Moving from Level of Service to Vehicle Miles Traveled in California Decisionmaking

Susan Handy et al.

A comparison of mitigation measures under these two metrics raises a fundamental question about what type of built environments communities want, and how they use the CEQA process to achieve them.

Does Davis want more traffic signals and turn lanes? Will replacing LOS with VMT in CEQA facilitate – or make it more challenging – for communities to finance and construct the built environment they desire?

General plans tell us the aspirations of the community, and the City of Davis has visions for its built environment that include (City of Davis, 2007):

  • Foster a safe, sustainable, healthy, diverse, and stimulating environment for all in the community.
  • Become a community where the impacts of traffic, noise, pollution, crime, and litter are minimized.
  • Maintain Davis as a cohesive, compact, university-oriented city surrounded by and containing farmland, greenbelts, natural habitats, and natural resources.
  • Reflect Davis’ small town character in urban design that contributes to and enhances livability and social interaction.
  • Maintain a strong, vital, pedestrian-oriented and dynamic downtown area
  • Encourage carefully-planned, sensitively-designed infill and new development to a scale in keeping with the existing city character.
  • Encourage a clean, quiet, safe, and attractive transportation system that harmonizes with the city’s neighborhoods and enhances quality of life.
  • Promote alternative transportation modes such as bicycling, walking, public transit, and telecommuting.

In the longer-term, researchers and planners should watch for changes in the types and locations of developments that are proposed. This shift in performance metric changes the incentives and disincentives to develop certain types of projects in certain areas. Where LOS analysis has favored projects and locations that can maintain “driver comfort and convenience” per the Highway Capacity Manual, VMT analysis incentivizes projects and locations that generate less driving.

We will presumably see dense urban areas with well-mixed land uses and high-quality transit – areas with inherently high vehicle delay but often low VMT – become more attractive to developers as they prompt fewer transportation impacts and requisite mitigations.

Analysis of impacts and thresholds is important for understanding the short- and long-run incentives for different types and location of development. As SB 743 is implemented across California, and the concept is perhaps adopted elsewhere, longitudinal research will show how the use of VMT as a performance metric influences long-term planning and development decisions, how it incentivizes certain types of development decisions, and ultimately the types of communities that are built.

In the shorter term, we show the short-term influence that each metric has on communities via impact mitigations. Our analysis of LOS mitigation shows how the CEQA process per se impacts the built environment, often in ways that increase vehicle capacity and thus VMT (see Figs. 2 & 3). Over time, the VMT induced by mitigating LOS with capacity increases will cause further vehicle delay and trigger more LOS impacts. Breaking the congestion-capacity-congestion cycle requires addressing the demand for travel, which is inextricably linked with the accessibility provided by land development patterns (Fig. 3).

We further show that under its current framework of SB 743, expensive capacity-increasing mitigation measures aimed at easing automobile congestion may be supplanted by streamlining for projects that reduce travel demand by locating near transit or in low-VMT areas. Projects sited in urban cores near transit will enjoy an expeditious transportation impact analysis, as well as fewer mitigations to finance. Finally, we show that the vehicle capacity constructed to mitigate LOS may contravene the goals and aspirations of many communities in California, as well as the state’s goals for GHG reductions. Further investigation of LOS mitigation across a larger sample of projects and jurisdictions would shed light on the extent of vehicle capacity that has been built in the name of CEQA.


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