Monday, November 20, 2006

Leah Shahum: "Environmental laws are being perverted..."

Leah Shahum, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coaliton, seems to think the City of San Francisco and the SFBC are exempt from state law, which, in any event, is allegedly being twisted to delay implementation of the Bicycle Plan:

We're frustrated. We've got a case here where the environmental laws are being perverted in a way that is not helping the environment and not helping the city of San Francisco (SF Examiner, Nov. 9). I'm surprised and disappointed that the environmental regulations can be twisted this way---to slow down a plan that obviously is a pro-environment action (SF Chronicle, Nov. 9). While it is unfortunate that the plaintiff is using the state's environmental regulations to delay positive environmental progress by slowing implementation of the Bike Plan, we have to act decisively to show our commitment to be a more sustainable and healthy City...Our local environmental review process is not very environmental. This court ruling highlights the problems in the system. If we are going to be a truly green city, we must update the way we make transportation decisions in San Francisco (SFBC website).

Note the lack of legal specifics in Shahum's account of the Superior Court decision two weeks ago. The law that we convinced Judge Busch that the city was violating is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a state law that requires both private developers and government agencies to do environmental review of projects to determine whether they will affect the environment. 

How exactly did we "pervert" that law to convince Judge Busch to rule in our favor? You are not likely to get a sensible answer from Shahum. All she knows is that Bikes are Good because they don't burn fossil fuel. Never mind that the city did no environmental review before it started implementing the ambitious, 460-page Bicycle Plan one street at a time in the city.

Shahum and the SFBC are also trying to denigrate the seriousness of the city's legal defeat by describing the decision as merely "a narrow question of process under CEQA," that the city just "did not comply with the procedural requirements" of CEQA. "Let's not let a few NIMBY neighbors derail plans for better biking on a technicality." 

The reality is that CEQA is essentially all about process, since it provides a checklist of what has to be done before projects are implemented in the State of California. The city has not been rebuked on a legal technicality. It lost on the essential point being litigated under the state's most important environmental law.

Judge Busch's decision harshly criticized the city's tactic of trying to piecemeal in the Plan with no environmental review:

Such reasoning is akin to trying to avoid review of a timber harvest plan by removing trees one at a time, claiming each tree removal to be independent and exempt. At the end of the process the forest would be gone or the entire City streetscape reconfigured without environmental review ever having happened.

Busch also noted that "the Court is not required to shut its eyes to the reality of the situation." Finally, the judge ruled that "The Record shows that the Bicycle Plan, considered as a whole, may have a potentially significant effect on the environment."

Then there is this SFBC statement: "Our local environmental review process is not very environmental. If we are going to be a truly green city, we must update the way we make transportation decisions in San Francisco." Translation: The SFBC wants to do away with the "level of service" (LOS) method of measuring traffic congestion in San Francisco. LOS measures traffic by timing how long it takes traffic to move through intersections, otherwise known as traffic jams.

The SFBC calls this sensible, quantifiable approach to traffic study "over-sensitivity to automobile drivers' experience" because "taking pavement away from private motorcars can potentially diminish the 'Level of Service' (LOS) experienced by auto drivers below a failing-grade threshold of convenience." Translation: "Screw drivers---and Muni passengers and emergency vehicles---If we don't have to measure traffic jams, we can take away traffic lanes anywhere we want to make bike lanes."

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