New State Planning Guidelines Disregard Traffic Impact

New State Planning Guidelines Disregard Traffic Impact
Transit Priority Area Map - San Rafael

A map of the areas effectively designated “Transit Priority Areas” within San Rafael and Larkspur, Marin County compiled by the city of San Rafael planning department.

If you live within 1/2 mile of a “major transit stop” – meaning a stop served by buses running at a frequency of every 15 minutes or less at peak, or within 1/2 mile of a train station or ferry terminal  – then you should be aware of a new change to transportation analysis. Effective January 1st 2015 areas meeting  this criteria – which spans most of Eastern Marin – can henceforth exclude traffic delay, parking impact and building aesthetics as considerations that may block development or impose mitigation measures.

Even if you’re outside of a Transit Priority Area (TPA) you should still be concerned – Senate Bill 743 provides the option for the new law to apply citywide or countywide. So a pro-development city or county such as Marin, whose supervisors’ plans to build far exceeds ABAG’s quota, can apply the new rules much more extensively. The result is that in effect the entire map shown, or county of Marin could be considered a Transit Priority Area.

Transit Priority Area is exactly what it says – an area where transit trumps cars. Residents are expected and encouraged to use transit instead of driving. This is where planners whims and residents reality diverge.

What Does this Mean Where I Live?

If a developer plans to build high density housing in your neighborhood – an occurrence happening with alarmingly increasing frequency in neighborhoods that previously thought they were insulated such as Strawberry in Mill Valley – then even if the new development causes acute traffic congestion, parking issues or the building just looks ugly there’s not much residents can do about it. Their prior ability to contest on these grounds under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – a last line of defense – will be removed as of January 1st 2015.

CEQA is disliked by developers as it has proven an effective tool for residents to oppose development that would  impose unacceptable impact. Suits are quick, relatively inexpensive and easy compared to a conventional law suit filed against a city or county. The removal of CEQA as a protection makes challenging inappropriate development exponentially harder.

In an ideal world city and county elected officials should uphold the “will of the people”, but it has been the author’s sad observation that this is not the case as other interests can be served – interests with advantages such as:

  • Connections such as the “old boy network”
  • Political patronage
  • Campaign donations
  • Revolving door career opportunities (e.g. going from being a city planner guarding the henhouse, to joining an advocacy group promoting affordable housing that has been the fox trying to get into the henhouse)
  • Superior access, a history of regular meetings, hosting events and parties with elected officials
Bay Area Transit Ridership

Bay Area Transit ridership has consistently dropped since the 1980s. Are we to believe this trend is about to magically reverse?

A Tool for Misuse by Transit Oriented Cities & Counties

It is important to note that a local jurisdiction sympathetic to delaying motorists and their passengers (a mode of transport used by most suburbanites) can still consider capacity and congestion issues within a TPA under a “merits review”. However this offers nowhere near the defense levels offered to residents by CEQA. This means that elected officials can still elect to consider this impact and reject a plan. However if elected officials do approve development then the new law, SB743, removes the most effectively means to oppose such development.

SB 743 provides a new tool that a council or board of supervisors, that may be pressured by developers, or simply hold a “multi-modal” vision that defies reality, to achieve their desired urban, high density outcome. This vision typically involves  transitioning suburban residents to biking, walking and transit – presuming that somehow despite transit usage dropping consistently over the last 3 decades in the Bay Area, that this trend will somehow magically reverse.

State Senator Darrell Steinberg - the man behind Senate Bill 743 and the new rules

State Senator Darrell Steinberg – the man behind Senate Bill 743 and the new rules

How Did this Happen? Who Did This? It’s Steinberg (Again)

Senate Bill 743 was proposed by California State Senate and Assembly leader Darrell Steinberg – the state politician notorious for Senate Bill 1 covered in a separate article on Planning for Reality, Don’t Blink.  It passed state assembly and senate, was was signed into law by Governor Brown on September 27th 2013.

