How California Can Use CEQA to Deliver Healthy Communities

Bill Sorro Community, an affordable housing development in San Francisco. Photo by Sergio Ruiz

The need for healthy communities has never been clearer than it is in the face of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Today, Governor Newsom took decisive action to reorient California’s landmark environmental protection legislation, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), toward building healthy communities. The state will now complete implementation of SB 743, a 2013 law to change how the transportation impacts of new development and infrastructure are assessed, switching from a decades-old metric that prioritized cars to one that will favor less-polluting forms of transportation. This straightforward yet monumental change will make it easier to build healthy, dense, walkable neighborhoods and will discourage the type of sprawl development that degrades the quality of our air and water and hastens the worst effects of climate change.

The Unhealthy, and Ironic, Consequences of Environmental Review

Among other things, CEQA requires an assessment of the environmental impacts caused by new development projects, from affordable homes to highway construction. Project sponsors are required to disclose and mitigate any potential negative impacts on the environment, and if they don’t, people can sue to stop the project.

In addition to measuring environmental impacts on air pollution and biodiversity, project sponsors must also assess impacts on transportation and aesthetics. Historically, the transportation impacts of new infrastructure have been evaluated by measuring the estimated increase in automobile congestion around the project, known as level of service (LOS). Projects that resulted in congestion on adjacent roads performed poorly under CEQA, even if there was already congestion before the project was built. Projects that resulted in free-flowing traffic performed well.

Ironically, this emphasis on what’s best for car traffic has put transportation impact analysis under CEQA at odds with the state’s environmental goals. A new housing development planned on open space, for example, would not likely create congestion on nearby rural roads, despite the influx of new drivers, because there were so few drivers on the roads to begin with. The CEQA analysis would show negligible transportation impacts. However, building in a rural setting would force those who live in that new development to drive to meet their daily needs. Not only does this increase residents’ risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease, it jeopardizes the health of a far broader population by increasing air, water and climate pollution, thereby raising the risks of everything from asthma, lung disease and COVID-19 to alzheimer's. By feeding cars onto our highways and arterials, sprawl developments that CEQA analyses predict will have minimal traffic impact are actually the underlying cause of the grinding congestion we experience in the Bay Area today. By using the wrong metric to assess transportation impacts, CEQA has contributed to California’s unhealthy and unsustainable car-dependent sprawl.

Improving CEQA’s Health Impacts

As a result of Governor Newsom’s decision to fully implement SB 743 (Steinberg 2013) — a law that SPUR supported — CEQA will no longer require an analysis of automobile congestion in the vicinity of a project. Instead, CEQA will analyze how many total miles of vehicle travel (VMT) a project will generate — a far more accurate metric of transportation impacts.

Under this new standard, the same greenfield housing development described above would perform worse: Because the housing is not within walking distance from jobs, schools, shops or services, it would force residents to drive many miles and generate air, water and climate pollution. CEQA review will now capture that VMT impact, and to avoid the risk of a lawsuit, the developers will need to adjust the project to mitigate it. Under the old LOS regime, mitigation for automobile congestion often involved widening streets. Now, VMT mitigation could include the addition of more shops and services within walking distance of developments, free shuttles to a BART station or new bike infrastructure.

Reducing VMT is critical to meeting the state’s climate goals. The California Air Resources Board has found that, even after transitioning to 100% zero emission vehicles and 75% renewable energy, we will still need 15% more per capita VMT reduction beyond what is projected by the current plan. The agency also found that, despite much effort to bend the curve, per capita VMT is still increasing in California.

This new standard will have other important effects beyond aligning transportation impact evaluation with the state’s climate goals. Under the new VMT rules, an infill housing development will score well if its located in a walkable, transit-accessible location where few of their residents’ trips will be taken by car, producing little VMT. This is in stark contrast to the previous LOS rules, where infill housing developments could be sued for adding even a handful of cars to an already congested downtown street.

These perverse impacts have confounded and delayed efforts to address California’s housing shortage and affordability crisis. Recent SPUR research shows that over the past two decades, the Bay Area has underproduced 700,000 units of housing and will need to produce 2.2 million units over the coming decades to make up for that shortfall and flatten the curve on housing affordability. The cost, litigation, uncertainty and delay associated with CEQA review for housing in infill areas are significant causes of that shortage.

The housing shortage is an enormous challenge for the Bay Area. Yet the region doesn’t need to address it by doubling down on the sprawl that CEQA has historically privileged. Forthcoming research by SPUR will show that the Bay Area can accommodate its projected population growth over the next 50 years — and make up for this historical shortfall — by building within walking distance of transit stations, on commercial corridors, in existing downtowns and with modest increases to the number of homes within already developed suburbs.

Repairing the Past

This change will do more than align environmental values and help build more housing. Ensuring that CEQA review produces dense, healthy and sustainable communities will also help to repair the damage that decades of misguided land use decisions have wrought. Disenfranchised low-income communities and communities of color have been pushed to the margins of the region, are forced into car ownership to meet their daily needs, and disproportionately suffer the health and wellbeing impacts. Changes like SB 743 will open up the opportunity, as Climate Plan and others have argued, to more deeply center equity as we build up our communities. It will provide an opportunity to plan transportation systems and cities that provide equitable access to jobs, essential services and open space.

The successful implementation of SB 743 will uphold the values of CEQA in reducing air, water and climate pollution, especially for our most vulnerable residents. It will reduce our dependence on cars, encourage walkable and bikeable communities, and help make it less expensive to live here. Ultimately it will make us all healthier which, in this moment, may be the most important thing of all.