Replacing LOS: Experts Debate How CA Should Measure Transpo Impacts

California is shaping a new transportation planning metric to foster transit-oriented development, such as this proposed affordable housing project at Los Angeles’ Soto Gold Line Station in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Image: L.A. Metro

California planning experts continue to debate how to most effectively measure transportation impacts in a way that will foster smarter growth, after the state abandoned the car-centric metric known as Level of Service (LOS).

California is looking to reduce its “vehicle miles traveled” by encouraging infill development near transit, but the devil is in the details. Image: Federal Highway Administration

The acronym-laden process of measuring transportation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) may be complex and wonky, but it’s certainly important. In creating a replacement for LOS, the CA Office and Planning and Research (OPR) will shape the future of development in California for many years to come.

SB 743, passed last year, mandated that the state create a replacement metric for LOS to measure the transportation impacts of developments under CEQA. The Office of Planning and Research has proposed a metric called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), which would measure the amount of driving developments would generate, instead of focusing solely on minimizing delays for drivers.

OPR has made several other suggestions in their proposed guidelines, and are seeking public input to help them refine the changes. Specifically, they are asking for help on the following questions:

  1. Under the proposed guidelines, any project built within a half mile of transit with frequent service (running at least every 15 minutes) would be deemed to have no significant impact on travel, and wouldn’t have to undergo a VMT review. Is this an appropriate rule? Are there other factors that should be considered?
  2. What amount of vehicle miles generated by a development should be considered significant, and thus require an environmental impact report (EIR)? Who should decide what those levels are?
  3. What kinds of strategies should be used to mitigate increases in vehicle miles generated by a project?

Two expert panels were held this week to address these questions. A panel including planners, engineers, attorneys, consultants, and an infill developer came together at a Sacramento forum to discuss the proposed guidelines at the first event. The next evening, the University of San Francisco’s Environmental Law Society invited several attorneys with opposing viewpoints to discuss CEQA, state climate change laws, and the proposed guidelines.

Although there has been some public sparring over the change, and not all of the feedback OPR has received on its proposed guidelines has been positive, there was more agreement than not at both panel discussions. For example, panelists agreed that Level of Service is not the right way to measure the environmental effects of a project.

OPR staff maintains that eliminating Level of Service would make it simpler and cheaper to develop infill projects, which can help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals by reducing driving and encouraging transit, walking, and bicycling. A large part of that cost savings would come from eliminating the need for an environmental impact report.

Michael Schwartz, senior planner at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and a participant in the university panel, said LOS was “the only reason [San Francisco] had to complete an environmental impact report for the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project.”

“By no other measure would the project have impacted the environment negatively,” he said. “Without LOS, we would have saved millions of dollars and several years of delay.”

But the details of how to apply the new measure still need to be worked out.

Several panelists at the Sacramento meeting took issue with the proposal to automatically exempt projects built near transit. “Different factors affect mode split — not just proximity to transit,” said Viktoriya Wise of the San Francisco Planning Department. “There’s the density and diversity of a project. You also have to take into account transit reliability. And where does the transit go? Destinations are important, not just how often it runs.”

She pointed out that almost all of San Francisco is “within a half mile of transit,” yet there are plenty of projects being built there that are “not particularly transportation efficient, and that under this proposed criteria would get a free pass.”

“We’re uncomfortable that, by virtue of one single factor, we would presume a less than significant impact,” said Amanda Eakin of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “At a minimum, you would want to add in an examination of the amount of parking provided at a project. And, ideally, you would also include density, diversity, and some measure of job access.”

“I recognize there’s a tension here, that we’re trying to make this a simple, clear process,” she said, “but we also want to make sure these projects are actually going to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.”

Eakin also questioned the draft guideline’s proposal suggesting that the threshold of miles traveled beyond which some mitigation would be required could be set at current average regional levels.

“It’s clear that we need to lower vehicle miles traveled,” she said. “If the guidelines say ‘average is good enough,’ we’ll do nothing to lower the average. On what science is that ‘average’ based? The message is also problematic. California is looked to for leadership on climate change. Should we strive for mediocrity?”

