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.
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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.
I emailed Jones asking what leads her to assume that people living in a new 300-unit development would add only “a relatively small number of cars” to the neighborhood stock. Her reply was vague:
Data shows that a much higher proportion of trips in San Francisco occur by means other than the single occupant vehicle. In a location such as SoMa, where there is already a high volume of traffic (much of it going through the area, not originating or ending there), a single building will not substantially add to overall traffic levels.
On February 29 I emailed back:
Surely the size and type of a single building make a big difference in how much traffic the building generates. What, exactly, does it mean to say that a building “will not substantially add to overall traffic levels”? How many cars and auto trips are we talking about? Does the city have data tracking auto use generated by recent projects? If so, could you please refer me to it?
I’m still waiting for a response to these questions.
If even a “relatively small number of [additional] cars” makes a highly congested area even more congested, shouldn’t that count as an environmental impact?
It should not, say planners and the state. According to them, traffic congestion is a social impact, not an environmental one. As OPR puts it:
[T]he focus of environmental review must be on physical changes in the environment. Generally, social and economic impact are not considered as part of a CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s premier environmental law] analysis. (CEQA Guidelines §15131.)….As a measurement of delay, LOS measures motorist convenience, but not a physical impact to the environment. (emphasis in original)
In other words, the palpable environment has been virtualized. It’s as if the smart growthers have literally lost their senses. Planners like to tout their commitment to “placemaking.” Indeed, “Placemaking” is the name of the community newsletter that the Planning Department launched last summer. But real places in San Francisco and other urban locales will be degraded by the replacement of LOS by VMT.
During OPR’s February 9 webinar on the implementation of SB 743, staffer Chris Ganson said, “LOS just addresses localized congestion,” but “worsens regional congestion.” VMT, Ganson opined, “attacks regional congestion more effectively,” but—he did not add—worsens local congestion.
Regional congestion is an abstraction that has never been and never will be experienced by anyone. Local congestion is something that everyone has experienced, and that everyone will experience more intensely as a result of SB 743. The staff report to the Planning Commission concedes as much, averring that “it is often not feasible in developed urban areas like San Francisco to improve LOS.” So we just make local traffic congestion worse by disregarding the local traffic impacts of infill development?
Even more distressing, the abandonment of traffic congestion as an environmental impact is only one of the ways in which actual places are written off by the changes to the California Environmental Quality Act that are mandated by SB 743. Unmentioned by the staff report, the law also stipulates that
[a]esthetic and parking impacts of a residential, mixed-use residential, or employment center project on an infill site within a transit priority area shall not be considered significant impacts on the environment. Public Resources Code 21099(d)(1)
Employment center project: “a project located on property zoned for commercial uses with a floor [to] area [FAR] ratio of no less than 0.75 and that is located within a transit priority area.
Transit priority area: “an area within one-half mile of a major transit stop.”
Almost all of San Francisco is covered by transit priority areas:
Major transit stop: “a site containing an existing rail transit station, a ferry terminal served by either a bus or rail transit service, or the intersection of two or more major bus routes with a frequency of service interval of 15 minutes or less during the morning and afternoon peak commute periods.”
Not incidentally, the SFTA is supporting state legislation (AB 1886) that will expand CEQA exemptions to include projects where 50% of the project area is farther than a half-mile from a high quality transit corridor or major transit stop. Currently only 25% of a project area can be over a half-mile away.
Unlike the LOS-to-VMT switch, these provisions took effect in January 2014. As attorney, now also Larkspur Councilmember, Kevin Haroff noted in 2014, they
substantially reverse a recent decision of the California Fourth District Court of Appeal, in which the court found that parked cars are “physical objects” (as though there could have been a rational dispute about that) and therefore can have a direct impact on the environment.
Haroff also noted that for the purposes of CEQA review, SB 743 took off the table “two of what arguably are impacts of greatest public interest—visual and traffic impacts.” Not only is traffic congestion out as an environmental impact; so are increased glare and diminished views of public spaces.
The reason the implementation of SB 743 has taken so long is because the draft guidelines published by OPR in August 2014 met a blizzard of opposition from many quarters. Some of the most interesting objections came from the representatives of big business. In a letter to the OPR that’s worth quoting at length, Bay Area Council President & CEO Jim Wunderman wrote that
the use of the VMT metric could potentially be obsolete before it ever gets off the ground[,] given that we now have 100,000 electric and other low/zero emission vehicles on California roads. If VMT is a proxy for GHG reduction, …it has to be pointed out that not all VMTs are created equal. A mile traveled in an electric car produces a quarter the carbon/GHG [of] the mile traveled in a comparable gasoline car. If in 10 years California is at 33% or 50% market share for electric cars and plug in hybrids, VMT will be a largely meaningless statistic, particularly if we continue to get more electricity from renewables in California which will further drive down GHG production by electric vehicles. OPR is putting in place guidelines for a 20th century world, not the world we live in, certainly not the world we are headed towards.