By way of background, here are some highlights of Steinberg’s campaign contributors from Jan 1, 2009 – Dec 31, 2012 (source: Maplight.org):

Interest Contributions
Public Sector Unions $138,250
General Trade Unions
(the majority are typically
 construction unions)
$117,600
Hospitals & Nursing Homes $114,950
Lawyers & Lobbyists $87,000
Insurance $66,300
Health Professionals $55,400
Railroads
(
including BNSF Railway)
$50,500
TV & Movie Production/Distribution $45,416
Pharmaceuticals & Health Products $44,750
Beer, Wine & Liquor $42,500

The bill was supported by Marin assemblyman Marc Levine. Senate Bill 743 set into motion a change in planning approach that would occur once the State Office of Planning and Research published a new  methodology for analyzing transportation impact. On August 6th this state office published it’s new approach.

Before: Traffic Delays Set the Grade

Currently, and until this new approach is ratified (which is imminent and near inevitable) the impact of a new housing development considered and analyzed the additional delay on vehicles at affected intersections. Intersections would be graded A through F, just like a school report card. Most cities set the bar at “level of service D” with an E or F being unacceptable (e.g. waiting at lights 2 or more cycles). If a development pushes a level of service from a D to an E then the developer must pay impact fees that implement traffic and roadway improvements to restore the level of service to the  level prior to the development’s impact.

After: Miles Travelled, Infill & Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are the Yardstick

The new measures are:

  1. Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT)
  2. “Multi-modal” Level of Service – this gives heavy bias and weighting to little used transport modes such as transit (which is in decline – see chart), biking (which is used by a tiny number of people) and walking (impractical for many trips).
  3. Vehicle Hours Travelled – instead of focusing on delay however the idea is to reduce vehicle hours travelled by negating the need for people to drive. However as detailed in #5 this may be based on flawed assumptions.
  4. Fuel Use – the desire here is to reduce both energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions which are directly proportional to fuel use (if you burn one gallon of gasoline the emissions are fairly similar for any vehicle).
  5. Automobile Trips Generated – the presumption is that people, even in suburban locations, will elect to move to a small apartment where there are shops, restaurants and cafes below. It is assumed the residents will walk instead of making a driving “trip”. However on page 2 of the study “Vehicle Trip Reduction Impacts of Transit-Oriented Housing” by Robert Cervero the following flaw is pointed out – trip rates do not drop significantly in suburban locations:
Many TOD proposals have been abruptly halted or redesigned at lower densities due to fears that dense development will flood surrounding streets with automobile traffic. Part of the problem lies in the inadequacy of current trip generation estimates, which are thought to overstate the traffic-inducing impacts of TOD. Some analysts, however, have identified a serious “suburban bias” in the current ITE [trip] rates. Typically, the data used to set trip rates are drawn from suburban areas with free and plentiful parking, low-density, single land uses, and minimal transit services.
The new approach signals the state of California’s intention to move residents away from car usage – even if those cars may have lower emissions than transit to transit and bike usage. It signals the transition of  neighborhoods from low density suburban to high density urban. This approach sets suburbs into a spiral described in another Planning for Reality article – Larkspur and the High Density Ponzi Scheme.

The idea is, to show that you have a mixed use type of development, where the people who will be living there will be shopping at the stores that included and walking, biking, or taking transit to get to their jobs and, therefore, will not be increasing vehicle miles travelled.  Supposedly this will  attract suburbanites back to the core city (or to a transit corridor), thus reducing the commute driving, and going along with state agencies’ preferred land use, increasing density.

The result is that traffic congestion is set to get considerably worse for those who want to live in the suburbs and drive to their jobs. High density housing can be inserted into suburban neighborhoods and sequentially built out. The carrying capacity of the roads is no longer a consideration.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Thanks to the city of San Rafael planning department the author has learned that after January 1st 2015 a resident may still file suit against their city or county on the basis of the city or county’s action on the project. However without CEQA the process is harder, slower and considerably more expensive.