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).
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.