Here I find myself in rare agreement with the Bay Area Council. As Oakland environmental attorney Stu Flashman pointed out at the PCL conference last Saturday, for VMT to address climate change, it would have to take into account fuel efficiency, electric cars, and, a power profile source for electricity; SB 743 stipulates none of this.
To be sure, the BAC’s main objection to the draft guidelines was that the new rules would facilitate litigation against infill development.
It’s hard to see how that will be the case. Along with the aforementioned changes, SB 743 expanded existing CEQA exemptions for infill to include mixed-use residential and commercial projects in transit priority areas. Previously only residential development in a transit priority area was exempt.
Who’s responsible for this debacle? For sure, the legislators who voted for it, including Assemblymember Phil Ting and State Senator Mark Leno, as well as my own state senator, Loni Hancock.
But blame also lies with the high-profile environmental groups that supported SB 743 or at least its LOS-to-VMT mandate, if not the giant sop for the Sacramento Kings’ stadium tacked on to the bill at the last moment by its author, then-State Senator Darrell Steinberg: the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, TransForm, the Planning and Conservation League, and Greenbelt Alliance.
And as demonstrated by the cheerleading at the Planning Commission, at the municipal level the smart growth charge is being led by the planning profession. Introducing the staff request, Jones said that “replacing LOS…with a metric [VMT] that captures the physical impacts of car travel now, instead of waiting a year for state certification, would reinforce “San Francisco’s role as a leader in planning.” She reported that city staff had been actively involved in OPR’s preparation of the new CEQA guidelines. She also claimed that “easing CEQA for infill is not the motivation,” stating that the goal is to align the environmental review process with the city’s vision: “to keep people moving as the city grows” by providing safe and healthy alternatives to single-passenger automobility.
Jones was followed and echoed by her predecessor in office, Bill Wycko, the city’s prior Environmental Review Office and, according to Jones, “the brains behind this from the start”; Planner Wade Wietgrefe; SFCTA Executive Director Tilly Chang; SFMTA Executive Director Ed Reiskin; SFMTA Board Vice-Chair Cheryl Brinkman, former chair of Livable City San Francisco; SFMTA Chief of Staff, Sustainable Streets Division, Viktoriya Wise; Planner Devyani Jain; SFMTA Senior Analyst Andy Thornley, and SFCTA Transportation Planner Drew Cooper; and other city officials.
Members of the public who added their voices to the VMT lovefest included Walk San Francisco Executive Director Nicole Ferrara; San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Advocacy Director Janice Li; attorney Andrew Junius, a principal at Reuben, Junius & Rose, one of the city’s go-to law firms for developers; SPUR Transportation Policy Director Ratna Amin; and SFBARFer Jon Schwark.
In a notable equivocation, city staff both hailed and discounted “LOS reform.” On the one hand, it’s “a milestone” (Jones), “a very positive, exciting change for the city and environmental review” (Wietgrefe). On the other hand, it’s no big deal. “All we’re doing,” said Jain, “is shifting a metric that was already in the pipeline since 2013.” EIRs, Wietgrefe maintained, are “a tiny amount of environmental review,” and the “public will still have an opportunity weigh in.”
It fell to attorney Junius to clarify matters:
It sounds a little wonkish, but this is huge! The entitlement process takes this long [holds up his hands]—a huge chunk of that is CEQA, a huge chunk of that is transportation studies, and huge chunk of transportation studies it the LOS mess. It should have never been adopted to begin with for urban areas. Thank god we’re going to get rid of it.
Discordant reality also spurted out during Commissioner Antonini’s remarks. The commissioner began by praising VMT, calling the change “wonderful legislation” and decrying “the ill effects of LOS-type thinking that have prevailed in the Bay Area for the last fifty to sixty years”—suburban sprawl, exacerbated, for example, by the new bore in the Caldecott Tunnel. But then Antonini pivoted:
The only thing that could be said about LOS is there are instances where the traffic is backed up on First Street going to the Bay Bridge, and you probably inhale more pollution as you walk by there with them hardly moving at all, and just idling.
Only one speaker, Sunset community activist Eileen Boken, opposed the abandonment of LOS. Boken said that Berkeley environmental attorney Antonio Rossmann recommends using both LOS and VMT.
Curious, I emailed Rossmann, asking if he’d written about LOS vs. VMT. His reply—the most reasonable, environmentally sensitive, empirically grounded position on the subject that I’ve encountered:
Zelda, I have not written any academic or legal briefing papers on the use of both, but while agreeing that we should use VMT as the leading surrogate to test regional transportation plans and new non-infill (sprawl) development, that does not mean we should exclude LOS in urban settings, where local congestion can become a leading adverse environmental impact.
