Friday, March 29, 2013

The Bike Lane Bottleneck

"People should know that roadways are being designed today to accommodate drivers who have not yet been born. In some instances, these decisions are at the expense of bicyclists and pedestrians using those streets today." --Jason Patton, Bicycle & Pedestrian Facilities Program Manager, City of Oakland

The bike lane: as far as infrastructure goes, it doesn't get much simpler. It's just a matter of splashing some paint down on the asphalt, right? Unfortunately, there's a whole set of laws, red tape, and bureaucracy that keeps cities like Oakland from adapting and adding more bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Perversely, the biggest obstacle is California's landmark environmental law, The California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA. The East Bay Express recently chronicled how CEQA gives opponents of urban infill a weapon to block all new development projects, even if they are environmentally friendly. Similarly, CEQA is a roadblock (get it?) for adding bike lanes.

The way it works is this: if a street has to be significantly altered in order to add a bike lane, that will trigger an Environmental Impact Report. The EIR studies only the effect of the reduced vehicle lanes on congestion. (Not, say, how many people will bike instead of drive as a result of the new bike lane.) A "Level of Service" (LOS) analysis has to be conducted, giving the streets a grade from A to F. It conducts this level of service not just for the present day, but for 30 years from now, to make sure there won't be massive congestion in the future. These future projections assume that traffic is going to double or triple in the future. This assumption becomes a catch-22: people will drive because they don't have the option of biking safely, and we don't add bike lanes because there will be too many drivers.

One example is on West MacArthur near the BART Station. This street currently has 3 lanes of traffic in each direction, plus a lane for parking. A few years ago there was a proposal to reduce it to 2 lanes and add a bike lane in each direction:
Sounds reasonable enough, right? Bike lanes going to BART are pretty much a no-brainer. But when the Level of Service analysis was conducted, they found that in 2030 this street would have a grade of "F" in most places. (If you project a ton of new drivers, the street will be congested. Shocker!!!)

The crush of traffic on West MacArthur at 5 pm on a weekday.
To deal with the EIR bureaucratic mess, workarounds are constructed. For example, the bike lane on 27th Street becomes a sharrow lane as it approaches Broadway--this is a "mitigating effect" for traffic flow. The irony is that bikers are less protected just as they reach a busy intersection.

Fortunately, the EIR process is just about disclosure. Our city council could say that they don't care about the imagined congestion and build the damn bike lane anyway. (In technical terms, they can file a "statement of overriding consideration.") But people tend to freak out when they hear the word congestion. Nobody likes traffic jams or road rage, and city councilmembers don't want to be blamed for causing it. (I can picture the mailers now: "Councilmember so-and-so is responsible for the huge traffic jam on West MacArthur. Vote her out of office!") So the status quo remains in place.
Jason Patton is the Bicycle & Pedestrian Facilities Program Manager at the City of Oakland. He knows firsthand the frustrations of this process, and his department works to increase bicycle infrastructure despite these obstacles. (Full disclosure: I've been volunteering for him at his office.) I was recently able to pick his brain regarding the finer points of CEQA, traffic projections, and more.

OaklandStreets: Are the assumptions for the future traffic calculations flawed?

Jason Patton: “Flawed” is a loaded term, so let’s think instead in terms of the model’s purpose and how well it achieves its purpose. It is intended to be a countywide travel demand model for the purpose of planning and evaluating major transportation investments (like new freeway interchanges or HOV lanes). In practice, it gets used for evaluating local development projects. There is a basic disconnect here. A demand model is trying to get a sense of how much “demand” there is in the abstract for the purposes of planning long-term investment. But people’s behaviors are shaped more immediately by the relative cost and convenience of various options. If roads are congested, people will choose to drive less because it’s not as practical, but there is still “demand.” Also, the model is not intended to capture the outcomes of macroeconomic factors, demographic changes, or policies. For example, energy costs are going up, younger generations are driving less, and climate change policies mandate reductions in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). But the demand model predicts increasing VMT.

OS: Bikes seem to account for only a small fraction of traffic on most streets in Oakland. Is it true in practice that a bike lane increases vehicle congestion? How much would ridership have to increase for bicycles to reduce vehicle congestion?

JP: At some Oakland intersections, bicyclists are up to 20% of roadway users in the evening commute. Citywide, 3% of workers use bicycles as their primary means of transportation to work. (This does not include people who bike to BART.) A bike lane could increase vehicle congestion if the installation of that bike lane requires the removal of a vehicle lane when the use of the vehicle lane is high and the use of the bike lane is low. In other instances, a bike lane could decrease vehicle congestion by getting people to shift modes, or at least by separating bicyclists for cars. Imagine the congestion of driving your car in a single lane where you have to change lanes to pass a bicyclist every minute. In this instance, a bike lane would certainly reduce congestion.

OS: Is the approval process this difficult everywhere, or is this bottleneck unique to California/the Bay Area? 

JP: The issues are distinct to California because of how the California Environmental Quality Act requires an analysis of transportation impacts under cumulative conditions (i.e., with a future forecast of traffic volumes). There may be similar issues in other states, but it’s not a national problem and it’s not limited to the Bay Area.

OS: "Multimodal Level of Service" analyses are emerging as a means of taking pedestrian and bike traffic into account when designing streets. What would it take for this to become standard within Oakland?
JP: MMLOS should not become the standard in environmental review because it would effectively replicate the problems with vehicle LOS for all modes. The environmental impacts of motor vehicles should be measured based on vehicle miles traveled or vehicle trips generated. Bicycle trips on paved streets do not create environmental impacts. Thus, no analysis is needed. Separate from environmental review, MMLOS could be used to evaluate design alternatives or weigh tradeoffs between different modes. But as a tool, MMLOS isn’t there yet in providing reliable results that match professional understanding.
OS: Which government agency is the most likely to be able to effect change to this process? (ABAG, city councilmembers, state lawmakers, BAAQMD, etc.)
JP: The problem is the confluence of four factors, each of which is overseen by a different governing body. State lawmakers are responsible for state environmental law. ABAG is responsible for growth forecasts in the Bay Area. The countywide congestion management agencies are responsible for the transportation models. And local jurisdictions are responsible for setting thresholds of significance under CEQA. Change could happen at any or all levels, although practically changes at the state level in light of AB32 and SB375 would speak most directly to the issue.

OS: What difference does public support and engagement on this issue make?

JP: CEQA is fundamentally a disclosure process – to provide information to a decision-making process. For a particular project, the process may show traffic congestion in the future. One source of this congestion is the future year traffic forecasts. But the public and decision-makers get nervous about congestion, so this disclosure of future congestion can catalyze opposition to the project under study.
People should know that roadways are being designed today to accommodate drivers who have not yet been born. In some instances, these decisions are at the expense of bicyclists and pedestrians using those streets today.

OS: You've told me that EIRs measure change from the status quo, for better and for worse. Do you think there should be a different guiding principle in measuring environmental impact? Should a different set of standards be applied for cities vs. rural areas?
JP: I’m not enough of a CEQA person to say, although there have been plenty of attempts to create CEQA exemptions for in-fill projects. But for reasons beyond my experience, they don’t seem to have solidified into a standard practice that addresses the root of the issue: why is driver delay at a traffic signal a potential environmental impact? Due to engine technologies, carbon monoxide hot spots stopped being an issue in the 1970s. Driver delay is a matter of convenience, and as such it’s a social issue. Policymakers can choose to address driver convenience, but let’s not call it an environmental impact.


Yake said...

Great post on an important topic.

I have a proposal: let's change state law so that any project in the public right-of-way that reallocates space formerly dedicated for automobiles to non-motorized uses is categorically exempt from CEQA. End of story.

Why are we fooling around with this? We can't afford to wait years to implement bike lane projects.

Benjamin Gleitzman said...

Oakland should take a similar stance as San Francisco when faced with opposition to bicycle lane development. San Francisco was sued by an anti-bicycle interest on the grounds that the city didn't do an adequate environmental review. SF went through a 3-year litigation during which time they completed the environmental review, found significant impacts to traffic and transit, and filed a statement of overriding consideration in 2009 that "the plan's benefits outweigh unavoidable impacts to traffic and transit."

The purpose of CEQA is to demonstrate the environmental impacts of an action. There are always tradeoffs when going through the environmental review process but SF set a positive precedent for enacting change without weakening CEQA.


David said...

Carbon monoxide detectors help protect your family from deadly carbon monoxide gas. Find out how co detector sense dangerous molecules.