under state law (and federal law if the project receives any federal money), it is unclear if the money and time spent were worth it.

“My opinion is that the bicycle lane projects that have been challenged as needing full CEQA review have been carefully considered by planners and the public as a part of developing the city’s bicycle plan and are likely to have no net negative impact on the environment,” Handy said, “and so the time and money spent on an (environmental review) for these projects is not well spent.”

Even Anderson acknowledges that after his successful lawsuit forced San Francisco’s environmental review, the city’s final bike plan did little to assuage his concerns.

“The environmental impact review on the bicycle plan admits that it will make traffic worse, but the city figures that’s an acceptable trade-off for encouraging more people to ride bikes. But the city has no evidence that screwing up traffic for everyone but cyclists will lead to a significant increase in cycling,” Anderson said. “It’s a faith-based exercise in transportation policy.”

In Los Angeles, the delays in the wake of Anderson’s suit in San Francisco have led to a call for statewide reform of its environmental laws under CEQA to exempt bicycle projects. Officials in both cities underwent years of planning and were on the cusp of painting in their new lanes when they stopped for more environmental review. Yet some do see a benefit in slowing down the process and taking a longer look at these projects in major cities, as well as giving the public more time to comment.

“The benefit of CEQA review is it does slow things down and allows the public to more fully engage in the process,” L.A.’s Bowen said. “When you just go and put something out there and the public’s not prepared for it, there’s a backlash.”

As for Anderson, there is some satisfaction in knowing that his lawsuit has had ripple effects elsewhere. “That’s very wise,” he said of Los Angeles’ decision to halt plans and undergo CEQA review. “It shows that it only takes one neighborhood group.”

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13 Comments:

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go FUCK YOURSELF

 
At 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MO for the sfbc...make driving a car a horrible experience.

 
At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, driving sucks because of the SFBC and not because driving just plain sucks. Nope, blame anyone but yourself.

 
At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for you work Rob. Certainly don't agree with everything (!) you post but I do appreciate your diligence and fairness.

 
At 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What "work" does Rob do? Since his lawsuit ended and the City got back to work, he's done nothing but blog. That and 99c will get you a hot dog at Costco.

Rob Anderson is irrellevant.

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger Nato said...

I disagree. Rob was pretty influential in making planning for bicycles more expensive and take longer. It would have happened anyway once someone somewhere sued in a similar fashion, but Rob was in the vanguard.

 
At 10:05 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You ignore the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which has been in effect since 1970. It's a good law that requires developers and jurisdictions to do an environmental review of any of their projects that might have an impact on the environment. Traffic is usually the most significant impact that projects have to deal with. Housing developments, hotels, shopping malls, etc. all have to do traffic studies to determine the impact those developments are going to have.

The Bicycle Plan is in fact a big project that will eliminate more than 50 traffic lanes and 2,000 parking spaces from city streets. City Hall should have done an EIR on the Plan, and they knew that. We warned them at the time that what they were doing was illegal. They obviously thought they could get away with not following the law and doing the required study. We busted them, and you bike people have been whining about it ever since. After all, you don't burn fossil fuel, so why should you be subject to the same laws as everyone else?

Following the law was only made a lot more expensive for SF because they didn't follow it in the first place. After City Hall lost in court, they had to pay our lawyer's fees, which is what happens when you lose in court. Then they had to do the EIR that the court ordered them to do.

Before the city finished the EIR and got the court to lift the injunction, City Hall tried three times to get Judge Busch to lift the injunction. We successfully opposed those attempts to do an end-run around the injunction, which means that the city will have to pay our lawyer again for that wasteful, politically-motivated attempt to skirt the law.

City Hall has behaved without principle throughout this whole process, pressured by the Bicycle Coalition, Mayor Newsom, and our "progressive" Board of Supervisors to flout the law.

 
At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

City Hall has behaved without principle

So did Ghandi and Martin Luther King apparently - because they also did not follow a shitty law.

 
At 4:25 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

City Hall didn't follow the law in this instance because, in the first place, they thought doing so would save money.

In the second place, City Hall assumed that no one would challenge the city in court. After all, who in Progressive Land is skeptical about bicycle projects? Dave Snyder, former head of the Bicycle Coaltion laid out the strategy in 2004 that the city followed exactly, remarking in passing that "Nobody will contest this." He was wrong about that, as it turned out.

CEQA is a good law, since it requires developers to study the impact their projects will have on the environment before they are implemented. A variation of CEQA is used to regulate the timber industry, where loggers are required to study the impact a timber harvest plan will have on the watershed and wildlife.

 
At 9:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Requiring developers to study the impact their projects will have on the environment before they are implemented is good.

CEQA does not do a good job of accomplishing that aim. Ergo, it's a shitty law.

QED.

 
At 9:02 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Oh, okay. Thanks for straightening me out on that.

 
At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last 50 yrs of development w/ no CEQA.

Now we have CEQA to maintain the auto-centric status quo.

It's a bullshit law.

 
At 5:51 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

And this is a bullshit comment.

 

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