BLOG: Vehicle Miles Traveled – a Better Way to Measure Environmental Impacts of Development Projects
The San Francisco Planning Commission unanimously adopted a resolution updating the CEQA transportation impact analysis to use Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) – a metric that examines a project’s effect on overall travel, incentivizes shared and public transportation and supports California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.
The previous Level of Service (LOS) standard measured how many cars passed through an intersection in a given time and whether it will cause driving delay. This method was developed in the 1950s and often leads to the widening of streets or constructing new ones, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions. In a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) expert blog piece, Amanda Eaken, the Sustainable Communities Deputy Director, points out “the deep flaws of the LOS paradigm: it makes road widening look good for the environment, discourages infill, encourages traffic engineers to remove pedestrian crosswalks and slows transit projects.”
According to the Air Resources Board, the transportation sector generates nearly 40% of California’s GHG emissions, demonstrating vehicle use and distance traveled are major contributors to harmful environmental impacts. With VMT as the new metric, the CEQA analysis will encourage improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities and transportation systems. New York City is a great example of the positive impacts of less car travel. With nearly three quarters of Manhattan employees reaching work by public transportation and 56.5% of households without a car, the metropolitan is one of the nation’s lowest emitters of greenhouse gas per capita!
The state of California also recognized the need to modernize CEQA’s transportation analysis in 2014 and is in the process of revising their guidelines to replace LOS with VMT. The City of San Francisco, however, was eager to implement the new form of impact analysis rather than wait for state adoption.
In a recent press release, John Rahaim, Director of San Francisco Planning further explains his department’s decision, “Vehicle miles traveled is a much smarter approach to identifying the direct environmental effects of car use. It will streamline CEQA review for projects that are designed to encourage public transit, promote pedestrian safety and help reduce the need for traveling long distances by car. This is tremendous progress for San Francisco, and ultimately the State of California. We are pleased to be the first city in California to adopt these new guidelines.”