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Want a bike lane in your neighborhood? It's not so simple in California

For many years, Berkeley bike advocates have pushed for their own lane on a two-block stretch of Fulton Street. The conditions seem ripe for one. It would connect two existing bike lanes in a bustling area between UC Berkeley and downtown. Bike racks already line the sidewalk.

But when asked, the city delivered an answer the advocates say they have heard time and again: The bike lane couldn’t go in because of the state’s premier environmental law.

The California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, has stymied bike lanes up and down the state for more than a decade. Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco have faced lawsuits, years of delay and abandoned projects because the environmental law’s restrictions often require costly traffic studies, lengthy public hearings and major road reconfigurations before bike lanes are installed.

All told, bicycle advocates say the law has blocked hundreds of miles of potential bike lanes across the state.

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“The environmental law is hugely frustrating,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director for Bike East Bay, which has pushed for the Fulton Street bike lane. “It’s a law that allows you to say no. It’s not a law that lets you say yes.” 

The bike lane issue is just one frustration state leaders have faced in trying to overhaul CEQA. Gov. Jerry Brown has called efforts to reform the law “the Lord’s work.” Major efforts in recent years to make it easier to build urban residential development and reduce businesses' costs under CEQA have failed. 

But as lawmakers face difficulty in changing the landmark law, a solution appears to be on its way for bike lanes. Thanks to a provision tucked into a bill that allowed the Sacramento Kings arena to be built more than two years ago, bike lanes might finally get a green light. 

The issue has festered for a long time. A decade ago, a lawsuit against San Francisco's citywide bike plan stalled the city's plans to add more than 30 miles of bike lanes for several years. After that lawsuit, Los Angeles decided to conduct a full environmental review of its master bike plan to ward off potential legal challenges. And two years ago, a neighborhood activist in San Diego sued under CEQA after the city painted a bike lane on a main road.

Even without the threat of litigation, the environmental law can stop bike lanes in their tracks. When city of Oakland officials wanted to narrow a wide road near a major transit station and add two bike lanes, they realized it would be difficult to comply with the environmental law’s rules and didn’t proceed, said Jason Patton, Oakland’s bike program manager. About a decade later, the road remains a six-lane highway. 

“CEQA is an incredible burden to doing work in urban areas,” Patton said. “And I say that as a committed environmentalist.”

The environmental law requires proponents of new projects — including bike lanes — to measure the effect the project would have on car congestion. When a traffic lane is taken out in favor of a bike lane, more congestion could result along that road. That result can put proposed bike lanes in peril. And traffic studies to show whether installing a bike lane would lead to greater congestion can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, cities won’t bother with the effort. 

Twice in recent years, state legislators have passed laws aimed at making it easier for bike lanes to dodge the environmental law’s restrictions. Bike advocates say these efforts have helped, but because they have not eliminated requirements to produce traffic studies and hold public hearings, they haven’t fixed the problem.

Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, said his organization was preparing to lobby legislators to propose another bill on the matter when SB 743 emerged in late 2013.

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FOR THE RECORD

Bike lanes: In the April 7 California section, an article about an environmental law that has hindered the creation of bike lanes misidentified the California Bicycle Coalition as the California Bicycle Assn.

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That bill’s main purpose was to exempt the new Sacramento Kings basketball arena from lengthy review under the environmental law. But tucked into the measure was a provision that changed the way projects would gauge their effects on traffic under CEQA. Once SB 743 passed, Snyder dropped his own proposal.

“It solves our problem completely,” he said.

The new law says that traffic congestion is no longer the preferred metric to be used. In its place, cities will measure how much a project impacts the number of miles cars will travel along nearby roads. Since replacing a traffic lane with a bike lane won’t increase the number of cars on the road, the new standard should allow cities to install bike lanes without environmental conflict. 

Now the standards must be put into place. SB 743 called on the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research — a state agency that handles guidelines related to the environmental law — to write the new traffic rules. More than two years have passed, and the agency is still writing them. 

Based on state regulators’ current schedule, the Kings will have built and started playing in their new arena before the traffic guidelines will have gone into effect in early 2017. 

By changing the way all projects measure automobile traffic, environmentalists and urbanists hope the new regulations will lead to fewer car-centered developments and help the state meet its climate change goals. Others fear the new rules will derail projects already in the pipeline. The Southern California Association of Governments, a regional planning organization with jurisdiction over 18 million people in and around Los Angeles, is warning that the new traffic rules could endanger major plans for highway widening.

Darrell Steinberg, the former Democratic leader of the state Senate who authored SB 743, said it was difficult to understand the consequences of changing the environmental law. Dealing with CEQA, Steinberg said, was the hardest thing he did as a legislator.

“You take any substantive provision of CEQA and an advocate can credibly cite an example where that provision was used to save an environmental treasure,” Steinberg said. “You take the same provision and someone from the other side can cite an example where it was misused in some way.”

In February, a car hit and dragged a Berkeley research scientist on Fulton Street as she was cycling home after work, causing major injuries. After that accident, there were renewed calls for a bike lane, but Berkeley city officials again cited the state environmental law as the reason one couldn’t go in immediately. 

Campbell and other bike advocates continued pushing until Berkeley’s mayor finally said the city would do whatever necessary to install a lane by May due to the safety concerns. If the city hadn’t, Campbell said, his group had an alternative in mind. 

“We said if you don’t do it, we’re doing it,” Campbell said. “We have paint.”

liam.dillon@latimes.com

Follow @dillonliam on Twitter

ALSO:

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Sacramento lawmakers seek last-minute CEQA exemption for Kings arena

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