Monday, April 19, 2021
News + Politics No CEQA review for Uber

No CEQA review for Uber

City admits that the impact of all these new cars on the streets doesn't qualify as an environmental impact


Our March 13 story about San Francisco’s replacement of traffic congestion as an environmental impact with the number of vehicle miles traveled that a new project is expected to generate (VMT), elicited an interesting comment:


What’s impossible to measure, and has skirted any CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] study, is the increased traffic from Uber (14,000 drivers by its own admission), Lyft (ditto), Chariot (privatizing Muni), tech buses, and all manner of poverty-gig deliveries: Postmates, TaskRabbit, Munchery, Caviar, Sprig, InstaCart, Breeze, OrderAhead, SpoonRocket, Lugg, WorkGenius, Eat24, Instawash, etc., not to mention Amazon one-hour delivery, Safeway, and on and on.

Rich folks can stay in the condo and own no car, while a Shanghai-like cesspool of traffic roars below. Crave a cup of gourmet yogurt? Poor saps will underbid each other for the privilege of double-parking in gridlock and rushing it to your lobby in hopes of a tip.

I know this is slightly off topic, but this is what’s really happening on the streets of SF.

Uber driver blocks the bike lane on Valencia
Uber driver blocks the bike lane on Valencia

It seemed right on topic to me, and I forwarded Ragazzu’s remarks to 48 hills editor Tim Redmond. He emailed back:

I can tell you from personal experience that there are many thousands more cars on the city streets thanks to Uber. I can’t even ride my bike home on Valencia, where there’s a bike lane, on a Friday or Saturday night because the Ubers block the bike lane and swerve in and out of traffic.

This is a nice irony. Many of the same organizations that support the replacement of traffic congestion as an environmental impact by vehicle miles traveled—Greenbelt Alliance, TransForm, the Natural Resources Defense Council—also laud Uber and other so-called transportation network companies (TNCs) for potentially reducing millions of single-occupancy vehicle car trips and greenhouse gas emissions. Now it turns out that the TNCs are not only clogging San Francisco’s streets—that’s fine by these groups—but also blocking bicycle lanes—presumably not fine by them.

Is Ragazzu right? Are the single-occupancy vehicle car trips made by Uber et al., along with those made by “gig-poverty” delivery services, not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, our state’s premier environmental law?

I asked Chris Ganson, the staffer at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, who’d conducted a February webinar about the state-mandated switch to VMT, how VMT is calculated for transportation network companies such as Uber and Lfyt, and for app-based delivery services such as Muncerhy, Instacart, and Amazon one-day delivery.

Ganson replied:

For how VMT is measured in San Francisco, I would recommend reaching out to the planning staff who are operationalizing this change there. A person to start with might be Wade Wietgrefe, who has been working to developing their implementation to VMT in CEQA.

I forwarded Ganson’s reply to Wietgrefe. The next day I got an email from Planning Department Communications Manager Gina Simi saying that Wietgrefe and San Francisco Director of Environmental Planning Sarah Jones had asked her to tell me, astonishingly, that the traffic generated by TNCs and app-based delivery services is not a CEQA issue, which is to say, it is not potentially subject to an Environmental Impact Report and lawsuit.

The Environmental Planning division of the Planning Department assesses the environmental impacts of projects/approvals/legislation that are proposed by private sponsors and/or City departments for approval.  The activities you mention, such as TNCs or app-based delivery services, are not subject to permits or approvals for their operations.  Therefor CEQA is not part of the equation for their operations in that we have no basis to assess their impacts under CEQA.  If a company that provides such services is seeking some sort of approvals in the future that are connected to their operations, we would try to calculate the VMT that would result.

So Ragazzu is right.

And in a follow-up email Simi not only confirmed my understanding that right now, the Planning Department doesn’t know how many vehicle miles traveled these companies are generating, but added that “government agencies that do regulate them are having a hard time getting the companies to share data in order to estimate vehicle miles.”

Simi also said that the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is participating in a study led by UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center as to whether transportation network companies add or reduce vehicle trips “onto the network” in San Francisco and other cities in the U.S. I’ve asked both agencies for more information about the study.

Among the issues here: Do TNCs encourage people to stop driving cars – or do they encourage people to stop using transit? Walk around San Francisco any weekend and you get plenty of evidence for the latter: Young people who not long ago would have taken a bus or BART home from a restaurant or bar now rely almost entirely on Uber or Lyft. That’s clogging the streets and hurting the environment.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Assemblymembers David Chiu and Phil Ting are supporting AB 828, which would exempt TNC drivers from needing commercial license plates, by “exclud[ing] from the definition of ‘motor vehicles’” any vehicle that is

  • operated in connection with a transportation network company that is
  • operated for passenger service only and is limited to seven passengers excluding the driver;
  • operated exclusively by the person to whom the vehicle is registered or insured;
  • not a paratransit vehicle not operated for public transit services;
  • not operated for school bus services.

