A major change in the way CEQA is now practiced in California is just around the corner. SB 743, signed into law on September 27, 2013, requires a shift in transportation analysis away from “level of service” for vehicular traffic (LOS) to alternatives that “promote the reduction of greenhouses gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses.” As specified by SB 743 the LOS replacement options may include but are not limited to “vehicle miles traveled, vehicle miles traveled per capita, automobile trip generation rates, or automobile trips generated.”

Underpinning this shift is the realization that traffic congestion is a social impact and not a physical impact to the environment as required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In fact, most mitigations intended to alleviate projected traffic congestion have a negative cumulative impact on the environment. From the perspective of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, the current practice of traffic mitigation through LOS analysis couldn’t have been more ineffectual.

SB 743 requires the Governor’s Office of Planning Research (OPR) to amend the CEQA Guidelines to provide an alternative to LOS that will align more effectively with genuine environmental goals—primarily GHG reduction. In OPR’s report “Preliminary Evaluation of Alternative Methods of Transportation Analysis” dated 12-30-14 six alternative transportation metrics are summarized: Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), Automobile Trips Generated (ATG), Multi-Modal Level of Service, Fuel Use, and Motor Vehicle Hours Traveled and “Presumption of Less Than Significant Transportation Impact Based on Location (PLSI).

Location is Everything

I would argue that PLSI is ultimately the most effective “metric” for reducing GHG emissions. GHG is reduced when future growth is concentrated in identified infill opportunity zones as defined by SB 743. The mitigation for the cumulative impacts of GHG is implicit in the project location. A project is either located in an “infill opportunity zone” or it isn’t. No other project level mitigation could be as effective in reducing GHG emissions.

I would also advocate, either through implementing guidelines or an amendment to SB 743, that some measure of discretion be granted to COGs in establishing the boundaries of “infill opportunity zones” such that the precise interpretation of “transit priority areas” (an area within one-half mile of a major transit stop that is existing or adopted) does not become an impediment to good planning or otherwise desirable infill development. In general, the infill areas identified in an adopted Sustainable Community Strategy (SCS) are the prime candidates for “infill opportunity zones” as this is where the real VMT reduction planning should be occurring. In San Diego County, the focus would be on SANDAG’s Smart Growth Concept Areas—primarily urban, town and community centers served by transit. Although SB 743 refers to “infill opportunity zones” I would rather use the term “infill opportunity areas” to acknowledge the need for planning flexibility in determining the targeted infill areas.

With PSLI, the VMT/GHG reduction analysis occurs with the identification of the “infill opportunity areas.” To fully comply with SB 743 each “infill opportunity area” should be evaluated to determine if it has or is planned to have a “multi-modal transportation network” and the opportunity through land use coding to accommodate “a diversity of land uses.” Once the “infill opportunity areas” are identified and vetted, project-by-project transportation analysis becomes almost superfluous. Granted, VMT or ATG metrics applied through the CEQA process may result in useful mitigation measures such as limiting parking, removal of curb cuts and provision of pedestrian, bicycle and transit access amenities, but these requirements should be built into the land use code. Within “infill opportunity areas” the value added through the CEQA process is minimal. Outside the “infill opportunity areas” VMT or ATG based mitigations may have some value in reducing GHG emissions, but the metrics themselves are not likely to effect a change in project location. If SB 743 is to be effective, incentives should, above all else, be geared to promote development within “infill opportunity areas.”

Historically LOS has played a huge role in determining traffic mitigations for automobile congestion with little concern for other modes and zero concern for GHG reduction. Presumably, VMT or ATG would change this paradigm. Within “infill opportunity areas” metrics like VMT or ATG would be most useful for determining multi-modal transportation impact fees for development. The impact fees would be specific to an area defined by the land use code such as a specific plan, precise plan or corridor plan. Further, transportation impact fees would be required for all projects, not just those subject to CEQA review. This gives more certainty to the entitlement process—an important pre-condition before most developers will even consider infill development. LOS may continue to play a role where street capacity is a legitimate concern, but it doesn’t belong under CEQA.

Test for New Transportation Metrics

It is widely anticipated that OPR will choose VMT or ATG as the alternative transportation metric. Either alternative would be a substantial improvement over LOS. But if using the new metric simply as a substitution for LOS doesn’t accelerate the pace of development in the “in-fill opportunity areas” the primary goal of SB 375 or SB 743 will remain unfulfilled. Continued slow growth in the areas targeted for development concentration would be a clear indication that the fundamental problem of location is not solvable by CEQA.

Certainly, PLSI would change the work performed by traffic consultants, environmental professionals, and planners who make their living producing CEQA documentation. It’s a sobering thought. But unless we can find a way to remove the impediments to infill development our effectiveness in addressing fundamental problems like global warming or creating more livable/walkable cities will remain compromised.

The silver lining is that this approach calls for real planning—a more coordinated and incentivized planning approach from regional plans, general plan updates and comprehensive transportation plans, to specific plans/precise plans/corridor plans and complete street revitalization projects—all aimed at fulfilling the potential of “infill opportunity areas.” I believe that this is the future of planning and the cities and consulting firms that embrace it will thrive.

Greg Konar is a founding member and the current Chair of the San Diego Complete Streets Task Force, a joint project by APA San Diego and Circulate San Diego. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessary reflect those of APA San Diego or Circulate San Diego.