One argument of an exclusive-VMT approach is that it avoids the establishment of mitigation measures to relieve LOS — usually widening or adding traffic lanes.
There are two responses: encouraging alternatives can also relieve LOS; and in any case, if a project shows new adverse LOS, it can simply be disapproved, or else approved in the face of public awareness that the project will turn local streets into congestion.
It’s not that high rise developers should not be left off the hook without creating more mitigation for their projects. It’s that projects that can’t be mitigated should just be scaled down.
I recently heard a VMT advocate explain that we actually want LOS 5 or 6 [E or F] because that shows that roads are being used beyond capacity and therefore people will get out of their cars. “Successful cities are the most congested.” As Justice Scalia would have said, “Argle, bargle.” Compare, say, Rome and Los Angeles. LOS helps measure the carrying capacity of the land, and it’s a valid public purpose to maintain streets that are useable by local residents in a non-stressful way.
San Francisco, given the slope and size of its streets, thrives on an FAR [floor to area ratio] of 3:1. Paris, flat and with numerous wide boulevards, seems to work on 6:1. Manhattan works on significantly higher but at a great cost to quality of life (costs and loss of freedom for group or distant travel to remote places.
At the Planning Commission last Thursday, scaling down a project that can’t be mitigated was not an option. Staff said that it would be the rare project that exceeded the VMT thresholds of significance (points beyond which a project would be judged to have a negative impact on the environment and be subject to CEQA proceedings) they’d laid out: for residential projects, 7.15 household VMT per capita; for office projects, 16.21 work-related VMT per job. And if a project did exceed those thresholds, staff would recommend mitigations à la Transportation Demand Management (TDM), meaning strategies that prioritize transit, walking, bicycling, and ridesharing.
Responding to a request from Commissioner Christine Johnson for “real life examples,” Jones said, “there will be projects with significant VMT impacts.” In a subsequent email to Jones, I noted that OPR had provided very details examples of such projects and asked what, specifically, would such examples look like in San Francisco?
Her reply: “That exchange was about the situations in which we would do project-specific [sic]. It’s not possible to state in the abstract that any type of land use project would have a significant impact for VMT.” Huh? Her Chron op-ed provided an abstract example of a residential project in SoMa that would not have a significant impact for VMT, so why not provide an abstract example of one that would?
The driving force here—you should excuse the expression—is, as MTA Executive Director Ed Reiskin put it—to accommodate growth. Concerns about “carrying capacity”—the maximum population a place can support—do not arise in the smart growth world.
To wit: I noticed that the planners’ calculation of VMT are based on 2012 data. San Francisco Chief Economist Ted Egan tells me that according to the state’s Economic Development Department, from the second quarter of 2012 to the second quarter of 2015, San Francisco added 82,509 jobs; and that the 2015 population estimates for the city have not yet been issued by the Census. I’ll go out on a short limb and speculate that the city added 18,000 new jobs in 2015. That would mean 100,000 more jobs than the ones that CTA staff fed into their computers.
I emailed SFCTA Planner Wade Wietgrefe, who crunches the VMT numbers, asking if that massive growth could have altered the city’s work-related numbers?
The addition of new jobs certainly will change total VMT, but will probably have a small effect on VMT per job because the addition of new jobs does not necessarily change the locations people are traveling from to get to those jobs. Of course, long term shifts in housing and employment locations will change VMT. But even our long-term forecasts produce relatively modest changes in these numbers. For example, average daily VMT per SF resident in 2040 is estimated at 7.2 versus 8.4 in 2012.
I emailed back:
When you write that your long-term forecasts produce relatively modest changes in SF’s VMTs, what sort of land use patterns (jobs-housing relationships) expectations are you assuming?
Land use forecasts are prepared by ABAG and adjusted by SF Planning. The land use scenario we currently use is the Sustainable Communities Strategy: Jobs-Housing Connections from Plan Bay Area.
Plan Bay Area, the regional land use and transportation “blueprint” mandated by SB 743’s antecedent, SB 375, also authored by Steinberg, foresees a 34% increase (190,780) in jobs in San Francisco, from 568,720 in 2010 to 759,500 in 2040. It also foresees a 35% jump (284,490) in the city’s population, from 805,240 to 1,089,730.
It cannot be said too often that these numbers are the creation of public policy. That means two things: they are mutable, and they should be subject to public vetting. To my knowledge, the people of San Francisco have never been asked if it would be a good thing if 190,780 more people worked in the city, or if 284,490 more people lived here.
How about asking them?