Sunday, January 28, 2007

Andy Thornley: "The city hasn't cheated with its bike plan."


Your Jan. 16 piece (below in italics) on the injunction against the city on the Bicycle Plan is ill-informed. If you had talked to me before writing it, I could have helped you improve it with some actual facts. Most important is this fact: Judge Busch's decision ordering the city to do an EIR on the Bicycle Plan had nothing to do with LOS or the contents of the plan itself. He ruled against the city because the city did no environmental study of the 460-page Bicycle Plan at all, which is of course required under CEQA. 

The thing about CEQA is that it makes no distinction between private developers motivated solely by greed and governments that supposedly have the public good in mind: Any project that might have a significant impact on the city's environment must at least have an initial environmental study.

You quote the SF Bicycle Coalition's Andy Thornley, who refers to the city and the SFBC as "we." The SFBC is not a city agency, though the city has improperly allowed them to operate as if they are. The SFBC is in fact an advocacy group operating as a de facto city agency, which is highly improper, if not illegal. The SFBC played a major role in formulating the Bicycle Plan, even though, as an advocacy group, they had a large stake in both the contents of the Plan and the eventual outcome of the process: They were even given $300,000 in public funds to do the public "outreach" for the Plan. 

Thornley says, "The City hasn't cheated with its bike plan." It did in fact try to cheat the public in how it rushed the Bicycle Plan through the process without any environmental review, which was clearly illegal, as Judge Busch pointed out in his decision.

Rob Anderson
By Fran Taylor, 
Member of Walk San Francisco, 
Jan 16, 2007

An injunction to delay the citywide bike plan is called a simple procedural ruling by the individual who sought it. Press coverage implies that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is simply trying to pull a fast one, slithering out of its responsibility to air public comment. The issues involved, however, are actually mind-numbingly complex. Non-wonks may feel overwhelmed by acronyms as they try to understand the arcane arguments discussed before Judge Peter Busch. Some arguments may not make sense because they, well, don't make sense. The key is a technical measurement called automobile level of service (LOS) used to assess whether California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements have been met. Grades from A for free-flowing traffic to F for gridlock assess only the movement of cars. Using this system, the environment improves when sidewalks or trees are cut back to add traffic lanes, and it worsens when safety measures slow cars. Pollution from idling autos becomes the fault of pedestrians who demand a longer crossing time, for example, and not of drivers running their engines. Judge Busch didn't say that LOS is good or bad, said bike coalition program director Andy Thornley. Busch ruled that the bike plan is sufficiently ambitious that it needs a deeper environmental review than the seven-page CEQA exemption it received in 2005.

“[I]t is unfortunate that the plaintiff is using the state's environmental regulations to delay positive environmental progress,” said bike coalition director Leah Shahum in a press release issued after Busch's ruling in early November.

Well-meaning laws with high-sounding titles have been hijacked for contradictory use before. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1868, declared blacks to be citizens and was originally intended to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. But social and economic reality limited these protections. Instead, wording in the amendment interpreted to define a corporation as a “person” became widely used to expand corporate power. Of 150 cases citing the amendment in the late 19th century, 135 involved the rights of corporations and only 15 considered racial discrimination.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco director of occupational and environmental health, considers LOS a question of public health. “Transportation is responsible for 59% of California's greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bhatia's 2005 report, Automobile Level of Service: A Liability for Health and Environmental Quality. “For people aged one to 40, traffic injuries are the single greatest cause of disability and death. In 2002, San Francisco had over 5000 injuries involving motor vehicles.” 

Bhatia cites studies linking automobiles to respiratory illness and excess levels of noise and others that associate walking and bicycling with lowered incidence of stress, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. “Improving LOS corresponds to increasing speed,” the report says. Increased speed correlates directly with severity of injury to pedestrians. LOS measurements are even used for pedestrian movement, which Walk San Francisco has criticized as ludicrous. A deserted street that feels creepy and unsafe wins an A, while a bustling, vibrant commercial strip gets dinged for impeded movement, even though the individual walker may enjoy the social contact. The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last April declaring that “automobile LOS analysis alone is not an appropriate metric for assessing environmental impacts...” The mayor signed the bill two days later.

But LOS reform failed to avert the injunction delaying the bike plan. For now, the City can't so much as install a bike rack on a sidewalk. Cyclists are dismayed that CEQA, a law passed in 1969 requiring state and local agencies to identify and avoid or mitigate environmental impacts, is being used to validate the argument that anything that slows automobile traffic increases congestion and tailpipe emissions and thus harms the environment. They support gathering environmental impact information for specific projects but consider a general philosophical EIR a waste of time and money.

“The City hasn't cheated with its bike plan,” Thornley said. “We've actually been quite timid in pushing the question of creating safe bike and pedestrian right-of-way versus maintaining easy auto movement under CEQA. If taking back street space for bikes means reducing car capacity a little bit, that's a good thing environmentally. The city will now carry out a full environmental impact report to establish to what degree providing safe right-of-way for bicyclists might injure the environment. The process could take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars analyzing how much we're inconveniencing motorists. And when it's done, we'll be right back where we've been all along, struggling to make safe space for humans among the cars.”

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