Jeff Tumlin, senior planner with the transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, pointed out that local planning agencies use VMT baselines that differ widely throughout the state. “As planners, we are routinely called upon to reduce vehicle miles traveled by up to forty percent,” he said. “Why not set a threshold of fifteen percent below any of the local baselines, including General Plans, county or regional averages, and Sustainable Communities Strategies?” he asked. “This way local jurisdictions can set their own thresholds, as long as they meet that fifteen percent reduction.”

At the meeting the next evening in San Francisco, a panel of attorneys discussed legal ramifications of replacing Level of Service with a different metric.

“Why would you give another tool to the litigant that just wants to fight the projects [the state wants to encourage]?” asked Jennifer Hernandez of the law firm Holland & Knight.

“We have to make the rules clearer,” she said. “CEQA is fabulous. But we only get it right half the time. The overwhelming remedy for CEQA, as practiced, is to undo the entire project, rather than fixing the issues” under litigation.

Ethan Elkind, professor of law at UC Berkeley and UCLA, said that it’s easy to blame CEQA for preventing good development. “There are other factors that make infill development difficult, including zoning, height restrictions, parking requirements — and you have to throw Prop. 13 in there too,” he said.

The purpose of adding a measure of vehicle miles traveled to CEQA, said Elkind, is to encourage more infill development where there is good transit, thus reducing miles of travel and greenhouse gas emissions.

“VMT is the one metric that separates infill from sprawl,” said Elkind. By measuring and mitigating the vehicle miles induced by development projects, “We’re more likely to see mixed developments, transit connections, transit passes — the kinds of things that reduce vehicle miles traveled.”

“This puts the ‘E’ back in CEQA,” he said.

Comments can be submitted to the Office of Planning and Research until November 21 here.

  • TransitWiki

    Currently, CEQA and SB 375 (the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act) are at odds with each other. Abandoning CEQA’s Level of Service metric would go a long way toward making these two laws more compatible. Learn more about SB 375 on TransitWiki’s site: http://ow.ly/DZwPq.

  • Juan Matute

    Great article, Melanie.

  • Darren

    Forgive me if this has already been brought up, but couldn’t parking requirements make it difficult to remain under a VMT threshold? Parking availability heavily influences VMT, regardless of walkability or transit accessibility. Therefore, isn’t it possible that some projects could have high density, mixed use, excellent transit, and ped-friendly design, yet still surpass the VMT significance threshold because they provide ample free/cheap parking (which in turn encourages driving and higher VMT)?

  • This is a tough issue. On the one hand I want to encourage development near TOD and not let it be bogged down in dishonest complaints about “environmental” impacts, on the other hand I think giving a project a pass JUST because it’s near high quality transit is too big a pass because development near transit is so often NOT transit-oriented. But how do you create guidelines/regulations that don’t just replace one complex measure (LOS) with another complex measure?

    Some ideas:

    1. Maybe certain service requirements would have to be met by the transit to cause an exemption, going beyond just frequency to at least include on-time reliability, which would strongly incentivize transit-only lanes and make transit a realistic alternative for more people.

    2. Allow the exemption only if a project falls under a threshold for maximum parking (say, one space per unit at most). Right now most development in Hollywood has around 2 spaces per unit, and the idea that this is truly transit-oriented is kind of a joke.

    3. Transit isn’t the only alternative to driving so it makes sense that we’d also want to include something for bicycling and/or walking. This sounds hard to measure in practice though, so perhaps a count of jobs within a 1-mile radius would be a good proxy. Since even if you can do your daily errands and commuting on foot/bike, you still need a way to get to other neighborhoods, so transit would still probably play a factor, but perhaps a lower service standard would be allowed under circumstances of high walkability and local job access.

    Anyway, just some starter thoughts. Thanks for beginning the discussion.

  • “giving a project a pass JUST because it’s near high quality transit is too big a pass because development near transit is so often NOT transit-oriented”

    I don’t know if the City of Chicago’s planning department is a leader in this, but they’ve published documents (they’re online but a bit tough to find) that are guidelines for developing buildings near transit.

