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Take Action: Tell Council to Keep VMT!

Posted by Blair Miller on Thursday, January 9, 2020

(aka Didn’t We Do This Already?)

A poster, featuring a person riding a bike, asking people to email their councilmembers by January 13 in support of VMT

The tl;dr for those who don’t nerd out over policy

In 2014, Pasadena became the first city in California to adopt progressive new metrics (known as “VMT”) for predicting the traffic impacts of new residential or commercial projects, and for determining what needs to be done to relieve those impacts. Shortly after Pasadena adopted the new pro-environment VMT metrics, the state of California followed Pasadena’s lead.

Bringing to mind the many EPA rollbacks we saw last year – now this progress is threatened. Next week, Pasadena’s City Council will review the City’s approval process for new developments. As part of the review, they appear to be considering a rollback to an outdated measure (known as “LOS”) that prioritizes car speeds above everything else – safety, clean air, climate, and livability.

We’ve backslid enough on a national level; let’s not backslide locally. You can help by sending an email, attending the meeting, or both!

Action 1: E-mail City Council by Monday, January 13 at noon: "Keep our streets safe and livable for everyone!"

Sample Email:

To: mjomsky@cityofpasadena.net
bcc: info@pasadenacsc.org
Subject: I support VMT!

Dear Honorable Mayor and Councilmembers,

Our City deserves to have streets that are safe and livable for all users. In 2014, Pasadena set the standard for California by being the first to adopt VMT. Before this change, the most important thing about a street was how fast the cars on it could move. Now we can consider how close new housing is to jobs and retail. This allows us to design our streets for people, not only cars.

Please maintain VMT as our impact metric.

Sincerely,
[Your name]

Action 2: Show your support in person!

Monday, January 13, 2020 @ 6:30 p.m.
Pasadena City Council Chambers, 100 Garfield Avenue, 2nd Floor

(Note: this item is last on the agenda, and it is likely to be a long meeting!)


So, I’m a policy nerd; what’s the full story?

In 2014, Pasadena became the first city in California to adopt progressive new metrics (“Vehicle Miles Traveled”, or “VMT”) for predicting additional vehicle traffic added by new residential or commercial development, and for determining the mitigations needed to address the impact of those additional cars. This means that Pasadena now considers the location of housing relative to jobs, schools, and shopping.

Previously, Pasadena used a metric (Level of Service, or LOS) that prioritized car speeds at the expense of the safety and comfort of other people using the streets. Shortly after Pasadena adopted the new VMT metrics, they were adopted statewide.

What is “LOS”?

LOS is a really easy metric to understand – if more cars are added to the road, and nothing about the road is changed, eventually driving speeds will be reduced (measured as “Levels A – D”) or cars may even be stuck at a signal for more than one cycle (Level F). It’s worth noting that Level A is what you experience driving on the road at 3 AM (when nobody else is around) – in general, cities aim for a Level C or D (turning your grade school conditioning on its head).

Changes to the road to increase the driving speeds even with the potential additional traffic could include:

The other potential mitigation could be:

The latter makes perfect sense (not withstanding the economic hit of a lower tax base and fewer shops and restaurants to enjoy) IF the following assumptions are true:

A. A city or town has no jobs or schools or retail that can be reached by walking, transit or bicycle.

Thankfully, this is not the case in Pasadena. Indeed, Pasadena’s jobs base has been growing, offering more employment opportunities here in town. Our local businesspeople and retailers have been weathering the retail apocalypse better than many other cities, thanks in part to our relatively vibrant, walkable downtown districts.

B. Making a street easier/faster to navigate by car does not encourage additional vehicle trips.

Verifiably false. In 2015, CalTrans completed a $1 billion project to widen the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass. Five years later, traffic is worse. This is known as “induced demand”.

What is “VMT”?

VMT is a slightly more complicated metric. It predicts a project’s incremental contribution to the city-wide “vehicle miles per capita” by projecting how many vehicle miles will be traveled by people living or working in the new homes at the new jobs.

VMT considers trips that begin inside Pasadena, end in Pasadena, or both. The City’s VMT is divided by the City’s total service population, defined as the residential population plus the number of jobs.

For example, if a home is relatively close to a Metro Gold Line Station and within walking distance to shops and services, the VMT per capita may be relatively low. If a home is far away from transit and shops, the VMT will be higher.

Because the vast majority of the new residential and commercial projects are in the Central District or near a Gold Line Station, most of them have relatively low VMT.

Does Pasadena use other metrics besides VMT and LOS?

There are also other metrics used in Pasadena:

So we no longer care about cars getting stuck at multiple light cycles?

Don’t worry! Pasadena does care about this - the Department of Transportation always studies street segments and intersections within the influence area of the proposed development. Those studies include:

Once VMT, VT, facilities, accessibility, and street segments and intersections have been analyzed, officials then review the data and models to identify transportation impacts and make recommendations to improve the safety and flow of traffic for all road users.

Why did we move from LOS to VMT?

