VMT in place of LOS…..or VMT and LOS?

“On September 27, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 743 into law and started a process that changes transportation impact analysis as part of CEQA compliance. These changes will include elimination of auto delay, level of service (LOS), and other similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion as a basis for determining significant impacts for land use projects and plans in California. Further, parking impacts will not be considered significant impacts on the environment for select development projects within infill areas with nearby frequent transit service. According to SB 743, these changes to current practice were necessary to more appropriately balance the needs of congestion management with statewide goals related to infill development, promotion of public health through active transportation, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”  Fehr and Peers, Transportation Consultants.

Level of Service (LOS):  Almost every city dweller knows that real estate developments, if allowed to proceed without corollary transportation improvements, soon leads to major traffic problems or undesirable street changes or both.  In an attempt to avoid this problem a “Level of Service” (LOS) rating system was widely used in the past as a means of determining the projected traffic impacts of proposed developments on nearby intersections, streets and highways. Pursuant to the LOS measurement system, the various degrees of projected traffic congestion and intersection backups were assigned letters of the alphabet.  An intersection or roadway with only light traffic and few if any significant backups was assigned a grade of “A”.  As the letters progressed the problems got worse.  A grade of LOS “E” or “F” signaled serious and excessive future traffic congestion.  Knowing these effects early in a prospective development’s design phase gave… or at least should have given… planners and municipal officials a useful tool for controlling the situation by requiring developers to adjust their designs and their project plans to avoid destructive impacts on nearby roadways. That’s the way LOS should have worked.  Unfortunately,  the way it too often did work was to provide developers with a handy means of pressuring planners and local officials into increasing the auto-carrying capacity of nearby streets and roadways.  This perverted way of applying the LOS measure caused a great amount of damage to cities like San Francisco.  As defined under SB 743, LOS is no longer used and developers are now free to ignore LOS effects when preparing their EIR’s.  It is now envisioned that Vehicle Miles Travel (VMT) will be the new way of assessing the effects of growth and development in California.

Vehicle Miles Traveled(VMT).  In recent decades the Legislators and others became increasingly aware of how excessive automobile use was causing environmental damage in terms of fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and nightmarish traffic congestion.  As a result there was an increasing interest in placing limits on the amount of driving that could occur in a given region. Measuring VMT in crowded places like the Bay Area, it was reasoned, would provide what was needed to keep track of the vehicle miles traveled and then impose restraints on driving when and as necessary.  With VMT, local and regional officials, instead of continuing to saddle most travelers with only the driving option, would now be able to determine the amount of VMT in various parts of the region and then apply constraints as necessary.  The anticipated result is to bring about a more appropriate mix of train, bus, boat, bicycle and car travel.

The Right Combination:  Adding the VMT safeguard was both warranted and necessary.  The excessive use of automobiles in the Bay Area is now obvious to anyone with a brain.  However, in eliminating LOS entirely, SB 743 went too far.  It’s true that in the past LOS was often misused by developers to pressure public officials into increasing the capacity of streets to handle more traffic, usually at the expense of other city values.  However, that doesn’t mean that LOS, if used properly, couldn’t remain an important means of ascertaining the projected congestion-producing effects of a proposed development on its immediate surroundings.  Armed with that information officials would then be in a position to require that the developer make changes as necessary to avoid the problem.  The cumulative transportation effects of local and regional growth of whatever type could and should be measured and controlled by VMT.  The streets and highways near proposed developments could and should be protected by the proper use of LOS.  In other words it’s not LOS or VMT, it’s LOS and VMT.  The SB 743 decision to eliminate LOS as a measuring tool should be corrected forthwith.

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 5. Click here to go back to the newsletter.