The City of San Jose is preparing to make a big shift in the way it plans transportation and building projects making it much easier to provide transit, active transportation, and infill development. The change, required by state law, will need to be adopted by all California cities over the next one to two years, and cities have some discretion about how to handle the change. So San Jose’s choices will be of interest to those who support sustainable transportation in San Jose and other area cities that will need to make changes.
Historically, the California Environmental Quality Act, a law intended to protect the environment, has had some paradoxical opposite effects, by discouraging walking, bicycling, and transit, and reducing infill development that improve accessibility and reduce pollution.
This blog post has a short summary about how the new rules will help improve transportation and protect the environment, and a description of the choices San Jose is looking to make to achieve its goals of reducing pollution, improving safety, and focusing growth in ways that support transit, walking and bicycling.
Changing environmental law to protect the environment
The recent state law, SB743, changes how the transportation impact of buildings and projects is evaluated under CEQA, which requires cities and agencies to assess the impact of projects and plans on the environment, and to mitigate those impacts where feasible.
Historically, transportation impact has been assessed by vehicle delay, using a metric called “level of service” (LOS) measuring delay at intersections. But the concept that cars idling at stoplights is a major driver of pollution has been debunked by research. The new law changes the measurement to “vehicle miles traveled”, which is much more closely correlated to the environmental hazards of particle pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Using vehicle delay as a measurement has several consequences that result in worse environmental outcomes. Using this measure, transportation projects like bike lanes and bus lanes that slow solo drivers are seen as harmful to the environment even though they are likely to reduce pollution. A common remedy to “mitigate” intersection congestion is to widen roadways, making walking, bicycling, and transit accessed by walking and biking less safe and attractive, encouraging driving and fostering even more congestion. The other major remedy is to reduce infill development in places that already have buildings and cars, and to encourage greenfield development in places that don’t yet have traffic.
Research shows that this seemly common-sense idea – locate new buildings far from existing buildings to improve traffic flow – doesn’t provide the hoped for mobility benefits. Studies show that infill development can result in slower driving – but still improve access, because people have more destinations reachable within a short distance, and need to spend less time driving.
San Jose’s choices
San Jose and other cities have some discretion about how to use the new rules. The new law is definite that LOS (or other vehicle delay metrics) will no longer be used to assess transportation impact under CEQA. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against bicycle, transit, and infill projects for slowing cars will be a thing of the past. But cities can still use LOS for other purposes.
Whether and how to still use level of service?
San Francisco has gotten rid of vehicle LOS as a metric entirely. Oakland retains the option, at city staff discretion, to analyze intersection delay for large projects that generate more than 800 peak hour vehicle trips or 400 peak hour transit trips. In its proposal under development, San Jose proposes to continue to assess vehicle delay within approximately a mile of a project, including links to regional major roadways.
The new goal for gathering the delay information is to inform the City on how to keep the road system functioning as best it can and help fund multi-modal improvements. Only after multi-modal improvements have been studied would auto- focused improvements be considered.
How to streamline infill and transportation projects
Cities can use the new rules to streamline analysis of new developments, and have some discretion about how to streamline. San Jose is proposing to streamline small infill projects, projects in low-VMT, planned infill areas with high-quality transit. San Jose’s proposal requires these infill projects to be transit-supportive – projects that increase density, with less parking, and without negative impacts on transit and active transportation. This proposal would not streamline so-called “transit-adjacent” projects that are located near transit but, for example, don’t have safe pedestrian access to the transit. San Jose’s proposal would also streamline local-serving retail projects that encourage people to shop with shorter trips.
For transportation, the proposal would streamline projects that reduce VMT (like bike or bus lanes) or that have no VMT impact (like resurfacing pavement).
Employment projects that cannot fully mitigate their VMT, which San Jose will continue to consider because the city has many fewer jobs than residents, would need to pay to mitigate the driving increase by $1,000 per daily car trip for most projects in this category, and at least $10 million for extra large projects generating more than 1,000 daily car trips (an extra-large project would be on the scale of Santana Row West).
Funding regional transportation improvements
The transition from LOS to VMT will fix an algorithm that has strongly reinforced car-centric transportation patterns. Cities and regions have used CEQA transportation impact assessment to fund transportation needs triggered by growth; and those funds were required to be spent almost entirely on expanding roadways.
The transition to VMT will provide much better data and policy motivation to invest in infrastructure that reduces solo driving and pollution and improves health and safety. But it poses new challenges in how to fund needed infrastructure.
The challenges are multiplied when projects are near city boundaries, requiring cooperation to fund transportation improvements. There are logical opportunities to replace the old, LOS-driven, car-centric sources with new county and corridor-based transportation fees that could be used for multi-modal improvements with goals to reduce vehicle miles traveled.
Next steps – what you can do
For residents of San Jose, the new policies have been presented at numerous community meetings over the summer. Presentation materials can be found here.
San Jose City Council will be hosting a study session on
Monday, September 18 in the afternoon between 1:30 and 4:30pm. Friday, October 6 in the morning between 9 and Noon. You can also share input using this online comment form, or by sending sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For residents of other cities, these changes will be rolling out in your community, too. Keep an eye out for your city starting to plan for change. The last remaining projects and plans being evaluated using the obsolescent rules make it harder to create places and transportation that reduces pollution, improves access and safety, even when city policies favor those outcomes. The sooner the changes are implemented, the sooner cities can more easily support sustainable transportation.