The Governor's Office of Planning & Research is a month late in issuing its final recommendation on whether to replace "level of service" as the measurement of significant transportation impacts in transit priority areas under the California Environmental Quality Act. But there's not much mystery: OPR has sent clear signals that it is going to propose replacing LOS with vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.

A VMT standard would get California out from under constant use of CEQA to widen roads and facilitate auto travel – a strange environmental outcome if ever there was one – and it would align the CEQA Guidelines with state policy, especially AB 32, the state's greenhouse-gas emissions reduction law, which essentially requires a reduction in overall driving. But it would upend the longstanding practice of traffic engineers in practically every city and county in California. It's hard to know how localities would actually seek to translate a VMT standard into day-to-day practice in reviewing both plans and projects – or whether they would continue to use outside transit areas our outside the CEQA context.

SB 743 required OPR to come up with an alternative standard by July 1 – at least for transit priority areas. OPR's December "preliminary evaluation"(see prominently considered switching over to the "Vehicle Miles Traveled" (VMT) standard, saying travel distances were easier to predict than congestion levels and that mitigation approaches focused on reducing VMT would do more to promote bicycle, foot and mass transit methods of travel. The document also invited discussion of other standards: Automobile Trips Generated, Multi-Modal Level of Service (including LOS ratings for transit, walking and biking), Fuel Use, and Motor Vehicle Hours Traveled. And perhaps most important, the December document suggested that some geographical areas might be under a "presumption of less than significant transportation impact" category if those areas are already well served by transit.

All this strikes at the very heart of traffic analysis as it has been conducted in California at least since the passage of the Congestion Management Act in the early ‘90s, a law that more or less requires CEQA analyses to take traffic congestion into account. ( Obviously, free-flowing traffic can, under some circumstances, reduce air pollution – meaning that, counter-intuitive as it seems, expanding road capacity can improve environmental conditions.

But the truth of the matter is that CEQA analyses rarely make the connection between traffic congestion and any type of environmental harm. Most cities and counties simply adopt some particular LOS standard as a significance threshold that requires an environmental impact report. And the real driver of both time and expense in the typical EIR is the traffic analysis, which hogs financial resources compared to other topics. This, of course, makes all development projects more expensive and time-consuming and sometimes has put infill development at a disadvantage.

Maybe most significant is how all the people involved in CEQA project review – traffic modelers most of all – have come to regard CEQA and LOS-based traffic analysis as so intertwined that they can't be separated out. CEQA provides a lot of the leverage that localities in California use to get developers to cough up traffic improvements. After all, if as a planner you frame conditions for an approval so they require a developer to do something as a mitigation under CEQA, the developer and everyone else concerned can be held accountable under a state law that lends itself to easy litigation. The planners and modelers feel like they have a lot of leverage; and the neighbors are confident that you're trying to solve the congestion problem. If you try to require developers to pay for traffic improvements outside the context of CEQA, you have to rely on your own … policy, which can be … changed, and not so easily … litigated. The whole thing makes everybody pretty uncomfortable.

But there comes a point in an infill context where LOS no longer makes sense. At its core, the LOS standard drives a congestion analysis that boils down to – oversimplifying here, but not much – "How many cycles of a red light does a typical motorist have to wait through before they clear the intersection?" (Congestion on road segments is also analyzed, but that's not nearly as big a problem.) If your goal is to keep traffic flowing no matter how much traffic there is, you'll try two different types of mitigation measures. First, you'll expand the overall roadway capacity. And then, second, you'll fiddle around the edges as much as possible by adding more left-turn lanes and so forth.

And if none of that works, then you'll adopt a statement of overriding consideration, saying you simply can't fix the traffic congestion. And, oddly, that's another CEQA security blanket for a lot of localities in California, because it gives them an "out" under state law that is hard to challenge in court. Letting traffic congestion exist outside the context of CEQA makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.

But we are rapidly reaching the point in many California cities where there is simply no way to mitigate your way out of the problem by building more traffic improvements. Traffic congestion is so bad that statements of overriding consideration are becoming more common.

So, not surprisingly, a few leading-edge cities are beating the state to the punch by moving away from LOS – San Francisco and San Jose especially. (See More are likely to follow, especially if the state adopts an alternative standard.

That doesn't mean that local traffic modelers won't do congestion analysis. There's too much pressure on them to ignore congestion completely. They'll just do it outside the CEQA context. And especially at the plan level, it will be difficult to differentiate between transit priority areas and other locations, as the plans may straddle those boundaries. It'll be an interesting test of the power of non-CEQA conditions of approval to see whether localities can extract congestion improvements from developers outside of CEQA. (After all, this somehow happens in every other state.)

The more interesting question may be how localities interpret and implement a VMT approach. You can see this working way better at the plan level than the project level – where you can rejigger the land uses (and maybe create more mixed-use) to drop VMT below a level of significance. But how do you do that at the project level? You run the risk of re-fighting the plan's land uses, something the courts have taken pains to discourage. 

More likely, a VMT standard will morph at the local level into something that kind of looks like a multi-modal LOS. In essence, cities will conclude that VMT for a particular project is high because everybody is forced to drive. Unable to solve the congestion problem either, they will seek to reduce both VMT and congestion by getting developers to build or pay for other transportation improvements, especially transit and the pedestrian connections required to connect the project to the transit lines.

This won't work everywhere; as SPUR pointed out in the article linked to above, smaller cities and rural areas may still use the LOS standard. And it won't be easy, because a significant increase in transit capacity requires huge capital investments far behind the ability of individual developers to pay and it may require them to commit to long-term operation subsidies, which are hard to enforce. 

But with VMT becoming the preferred approach to assessing transportation effects of new projects, we may see transportation planning become more flexible, and more genuinely linked to environmental protection, as it moves away from the special constraints of the CEQA process.