LOS to play more limited role in California planning, according to survey

By Chris McCahill

A new survey of planning officials in California finds that most are embracing the shift from highway level of service to vehicle miles traveled for evaluating the environmental impacts of new development projects. While some are ditching LOS altogether, however, many still rely on it to measure traffic impacts.

This unprecedented change in how environmental impacts are measured was prompted by California’s SB 743, which passed in 2013 and acknowledges the adverse effects that LOS considerations can have on multimodal access and infill development. All jurisdictions have to transition by July of 2020 but Pasadena and others have already made the necessary changes.

The new survey includes 77 high-level planning staff from cities and counties across California as they make the transition. While many are still finalizing their new rules, almost all of them (96 percent) feel VMT is the most appropriate metric or useful to some extent. Four times as many respondents (16 percent) find LOS inappropriate for measuring environmental impacts, compared to VMT (4 percent).

Few jurisdictions will use VMT outside of the environmental review process, according to the survey, but almost half will continue using LOS to determine traffic impact fees. Only four percent said they would use LOS exclusively and 40 percent will not use LOS at all. For its part, Caltrans is currently planning how to move from LOS to VMT for evaluating the environmental impacts of transportation projects but it will have more time to make the change.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.