Getting More Bike Lanes Just Got a Whole Lot Easier

After the dust settled from another legislative session in the Capitol, California bicyclists have come away with two new and powerful tools in making their communities bike friendly.  Thanks (in part) to the efforts of CalBike, AB 417 and SB 743 will help cities adopt robust bike plans and implement bicycling improvements faster than ever.

AB 417

Spearheaded by CalBike, AB 417 (Frazier) provides environmental (CEQA) exemption for all elements of a bike plan that don’t involve construction - meaning bike lanes are no longer subject to environmental review.  To give an example of why this law is so important, San Francisco’s bike plan got frivolously held up in courts for four years on a technicality about its status under CEQA.

You may remember CalBike last year championed a similar law, AB 2245, which allows cities to get individual bike lane projects exempted from environmental review.  AB 417 takes it one step further and allows cities to get their entire bike plan exempted.  This allows cities to get exemption in one fell swoop, saving time and money that could be better spent implementing their bike plans.

Although CalBike is thrilled about AB 417’s adoption, we’re still concerned that some of the wording is vague enough to give cities pause before filing for the exemption.  We’re dedicated to improving this necessary CEQA reform in the coming year.

SB 743

CalBike joined a larger group of supporters of this odd law. Built as a vehicle to streamline approval for the Sacramento Kings’ arena, SB 743 (Steinberg) included landmark CEQA reform for infill development in transit-rich areas. It directed the Office of Planning & Research (OPR) to rewrite the rules about environmental impact, specifically prohibiting them from considering automobile congestion in the new rules. When the rules are published, removing a traffic lane to install a bike lane or bus lane or wider sidewalk will not require environmental analysis regardless of its impact on “vehicle level of service” or “vehicles to capacity ratio” of the street. OPR may replace measures of congestion with other measures of automobile impact, such as an increase in vehicle miles traveled caused by a project or auto trips generated.

The change is monumental. In the past, developers trying to mitigate the projected traffic impacts of new buildings under CEQA law would often be required to widen roads for more vehicles. In dense cities where transit is abundant and bicycling is viable, this meant making streets less friendly to bicycling. In fact, a developer could remove an existing bike lane while widening a road, and it would pass CEQA analysis as “reducing air pollution”! By removing required mitigations for automobile traffic, SB 743 helps swing the focus to where it should be in our central cities - onto pedestrian, transit, and bicycle accommodations.

Still More Work to Do

These legislative tools, streamlining existing environmental legislation to increase access to sustainable transportation, are a big win for California bicyclists. Instead of stalling or destroying bicycle infrastructure, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) will now better facilitate the accommodation of bike lanes. That being said, this is only one step forward in the fight for safer streets. CalBike will continue to push for beneficial legislation until the state of California prioritizes the health and safety of its transportation. Stay tuned for more successes in the next legislative session.

-Christopher Kidd, Alta Planning + Design senior planner & CalBike board member

Oct 28, 2013

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