Because VMT incentivizes streets that are safe and appealing for all people, not just for streets that are fast (and by the way, more dangerous) for people driving cars. A recent in-depth history of Pasadena in Salud America included an interview with former Director of Pasadena Department of Transportation, Fred Dock. He describes how Pasadena decided to look at moving away from using LOS.

After collecting and analyzing the data, staff recognized that travel delay was not happening to the extent they had initially predicted. There were no major increases in commute times during peak travel. Mr. Dock and his team also recognized that congestion mitigation strategies were making it more dangerous and more difficult for people to walk and bike…. Mr. Dock proposed that projects be scored [not only on] their impact on traffic congestion, but also on their value in improving social, environmental, economic, and health goals.

Why is VMT better than LOS?

A city designed to reduce traffic delays ends up having terrible environmental consequences.

Slower traffic may be occasionally inconvenient. In contrast, a city designed to reduce traffic delays ends up having terrible environmental consequences.

One option is to build “out” not “up”. However, building housing in far-flung areas away from jobs depletes our open space and wild habitats, encroaches on farmable land and increases the cost of food, reduces the time people can spend with their families, and causes our greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water use, and pollution to skyrocket.

The other option is to continue amending our built environment to ensure that cars can move unimpeded (e.g., by widening all the roads). This creates an environment where walking and biking feels (and is) dangerous, and will make it ever harder for us to fight climate change by getting people to choose climate-resilient transportation. Speedy streets are dangerous, and they’re not fun places to shop or eat, much less live.

A chart showing that the risk of death increases exponentially with car speed.

What happened when Pasadena upgraded from LOS to VMT?

Pasadena’s decision was lauded across the state. From San Mateo County:

“The City of Pasadena became the first city in California to implement the provisions of SB 743, a landmark piece of legislation that shifts emphasis of transportation impact analysis away from Level of Service (LOS) and toward vehicle miles of travel (VMT) projected for proposed development projects. Prior to making this shift, Pasadena staff conducted an extensive stakeholder outreach and education effort over a five-year period, including workshops for decision makers. The result is an exemplary outreach process and a sophisticated set of procedures for evaluating the transportation impact of proposed new development.

As a victory lap, the City of Pasadena developed Transportation Impact Analysis: Current Practice and Guidelines, which provides guidance on the effects of development projects on the city’s multimodal transportation system, and on livability and mobility for all stakeholders within the city.

As stated in the Guide, this multimodal analysis (VMT) focuses on local context without the one-size fits all rules that had been used in many communities.

How does VMT enhance the quality of life in Pasadena?

When we prioritize fast traffic over destination appeal, we reduce our quality of life and undermine our own economic base.

One of the reasons that Pasadena has attracted and retained employers and retail is that it’s a comfortable place to live, which includes beautiful neighborhoods with older homes, tree-lined streets, and great shopping districts.

Making decisions based on Level of Service creates streets that help cars move quickly. But think about living or trying to go for a walk on a street with multiple car lanes, and think about those cars speeding past you - does that sound like a high quality of life?

Now imagine trying to visit a restaurant on that same street. When we prioritize fast traffic over destination appeal, we undermine our own economic base.

A slide showing that a street built to prioritize fast cars tends to also be at an economic disadvantage

Slide from presentation by Fred Dock and Jeff Tumlin on Lesson from LOS Reform

So if this change was made in 2014, why are we talking about it in 2020?

The new standards seem to be working: City staff monitor the amount of time it takes to drive across Pasadena on various east-west and north-south routes. These times have increased in the last 10 years, but in proportion to the increase in the population. The amount of time is measured in seconds over miles. Also, our commercial districts are doing well, especially given the “retail apocalypse” that is affecting local commercial districts all over the country.

Unfortunately, perception does not always match reality. Some people believe that new developments are creating terrible traffic problems, and that it takes twice as long to get from Point A to Point B than it did 5 or 10 years ago.

So, even though slower streets are safer streets, and slower (and greener) streets are more livable streets, and slower (and walkable) streets are more economically viable streets, and even though giving people options to move safely without cars will give us cleaner air and more options to act on climate, the Pasadena City Council has requested a review of the City’s approval process for new developments, and to possibly return to LOS.

Sounds dark. Should I do anything?

Yes, please! Scroll up or click for email instructions or the meeting information to let council know that you’d like to stay in the current decade.

Have you written about this before?

Yes, we have! In 2014, when Pasadena adopted the new metrics, we wrote:

Even the State of California has recognized that LOS is at odds with “…modern state goals such as emission reductions, development of multi-modal transportation network for motor vehicles, infill development, and even optimization of the roadway network for motor vehicles,” and mandated that cities institute this reform by passing SB 743 in September 2013.

The Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition applauds the alignment (finally!) of these proposed Transportation Metrics with Pasadena’s General Plan and Green City Action Plan. Phasing out LOS will help tip the scale towards a healthier, safer and more vibrant Pasadena. Many thanks to all those stakeholders and local residents who as a whole devoted countless hours of their free time to supporting positive change in the City!

Tags: news, Pasadena, policy

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