Pure Genius

Are bicycle lanes really green? Some city residents see red

Are bicycle lanes really green? Some city residents see red

Posting in Cities

In California, bicycle lanes seem to be appearing on every major street. But some city residents say they could actually increase pollution. Bike lanes: really a no-brainer?

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pedaled his bicycle in a bike-only lane in Venice Beach when a taxicab swerved suddenly and stopped in front of him. The mayor clutched his brakes but it was too late. He fell and broke his elbow.

When the mayor’s accident made headlines in July 2010, the incident energized the city’s cyclists and bike commuters around Los Angeles’ ambitious plans to make 1,600 miles of bike lanes in this auto-centric metropolis. Yet little progress has been made in the year and a half since the mayor’s fall because of an unlikely hurdle: California’s environmental laws.

Much of the blame -- or kudos, depending on where your politics lie -- for the delays can be placed on Rob Anderson, a 69-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard who lives 400 miles north in San Francisco. To the fixed-geared hipsters and bicycle utopians he’s a pariah. The city's cycling boosters have called him a “magnificent jerk” for standing in the way of safer streets for cyclists, a “scumbag” and a “cynical dickhead” in comments on his blog.

Anderson has heard it all since 2006, when he successfully sued San Francisco over its bike plans, arguing the city had not done a proper environmental study as required by state law. While the city had spent years preparing to line its streets with bike lanes, a judge agreed with Anderson and forced San Francisco to stop implementing its bike plan for more than three years in order to finish the costly review.

“The city insists on screwing up our streets on behalf of the Bicycle Coalition and a small, obnoxious minority of bike people. It's political correctness run amok,” said Anderson, sitting in a café in the Western Addition neighborhood, where he lives and writes his muckraking blog “District 5 Diary.”

Bike advocates called the ruling a “perversion” of state environmental laws and blamed Anderson for blocking an “obviously pro-environment action.”

While Anderson’s fight over bike lanes began as a neighborhood issue, the impact of his lawsuit is having a ripple effect in other places. The most dramatic example is in Villaraigosa’s Los Angeles where, fearing similar lawsuits, the city put the brakes on its biggest bike lane projects to conduct the costly environmental review Anderson’s suit forced San Francisco to do.

The irony is not lost on city leaders or bicyclists, whose collaborations to improve bike lanes in one of the world’s largest, most polluted metropolitan areas are being stymied because of California’s Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. In essence, the law requires a thorough study of any project that will effect traffic on any street. And while the jury’s out about whether bike lanes have any long-lasting negative impacts on auto traffic, or air pollution for that matter, most experts think increasing cycling cleans the air and reduces traffic. But the law is clear.

“The city knew there was a problem with environmental clearance," said Claire Bowen, city planner of Los Angeles. "Then we looked at what was happening in San Francisco.

“It’s an obstacle, and you have to work with that process to look at ways to make it work. To me, it’s all part of the mountain you're climbing,” Bowen said. “But that's the challenge. We recognize the irony and we are being cognizant of that.”

DO BIKE LANES INCREASE POLLUTION?

Second Street in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood is often congested during rush hour. It leads drivers through narrow urban canyons to the Bay Bridge, which heads east to Oakland.

Some residents and small business owners in the neighborhood have expressed worries in public comments at meetings and in local press accounts about the plan, saying that removing lanes and parking spaces will worsen traffic and their air quality. But there is scant scientific evidence to support the theory that bike lanes worsen traffic and therefore air pollution.

The key to determining a bike lane’s effect on the traffic of any given street lies in monitoring the use of a roadway. Officials study a road’s so-called “level of service,” which calculates how many cars use the road during certain hours and gives that road a grade, A through F, with an F being gridlocked rush hour traffic.

But this level of service equation does not take into account the road’s other uses: pedestrians, bicycles or other alternative forms of transport. City planners and bike advocates say this oversight has caused too many simple bike lane projects to be forced into long environmental reviews -- that if you look at all the uses of the roadway, the grades would be higher and need for environmental review lower.

