One small step for regulators, one giant leap for mass transit in Los Angeles?
Here in car-favoring Los Angeles, it's hard to find a mass transit project that was easily birthed. Convincing taxpayers who rely on cars to fund projects they won't use — projects for people who don't have cars and can't afford them — is not easy.
And this being California, environmental regulations, enforced by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), are fairly rigorous. Working through the reviews has kept the employment rate high for civil engineers and lawyers. Before construction can begin, the state must certify that the project does not significantly and negatively impact more than a dozen separate quality of life measures.
But the highest hurdle for big transit projects is often their projected influence on the flow of traffic, or what CEQA calls "Level of Service," or (LOS). The same holds for new properties that are supposed to make the transit experience align with the rest of city life. If you've been to Los Angeles, you'll note how, well, ugly and spartan the rail routes look. One reason: It's almost impossible to develop properties around them without significantly impinging the flow of traffic
There's an irony at the heart of California's environmental review laws, one that Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic's CityLab recognizes:
In California, LOS has an especially high-profile. As the primary arbiter of traffic impacts under CEQA — adopted in 1970 by Governor Ronald Reagan — the metric not only determines the fate of many transportation and development projects, but has the awkward role of promoting car use within a law designed to protect the environment. "We have one section of CEQA saying we've got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says transportation consultant Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, "and another section of CEQA saying we need to accommodate unlimited driving." [CityLab]
The upshot, he notes, is that "in the twisted eyes of California law, public transit is considered a greater enemy to the environment than car travel."
Soon that will change, thanks to the Democratic legislature and the governor.
A new law knocks the teeth out of the "level of service" regulation that privileges cars over mass transit in urban areas. The replacement standard has yet to be officially determined, but it will prioritize the movement and mobility of people through the city, rather than the mechanism they use to move. This means that the state can't stop a transportation project that makes vehicle traffic worse, especially if it fulfills other goals, like encouraging public transit, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and even beautifying city-owned land. The working acronym is "VMT" — or "vehicle miles traveled." It measures distance, not time. As Jaffe says,
Transit-oriented development should benefit right alongside transit in California. LOS favors sprawl to smart growth, because the traffic generated by remote development creates little delay at any single intersection when dispersed over a full road network, especially compared to compact infill placed right at a city corner. VMT favors the reverse pattern: while a single-family development in the exurbs generates a great deal of driving mileage, a new mixed-use building near major transit lines and walkable cores should generate very little. [CityLab]
Brigham Yen, a Los Angeles broker and evangelist for the city's downtown renaissance, says this tiny change could be transformational.
"Hopefully this new CEQA reform will expedite much needed ubiquitous urban infill projects as well as badly needed transit projects beyond just what's proposed through Measure R," he said, referring to a 2008 county ballot initiative that increased the sales tax to fund transportation projects. "Los Angeles is just shy of being great. You can't have a great city that caters almost completely to the automobile."