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Caltrans: Soon to be Complete Streets-in-Chief?

Apr 17, 2014
by Kate Howe, Director + Lead Planner, VIA Architecture

BIKELANEAt the start of 2014, the sharp criticisms of one state agency against another made California planning headlines. The State Smart Transportation Committee (SSTI), in a report to the legislature, called out Caltrans as “archaic,” incapable of adapting to a changing transportation environment, and lacking resources needed to lead in the modern, post-Interstate building era. The report enumerated the problem with a Caltrans which is at direct odds with other statewide agendas to promote smart growth, sustainability, and reduced GHG emissions through SB 375. A culture change is in order.

Taking the report at face value and diving into the wake it opened up, Caltrans’ Director, Malcolm Dougherty, together with the Leadership of Transportation Secretary, Brian Kelly, is leading a swift response.  A new mission statement published in February redirects the agency from that of “master builder” of roads and highways to an emphasis on its role as a partner within the context of an integrated and mature transportation system.  The intention is to allow for better collaboration with “self-help” counties who bring a large share of local dollars to the table for infrastructure projects, as well as a major policy realignment toward all forms of transport, that brings the department up to date. In the end, perhaps it might look more like San Francisco’s SFMTA Department of Sustainable Streets, as statewide Complete Streets in chief.

Dougherty’s comments given Tuesday at UC Berkeley, that “land use matters,” reflect the inner struggle of an agency now looking to apply better understanding of context.   One of the recommended early steps in the SSTI report is the full implementation of the 2010 Smart Mobility Framework – a plan to better link transportation design with existing community patterns, using performance criteria and a “place type” framework (such as main streets, downtowns, or office campus) to guide decision making. Another initiative underway is to transfer multi-modal and bike/ped projects away from their former status as “special projects” requiring expensive design exceptions, toward their own set of design standards and procedures.  To this end,  just last week Caltrans adopted NACTO’s best practice Urban Street Design Guide and Urban Bikeway Design Guidelines as a ready-to-go alternative for metropolitan areas. (Caltrans is the third to adopt the standards, after Washington DOT).

For those of us working in urban sustainability, it is all good news, and changes can’t come fast enough. One last big planning policy shift is on the horizon: Caltrans, in collaboration with the CA Office of Planning and Research, must also coordinate on rule-making to implement the 2013 passage of SB 743. This bill removes auto “level of service” as a criteria for CEQA analysis in infill areas. In the most simple terms, SB 743 shifts the public concern in an environmental review from vehicular “delay” to thinking instead about performance, i.e. the overall number of trips a project might create, with an accounting for which mode it best supports (e.g. car, bike, transit or walking). Still, the measures are undefined; we are all looking forward to seeing how it comes out this year in July.