Publication Detail

Leaving Level-of-Service Behind: The Implications of a Shift to VMT Impact Metrics



National Center for Sustainable Transportation

Suggested Citation:
Lee, Amy E. and Susan L. Handy (2018) Leaving Level-of-Service Behind: The Implications of a Shift to VMT Impact Metrics. Research in Transportation Business & Management in press

Concern about climate change has led to policies in California that aim to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation. Although these policies mostly promote technological innovations, some policies aim to reduce GHG emissions by reducing the amount of driving, measured in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), through land use and transportation planning. The focus on VMT reduction represents a dramatic shift for the land use and transportation planning fields, which have traditionally prioritized auto mobility by reducing vehicle delay, measured as level of service (LOS). California has taken the bold step to replace LOS with VMT as the metric of transportation impact in the environmental review process for land use and transportation plans and projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This study compares these two metrics – VMT and LOS – and their implications for a sample of land use projects located in Davis, California. We compare the LOS impacts analyzed in the environmental impact reports for the projects to forecasted VMT impacts that we quantify using several available VMT estimation models. Our analysis of LOS mitigation shows how the CEQA process per se impacts the built environment, often in ways that increase vehicle capacity and thus VMT. We find that a switch to VMT metrics may lead to streamlining for projects that reduce travel demand because of their location or design, whereas LOS metrics have led communities to build expensive, capacity-increasing mitigation measures to ease vehicle delay. Finally, we show that the vehicle capacity constructed to mitigate LOS may contravene the goals and aspirations of many communities in California, as well as the state's goals for GHG reductions, and is unlikely to solve the congestion problem caused by misplaced land use development.

Keywords: Vehicle miles traveled, Level of service, Environmental review, Senate Bill 743, Performance metrics, California