September 16, 2015 - From the September, 2015 issue

Point/Counterpoint | Amanda Eaken: Switch to VMT Supports California Climate Goals

This interview—a companion to TPR’s conversation with Jennifer Hernandez—features NRDC Deputy Director for Urban Solutions Amanda Eaken. She explains why the move to measure traffic impacts under CEQA using VMT aligns with California’s green-house gas reduction priorities and incentivizes the creation of sustainable communities reliant on public transit and active transportation. Eaken argues that SB 743 should be implemented without delay, in contrast to Hernandez.

Amanda Eaken

“ In the year 2015, in a state as progressive as is an embarrassment that we’re still using an automobile-oriented transportation metric.” —Amanda Eaken

Amanda, you and Jennifer Hernandez disagree regarding SB 743 implementation. Could you summarize how your view differs from those, like Jennifer, who wish to postpone implementation?

Amanda Eaken: In the year 2015, in a state as progressive as California—with climate goals that set standards for the world—it is an embarrassment that we’re still using an automobile-oriented transportation metric to evaluate the environmental impacts of transportation and development projects. We have a statute in place through SB 375, passed in 2008, that directs the state to make connections between land use, transportation, and climate change—encouraging transportation choices and sustainable, walkable, transit-oriented communities. Regions are taking active measures to implement that law. But our premier Environmental Quality Act disincentivizes achieving that vision. We need to make this change to CEQA in order to permit all of the good development around the state as a result of SB 375 to materialize. 

I understand that there’s concern around change. But for the state to go on condoning Level of Service as the primary mode of transportation impact analysis is totally inconsistent with its climate goals under AB 32, with its sustainable communities goals under SB 375, and with Caltrans’ own Strategic Management Plan goals to double the share of people walking and taking transit and to triple the share of people biking by 2020.

What is the status of AB 779, which seeks to postpone the implementation of SB 743?

I believe that the authors have decided they don’t have support for the bill this year, so they’ve pulled it to make it a two-year bill. (I believe it was also amended to remove the delay provision.)

With what consequences?

None. AB 779 was going to intervene and attempt to stop a preexisting process. Since that bill has been taken off the table for this year, the Office of Planning and Research’s work continues apace. SB 743 implementation proceeds without delay.

Jennifer has expressed concern that SB 743, if implemented today, would lead to even more—not less—CEQA litigation because VMT legal analyses are untested. Your response?

VMT is not an unprecedented metric in CEQA. We already do VMT analysis as part of GHG analysis under CEQA. That’s actually one of the reasons OPR chose VMT, as opposed to a new metric that would have been unprecedented.

In fact, VMT is simpler to calculate than Level of Service. By some estimates, running the model takes about a tenth of the time. It’s less expensive. That makes sense, because you’re trying to anticipate the impacts of a particular development project—let’s call it a transit-oriented, mixed-use one. For VMT, you’re just analyzing the impacts of the people from that development. Various metrics and models can help us do that. But if you’re trying to anticipate LOS, you have to take all the driving you anticipate from your project and then make assumptions—not just about how those trips will fit into the system, but also about everyone else’s transportation choices in a particular neighborhood. It’s more complex, involving a great deal more speculation and assumption.

In addition, the proposed guidelines would give local governments greater legal deference on their VMT determinations than they currently have with the LOS metric. So, it would be less feasible to litigate a VMT determination than it is now to litigate a traffic study based on LOS, another step OPR is trying to take to promote and protect infill.

VMT is not untested. It has been part of GHG and other Air Quality analyses for a long time, including the San Joaquin Valley APQD’s Indirect Source Rule, which was court tested and upheld.

It’s been reported that there’s a split among infill developers over the impact of SB 743 implementation. Could you comment?

The Council of Infill Builders opposes the delay in AB 779 and supported SB 743 initially. These are infill developers with infill projects I can point to that they’ve built.

If infill builders are writing support letters and op-eds around this change from LOS to VMT, then who’s behind this particular delay legislation? I’m not too familiar with the developers involved with the Infill Builders Federation—the group that Jennifer affiliates herself with—but as I understand it, their membership runs the gamut from those pursuing infill to those with a more traditional greenfield sprawl business model. I’d have to imagine it’s difficult for that group to take policy positions, because their members need to pursue regulatory changes that favor both infill and greenfield development. I wonder if that’s what’s going on here. 

Could you describe the results in California of using Level of Service to determine environmental impact?

The important thing to ask ourselves is what metric we’re using to analyze impacts. What goal are we setting up for CEQA analysis? The new law plainly says that automobile delay, as measured by Level of Service or other metrics, will not be considered an environmental impact under CEQA. That’s important because when we set up the goal as moving cars quickly above all else, we do all the wrong things in mitigation measures. 