“Really what the issue is, is that [environmental] guidelines designed by cities hit this trigger that requires an environmental review, and we want to get them away from that antiquated model,” said Alexis Lantz, a city planner who is planning and program director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

“If you want to improve the air quality of our communities, you should make it more possible for people to get as quickly as possible from point A to point B.”

The little science that has been done on this topic points to what most people have figured out from common sense: that increasing bicycle infrastructure in cities can reduce traffic and bolster public health. Many of the studies that have been done have been undertaken by the very cities seeking to implement the lanes, so can be skewed toward getting the project approved.

A recent independent study in the journal Preventive Medicine looked at 14 cities -- including Portland, Ore., Paris and Muenster, Germany -- with bike plans.

“The combined evidence presented in these studies indicates that the health benefits of bicycling far exceed the health risks from traffic injuries, contradicting the widespread misperception that bicycling is a dangerous activity," the study found. "Moreover, as bicycling levels increase, injury rates fall, making bicycling safer and providing even larger net health benefits.”

The university town of Davis in northern California has one of the highest rate of bicycling in the nation, with 17 percent of its 64,000 residents using a bike to commute to work and 41 percent calling bikes their primary mode of transportation, according to a study by the Bicycle Federation of America.

Susan Handy, who teaches environmental policy and planning in the University of California, Davis’ Transportation Technology and Policy Program, said bike lanes could potentially cause more air pollution if they resulted in stop-and-go traffic.

But, Handy added, “I do not know of a general study that tests this possibility, but many cities have modeled the effect of bicycle lanes before installing them and found little effect on traffic.”

MIXED MESSAGES

While environmental regulations can require in-depth studies, state governments are often also huge supporters of increasing cycling in cities.

California’s Air Resource Board Web site supports increasing biking and estimates that about 7 tons of smog-forming gases and almost a ton of inhalable particles are spared from the air each day due to use of bicycles rather than motor vehicles.

And even when a city does a complete environmental review as required under state law (and federal law if the project receives any federal money), it is unclear if the money and time spent were worth it.

“My opinion is that the bicycle lane projects that have been challenged as needing full CEQA review have been carefully considered by planners and the public as a part of developing the city's bicycle plan and are likely to have no net negative impact on the environment," Handy said, "and so the time and money spent on an (environmental review) for these projects is not well spent.”

Even Anderson acknowledges that after his successful lawsuit forced San Francisco’s environmental review, the city’s final bike plan did little to assuage his concerns.

“The environmental impact review on the bicycle plan admits that it will make traffic worse, but the city figures that's an acceptable trade-off for encouraging more people to ride bikes. But the city has no evidence that screwing up traffic for everyone but cyclists will lead to a significant increase in cycling,” Anderson said. “It's a faith-based exercise in transportation policy.”

In Los Angeles, the delays in the wake of Anderson’s suit in San Francisco have led to a call for statewide reform of its environmental laws under CEQA to exempt bicycle projects. Officials in both cities underwent years of planning and were on the cusp of painting in their new lanes when they stopped for more environmental review. Yet some do see a benefit in slowing down the process and taking a longer look at these projects in major cities, as well as giving the public more time to comment.

“The benefit of CEQA review is it does slow things down and allows the public to more fully engage in the process,” L.A.’s Bowen said. “When you just go and put something out there and the public’s not prepared for it, there's a backlash.”

As for Anderson, there is some satisfaction in knowing that his lawsuit has had ripple effects elsewhere.

“That’s very wise,” he said of Los Angeles’ decision to halt plans and undergo CEQA review. “It shows that it only takes one neighborhood group.”

Photo: based on original by Sharon Mollerus.

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Jason Dearen

Contributing Writer

Jason Dearen covers the environmental beat for the Associated Press. He is based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure