EIA reform in California: a LOS’t opportunity

by Dana Feingold

When a bill was introduced earlier this year in California lauded as the “CEQA Modernization Act of 2013,” smart growth and sustainable transportation advocates were cautiously optimistic about a reform bill that could align the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)more closely with statewide climate change and sustainable community goals (Lawson et al 2013).  The bill, SB 731, proposed changes in traffic analysis that would facilitate infill development and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by moving away from the antiquated traffic flow metric of level of service (LOS) in favor of a more holistic approach that would consider air quality, noise, safety, and overall mobility (Newton 2013).  Unfortunately, SB-731  was abruptly withdrawn in early September.

Shortly after the United States Federal Government enacted the National Environmental Priority Act in 1970, the state of California instituted the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.  CEQA aims to “regulate such activities [which are found to affect the quality of the environment] so that major consideration is given to preventing environmental damage,” and to “take all action necessary to protect, rehabilitate, and enhance the environmental quality of the state” (California Public Resources Code, 2012).  However, in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that one key aspect of the Act no longer helps to achieve those goals.  SB 731 aimed to address this issue: traffic level of service analysis.

In environmental impact assessment, significant traffic impacts are often identified based on level of service, or LOS.  According to the US Transportation Research Board’s Highway Capacity Manual, a standard reference for transportation planners and engineers, LOS is a qualitative measurement that describes operational conditions within a traffic stream in terms of “speed and travel time, freedom to maneuver, traffic interruptions, and comfort and convenience” (National Research Council, 2000).  LOS standards use letters A through F to identify different categories of traffic flow, as illustrated in the above image.  The manual goes on to explain that “safety is not included in the measures that establish service levels” (ibid).  Despite this glaring shortfall, LOS is the standard of choice for defining traffic impacts under CEQA in California.

Level of Service

Image source: Safe Routes to School in California <http://saferoutescalifornia.org/2012/06/25/goodbye-to-los/&gt;

When using LOS to assess a project’s impacts, traffic delay is implicated as a key environmental impact that often requires mitigation.  Mitigation measures include the widening of roads, the adding of lanes, and changes in traffic light configuration.  In doing so, traffic flow is put above pedestrians, bicycles, and emissions issues.  Crosswalks, bike lanes, and dedicated bus lanes are made to look bad for the environment because they slow down traffic.  As a result, sprawling, spread-out communities are preferred over infill development, even though studies have shown that a shift from sprawl to infill development actually tends to reduce vehicle travel and emissions (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2007).  Infill development, which is the development of vacant or underutilized parcels in an area that is already built up, is a commonly-accepted tenet of smart growth and a potential casualty of LOS-focused transportation analysis (Farris, 2001).

There is a clear need to move away from the car-centric LOS as the primary indicator of adverse traffic impacts.  Even a project that proposes to build a bike lane needs be measured based on how it would affect the flow of automobile traffic, rather than how it would affect air pollution or public safety!  To truly move towards sustainability, we need to reduce dependence on cars – not just in our daily lives, but in our environmental policy as well.  California had an opportunity to lead the way towards a more sustainable environmental assessment policy, but it failed.  Who will be next to step up to the plate?

California Public Resources Code. (2012.)  California Environmental Quality Act, Section 21000 et seq. Retrieved from http://ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/docs/CEQA_Handbook_2012_wo_covers.pdf

Farris, J. T. (2001). “The barriers to using urban infill development to achieve smart growth”. Housing Policy Debate 12 (1): 1–30.

Lawson, Kristina; McShane, Brady; Matsler, Sean; Costigan, Richard. (2013, 23 May.)  CEQA Reform? What’s In and What’s Out with SB 731 (And What’s Next…).  Retrieved from http://www.manatt.com/Real_Estate_and_Land_Use/CEQA_Reform__What_s_In_and_What_s_Out_with_SB_731_(And_What_s_Next___).aspx

National Research Council (U.S.) Transportation Research Board.  (2000.) HCM 2000: Highway Capacity Manual.  pp. 2-2, 2-3.

Newton, Damien.  (2013, September 11.)  CEQA Reform Update: Is this the End for LOS?  Retrieved from http://la.streetsblog.org/2013/09/11/ceqa-reform-update-is-this-the-end-for-los/

United States Environmental Protection Agency.  (2007, November.)  Measuring the Air Quality and Transportation Impacts of Infill Development, EPA 231-R-07-001. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/pdf/transp_impacts_infill.pdf

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