We remove pedestrian crosswalks and make it harder for people to walk. We widen roads, which makes it less likely that people will ride their bikes or walk there—since wider roads tend to have higher speeds, and longer crossing distances make people less likely to walk and more likely to drive. Under LOS, a bicycle lane or transit-only lane looks bad for the environment—a completely perverse finding, since biking and using transit are better for the environment than driving.


Jennifer stated in her companion interview that OPR’s proposal to require VMT analysis of transportation impacts provided no relief from LOS as it relates to other public safety and air quality issues covered by CEQA. Is she wrong?

As OPR has made clear, they respect the jurisdiction of local governments to require LOS analysis as part of transportation planning and circulation elements. OPR does not interfere with a city’s authority to do that, which is appropriate. 

OPR is clarifying that, as the primary measure of a project’s transportation impact under CEQA, Level of Service is antiquated and has outlived its useful life. Nothing requires LOS to be used in public safety or air quality analyses. In fact, Caltrans is updating its own guidance documents to look at better ways to address safety. Also, notably, air districts have praised the move away from LOS to VMT.

Jennifer might say: It’s fine if cities like Pasadena test this out, and the framework for VMT as a metric is settled. But until that happens, introducing both VMT and LOS only slows down infill projects. How would you respond?

I believe she’s wrong. First, no one is introducing LOS. SB 743 removed it from CEQA. Second, OPR has proposed additional streamlining for infill by calling out transit-oriented projects that are going to have a lower VMT impact and indicating that they’re not required to do transportation analysis anymore, whatever the metric. They’re exempt from both VMT and LOS analysis under CEQA. Third, even if local governments continue to require LOS studies for planning purposes, LOS cannot be a basis for a CEQA challenge, which means that projects will be easier to defend. OPR is trying to protect infill projects to give them an easier path. 

Jennifer’s an attorney working for various clients with various goals. I’m an environmentalist, advocating policy change to help achieve our state’s climate goals. Ask infill developers who are actually trying to pursue infill whether they think this change is going to be advantageous. The Council of Infill Builders—well-reputed infill developers—want this change. Can’t that stand for itself? 

How does SB 743 impact the state’s greenfield developers?

SB 743 aims to transition away from LOS to VMT for all projects statewide.

Under LOS, the primary question to clear the hurdle of CEQA analysis is: Will your project add to unacceptable levels of congestion? Therefore, will you have to engage in extensive mitigation measures?

Imagine that I want to build at the edge of an urban area where there’s not a lot of traffic congestion. My project is aimed toward auto-oriented development and my assumption is that everyone will drive for every trip. Therefore, I will create net significantly more vehicle miles traveled with significantly more environmental pollution then an infill project would. Under an LOS metric, my project would get a pass because there’s a lot of capacity on that roadway to handle more traffic congestion—even though the actual environmental impact from transportation is significantly higher!

Infill projects are often located where there is already significant congestion on the roadway. The absolute environmental impact of my infill project, on a VMT-per-household basis, is significantly lower—because I’m served with transit choices, walking and biking, and even if I drive, I’m likely driving shorter distances. The LOS framework disfavors that project. If you add, in some cases, one more automobile trip, it triggers a very expensive EIR. Then you’re saddled with mitigation measures that aim to achieve the wrong goals: widening roads so you can cram in more cars, fiddling with left-turn lane intersections, and eliminating pedestrian crosswalks.

If the goal of the Environmental Quality Act is to move cars more quickly, widening highways looks like a fantastic idea. But we know through reams of literature and research that widening roads induces more driving. In some cases, new capacity is snatched up in a matter of years. 

We’ve got to flip that around so that the transportation investments that are good for our environmental goals are favored by CEQA, while widening roads and eliminating pedestrian crosswalks are disfavored. Changes under SB 743 will mean that developers across the state will no longer be forced to invest in expensive, and environmentally harmful, capacity enhancements. We don’t have time to delay any further.

What do you expect will result at the conclusion of OPR’s SB 743 rule-drafting process ?

I believe they’re going to issue VMT as the replacement metric. There’s still a bit of uncertainty around the timeline, but I believe it’s due early or mid next year.

I’ve facilitated conversations with people from Portland to Des Moines who say, “We want to make our downtown safe and walkable, but Level of Service is preventing us from putting in a crosswalk and making our streets safer for our children.” 

California has a responsibility to lead the way on creating a new framework here. The regulations we put forth will be watched by jurisdictions around the country, who will hopefully build off of our experience and move toward a sustainable framework for transportation planning.


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