    In downtown Chicago, basically everything is “transit oriented” but in the neighborhoods it’s been pretty crappy. Some of that is changing now because of a “TOD ordinance” passed in 2013 that relieved developers from part of the parking minimum if they built near train stations and in some zoning districts gave them a bonus to build smaller units (minimum lot area).

    There have now been a dozen proposals (and some under construction) of buildings that take advantage of this ordinance. That means that “TOD” is starting to enter the resident-who-lives-nearby’s lexicon.

  • True Freedom

    GIven that the main motivation here is to determine if a development is helping us to achieve reduction in greenhouse gas emissions under SB375, we need metrics that measure a development against that goal. When it comes to auto emissions, the quality of the mile is extremely important but is not reflected in VMT. A mile in congested, stop and go traffic produces far more emissions that a mile on free flowing road. So, if we double the density to achieve a 30% reduction in VMT, we have actually increased *total* local miles driven by 40%. 40% more local miles driven means more local pollution where people actually live. Additionally, these new miles are much likely lower quality miles because 40% more local miles will likely increase congestion and stop and go driven situations.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I don’t know that this is a bad thing. If a developer provides lots of parking that increases VMT of residents, then the developer should have to mitigate that impact under CEQA. If a developer does not provide much parking, then there is not a VMT impact that needs to be mitigated.

    Maybe cities with high parking requirements will realize that they can get more development if they reduce the parking requirement, reduce the environmental impact of development, and remove the need for CEQA.

  • Ken

    The proposed amendments would use regional VMT as a baseline. The thinking is that you may end up with more congestion/delay around the infill project and you may even have more trips, those trips should be shorter and, compared to the region, VMT should be less. For a Sacramento example, the McKinley Village project could generate more local traffic, but it will also mean that fewer people will drive in from Folsom, Rancho Cordova, and other cities than without the project.

  • True Freedom

    so, in theory, regional VMT would be higher than the VMT from a proposed TOD development by some percentage. I see.

    So, people living/working around transit have the potential negative impact of more local congestion/ delays with the trade-off advantage of access to transit, more walkable, denser areas. Is that right?

    If so, we would have to make sure that the reduction in VMT was great enough to offset inefficiencies and increased emissions due to poor quality miles.. such that there’s a net positive gain in greenhouse emissions relative to building the development in a place that would have regional VMT.

    Even though, unless we get huge VMT reductions, the increase in population coupled with increase in poor quality miles will likely yield a net increase in regional greenhouse gases compared to what we have today..

    hopefully, pressures to create lower/ zero emission vehicles (especially diesels) will come to the rescue.

    additionally, I think there should be some feeback mechanism where VMT estimates used in evaluating a project are somehow verified after the project is built. This way, we can ensure that our VMT estimation process accurately reflects reality. It could be that job centers, habits, places of interest, etc change which could lead to much higher VMT in reality. (of course, the converse is true as well.. but it’s much better to make a mistake in overestimating :)

  • GlobalLA

    Short trip commutes constitutes a large percentage of local traffic. Dense TODs, especially mixed-uses, will actually reduce local VMT if, dense projects (as an aggregate) increases walkability in an area. Don’t forget that lots of traffic in any given area may also be regional through traffic. As more dense walkable communities spring up, regional transit traffic will also change. I understand employment centers also play key, but I’m pointing out that the biggest culprit of road trips are short trip generators (that can be mitigated with walkability).

  • True Freedom

    It may reduce “per capita VMT”, but you’ll have more “capita” so, unless per capita VMT reductions are extreme , then you’ll actually have an INCREASE in total Vehicle Miles Traveled because of the “more capita” part.

  • GlobalLA

    Very True, but let’s be realistic here. The key is to MITIGATE future traffic congestion due to natural growth, not to REDUCE or ELIMINATE it. Also, an important factor is mass public transportation that needs to commensurate the increased traffic. Infrastructural layout (walkable mixed-used projects next to each other), better design of streets, and mass transit ALL need to work together in synergy for any given area.

    One important thing to understand is that all these elements one happen all at once or reach their optimum due to NIMBYs, public budgets, fluctuating markets, and many other variables.

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