With a big assist from the state Legislature, the SF Planning Department opened a new front in the city’s density wars last week. On Thursday, staff asked the Planning Commission to eliminate “automobile delay,” measured by Level of Service (LOS), as a significant impact on the environment—that is, as a possible basis for a Environmental Impact Report—and to replace it with “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT).
That means that a proposed project could no longer be challenged on the basis of the traffic congestion it would generate.
Touted as an anti-sprawl policy, this change is really an aggressive pro-development maneuver that sacrifices on-the-ground quality of life to the dystopian fantasies of “smart” growth.
Unfortunately, for now the defenders of neighborhood livability have lost this battle. As planning staff observed, the switch is mandated by SB 743, which was passed by the California legislature in September 2013.
However, the state bureau that’s prepared the technical guidelines associated with the change, The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, has said that the new rules won’t be finalized until they’re certified by the California Natural Resources Agency in about a year.
Nevertheless, the Planning Commission voted 6-0 to adopt the replacement of LOS by VMT.
At the Planning and Conservation League’s annual conference at UC Davis on February 27, I asked OPR Senior Counsel Christopher Calfee how San Francisco could jump the gun. Nodding knowingly, Calfee said that because the city is also its own congestion-management agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, it has the authority to do this.
SFCTA — Not to be confused with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — is the sub-regional transportation planning programming agency for the city. Pursuant to state law, the Transportation Authority is a separate legal entity from the City and County of San Francisco, with its own staff, budget, operating rules, policies, borrowing capacity, board, and committee structure. But the agency is deeply enmeshed in the politics and governance of the city: its board comprises the Board of Supervisors. (The SFMTA board, appointed by the mayor, is just as deeply enmeshed.)
At the Planning Commission’s March 3 meeting, staff from Planning, the SFCTA, and the SFMTA filed up to the podium to urge adoption of the LOS-to-VMT switch. Genuflecting to smart growth, they argued that designating traffic congestion as an environmental impact privileges automobility and thereby encourages sprawl and discourages walking and biking. Traffic engineers grade the movement of cars through intersections; a grade of E or F could trigger an EIR and result in widening a street and removing sidewalks and bike lanes, they said.
The smart growthers’ larger argument against LOS is that speeding up car traffic is likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, they contend, limiting the distances people drive—and judging proposed developments by the amount of driving they’re likely to induce—addresses air quality and climate change.
Moreover, the traffic congestion standard puts infill projects at a disadvantage. By its very nature, infill is a latecomer to a place. In an already congested area, the traffic generated by a new infill project can easily tip the LOS into E or F territory, rendering the development vulnerable to a challenge from opponents on CEQA grounds. VMT, by contrast, is hospitable to infill, because infill increases density and mixes uses (housing, shops, offices), making it easier for people to do what they need to do without a car.
In a January 20 op-ed published in the Chronicle, Sarah Bernstein Jones, the Planning Department’s director of environmental planning and the city’s environmental review officer, offered the example of “a new development in the dense South of Market neighborhood with 300 new housing units and local retail on the ground floor.”
While a relatively small number of cars would be added as a result of this project, they would be in an area with highly congested intersections. Under current guidelines, this could lead to a conclusion that the project might add to traffic congestion and require several years and millions of dollars spent [by the developer] to prepare an environmental impact report.
If the same development were assessed on the basis of the amount and distance of automobile it would generate, no EIR would be required.