According to the analysis provided to the State Assembly, the bill’s author, State Senator Jim Beall, representing the 15th State Senate District (Silicon Valley) and chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, says that encouraging TNCs “reduces vehicle trips, total vehicle miles driven and the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.”

AB 828’s other supporters include the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Lyft, Uber, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (like the TNCs, a non-union shop), the Orange County Business Council, the Planning and Conservation League, SPUR, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents include the Sacramento Taxi Workers Alliance, the San Jose Taxi Drivers Association, the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, and the California Labor Federation.



  1. No no, my point was that if this is a non-CEQA requirement of taxi fleets, it seems like it should apply to TNCs… I guess my point is that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, regulate it like a duck, regardless of the source of the regulatory power.

    It irks me that long ago we realized the necessity of regulating the number of taxis on the road to avoid congestion, and yet these companies are allowed to basically mint medallions at unlimited quantities.

  2. well, that’s capitalism; a little judgmental on people not living in SF – that 925/916 comment is a bit nasty: are they all “underemployed wannabes” such mean comments distract and repel the reader

  3. One, it isn’t sharing. No matter how much Uber says it is.
    Two you obviously don’t understand how the gypsy cab companies have created a race for the bottom for wages precisely by getting lots more cars on the street.

  4. Ummmm ride sharing services mean that there are less cars on the streets, not more. Its terrible when facts get in the way of your agenda…but that never stopped Zelda.

  5. It’s not the same. Taxis and trucks have commercial plates and are taxed accordingly. Right now, any underemployed wannabee from the 925/916 can stick a light-up U in their car and hang a cell phone from their rear-view mirror and pick passengers in San Francisco for profit without paying a nickel for road use

  6. I’ve taken to photographing gypsy cabs in bike lanes and crosswalks and send them to the appropriate “technology” company. Uber and/or Lyft always write back thanking me and saying they will contact the driver. I don’t know if they do, but I am happy to fill the customer service in box with lots of emails.

    I’ve also contacted both Uber and Lyft about the “technology” company identifying logos in the windows of their “consultants” cars. In many cases the stickers are violations of the vehicle code because they are too large and/or in an area of the windshield where they are not permitted.. It has yet to make a difference, as far as I can tell. But, when I get hit by one of the drivers that can’t see me (should the driver actually care about seeing others, which I doubt), I will have documentation that the “technology” companies have been made aware of the violations by their “consultants” and have failed to act.

  7. Agreed. This is a governmental dysfunction that’s not limited to SF. Lots of things in government are hard and defie straight forward solutions, but controling traffic (congestion tax) and paying for transportation infrastructure (gas tax) aren’t among them. Yet US politicians are allergic to both, preferring to instead to roll-out more miles of roads to the US’ already crumbling auto-mobile oriented transportation infrastructure to address the former which they pretend doesn’t exacerbate the latter, which the perennially continue to under fund.

    Of course in the case of SF the solution offered by local politicians isn’t more roads (good on them for that at least), but rather the scape goat: techies. Their solutions therefore are devising ways to keep them from moving into the city or to get them to leave once here: if we can only shut down the Google buses and Uber we can send them all flocking to San Jose!

  8. So, only taxis are commercial vehicles? Only taxi drivers need a chauffeur’s license? The idea of riding with a non-licensed driver in a non-licensed and inspected vehicle with someone that has not been vetted properly doesn’t make me feel safe.

  9. its the same people using the roads for free driving and free parking. Why not make all roads toll roads?

  10. LOL funny fake name. Was that a CEQA issue? Just because its not a CEQA issue doesn’t mean the city cant require it. If you are saying there was a CEQA component of that, can you point me to the EIR? Thanks

  11. Aren’t taxi fleets in CA required to be comprised of a certain number of hybrids / low-emission vehicles?

  12. When I read this I chuckled and thought to myself, ‘And Uber will make their employees… errrr…. contractors pay that fee.’

  13. Uber and Lyft need labeling and requirements on where and how they drive and pick-up and drop-off people. They need large illuminated signs on their cars, and warning indicators when they do drop and pick up. They are a complete hazard currently and I have watched and seen many examples first hand of improper driving, parking and this has to stop. Next time I have to slam on my brakes due to some idiot lyft or uber driver ignoring the rules, those companies should be sued!

  14. Isn’t the best way to reduce congestion to enact a congestion charge? People respond to incentives. If every crosstown drive cost $5, more people might get on the bus.

  15. TNCs are taxis, plain and simple. While there is certainly a place for taxis in sustainable transport, it is as a substitute for private cars, not as a substitute for walking, bicycling, or shared transit..

Comments are closed.

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