Tag Archives: VMT

VMT Isn’t the Problem

For several years, people interested in transportation and urban planning have been discussing the impacts of motor traffic (mainly private cars) on all sorts of things. Over the last several decades, planning in much of the world has trended toward catering to car traffic, often at the expense of other modes of transportation. A popular measure of how much traffic there is is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which is as it sounds: a tally of how far vehicles are traveling. Here in America, that figure rose for several decades as more people drove more. All that driving has had a real impact on many different aspects of society.

In recent years, advocates are increasingly shining a light on the true effects of that impact, with many cities starting to take notice and advance (largely token) measures to address the imbalance. The advocates often point to VMT as part of the proof of the ills of the current transportation network in America and one state has even gone so far as to transition their traffic impact metrics to VMT instead of LOS that it is virtually everywhere else. But is VMT really the issue? Or perhaps a better way to ask the question is would the effects of cars on society be different if they weren’t going as far, particularly as it relates to the physical environment?

When approached from that point of view, the answer seems more clear: VMT is not the problem but merely a symptom. This will certainly come as a shock to many people who have argued that VMT is bad for several years. Certainly, there are several ills that increase as cars are driven more such as crashes, emissions, time spent away from family and home, and many other less-than-optimal outcomes. However, at the end of the day, VMT is just another metric that can be used to identify and describe the true problem: car-centric planning and design. But without acknowledging that the true problem is one of design priorities, not the metric, we risk taking the wrong approaches to addressing the issue because there are many car-centric solutions to the problem of high VMT which are ultimately detrimental to the goal of using VMT in the first place.

These solutions can take one of several forms. In some instances, new roads can shorten trip distances and there are even entire projects that shorten trip distances (i.e. grocery store in a community). Both of those types of projects can be completely car-centric and unusable by other forms of transportation, yet they can at least nominally, be recognized for reducing VMT because they technically do. However, few would say that such a project is actually beneficial to a community. New roads have the potential to induce driving while a project that brings shops closer but also plops a large parking lot in an otherwise quaint environment can degrade the quality of the neighborhood, including by ultimately injecting many more cars into a part of town that may have previously not been so heavily traveled.

At the other end of the spectrum, a people-centric environment can be detrimental to lower VMT by being designed to completely exclude cars or at least force through traffic to take a detour around the area that adds length to what would otherwise be a straight trip (see video below). Such a location sounds like it would be beneficial and desirable in many a community, but a focus on reducing VMT can lead to a project that would whittle away at the oasis in an attempt to provide a reduction in VMT. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same issue that has long been a hallmark and the bane of the LOS metric and led to calls for its removal. Under LOS, car-centric projects were advanced, even at the expense of all other modes, because they were projected to “improve” vehicular flow to maintain certain levels-of-service. Similarly, absent astute guidance and engaged leadership, that status quo threatens to continue under the guise of reducing VMT.

Of course, the future is far from certain. Advances in autonomous and electric vehicle technology may well mitigate the more pressing issues of private car use by reducing crashes and emissions. However, the use of VMT as the metric to measure how car-centered society is may well prove to just be a stepping stone to a broader realization that cars and people just don’t mix and that places where the latter are living, working, and generally going about their lives are not places where cars should be unless they’re just visiting.

SANBAG Releases I-10 HOV/HOT Lanes Draft EIR for Public Comment

The clock is now ticking after San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) finally released the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed I-10 HOV/HOT lanes this past Monday, April 25. With the comment period closing June 8, interested parties have just a little over a month to review and weigh in on several gigabytes worth of information. SANBAG really should’ve taken the proactive step and opened up for a 60-day comment period, but that ship is likely sailed. In either case, there will be a more in-depth review of the proposed projects at a later date, but it’s important to get the word out about the comment period.

A quick glance through the Executive Summary shows a project steeped in the height car-centric planning and design that has led to a region consistently ranked as highly sprawled and that is completely out-of-line with state goals and the economy of the 21st Century. Though the No Build is provided by way of comparison, the report focuses on the two build alternatives: extending the existing HOV lane from Haven Ave. in Ontario to Ford St. in Redlands or constructing HOT lanes from the LA/SBD county line through to Yucaipa. Those options come with a price tag of around $660mn or $1.7bn respectively, but either figure is almost certain to increase after more involved design and construction activities are undertaken.

Those price tags might ultimately be this project’s undoing. Although San Bernardino County’s Measure I allocates funding specifically for a HOV lane on I-10, it will likely not be anywhere near enough to cover the full cost of that alternative. Additionally, as the State continues to cut funding from transportation projects due to the volatility with gas tax income (which is set to enter free fall soon) as well as an increasing focus on moving the transportation paradigm away from its car-centric focus, it seems increasingly unlikely that SANBAG would be able to procure many State funds for a project so diametrically at odds with the State’s goals. Perhaps they will be able to get more luck out of the Feds, but even the USDOT has realized that we can’t build roads indefinitely.

This Draft EIR also provides some insight into recent reports that SCAG* is frantically fighting to delay the implementation of SB 743, which will replace LOS with VMT as a significant impact under CEQA, and is another prime example how other agencies are hampering Caltrans’ efforts to modernize. SCAG’s Transportation Committee is chaired by a representative from Ontario (by way of SANBAG), a city right at the literal crossroads of this project and a similar proposal for I-15 and where a sprawling new community of over 46,000 homes is currently under construction. The Executive Summary casually mentions that the two build options are forecast to result in a 3% (HOV) or 10% (HOT) increase in VMT, something which the forthcoming CEQA thresholds would certainly consider a rather significant impact in need of mitigation since they aim to set a threshold of significance at 15% below baseline. Needless to say, SANBAG and its member jurisdictions are not interested in being told that they need to reign in the parade of building more freeways and overbuilt stroads that dice up the region, even as they struggle to maintain what already exists.

Of course, a project this large has not gone ahead completely unnoticed. While the HOV option was expressly included in the Measure I extension that was passed way back in 2004 with around 80% support, the HOT option was not. Not surprisingly, SANBAG is seeking to get more bang for the buck by leveraging that money with private investment to build and operate the HOT option. However, the prospect of including tolls has piqued the interest of the Tea Party in the area, who have continued to turn out in force to protest this “Agenda 21 plan to force us out of our cars”. Considering that SANBAG and its member jurisdictions continue to build and widen roads with reckless abandon [PDF], that claim couldn’t be further from the truth. At the same time, they are attracting some public interest against the project, which may ultimately prove to be a blessing in disguise if it delays or stops the project.

As mentioned above, a far more in-depth (and boring) look at the project will be undertaken at some point in the future. But for now, it’s imperative that everyone head over to the project website, http://www.1015projects.com, access the Draft EIR documents, and comment on it. Though considering the size and magnitude of the document and project, it would be nice if SANBAG would extend the comment period, that doesn’t seem likely, so look and comment early. Comments can be sent to the following address:
Aaron Burton, Branch Chief, Caltrans District 8
Attn: I-10 CP Draft EIR/EIS Comment Period
464 W. 4th Street
San Bernardino, CA 9240

*Though SANBAG is large enough to be an MPO itself, the regional MPO is SCAG.

The New Tools that Will Help Protected Bike Lanes Flourish in the Inland Empire (and the rest of California too!)

All across the country, cities are rolling out protected bike lanes in unprecedented numbers. Early adopters like New York City and Chicago have been joined by a bevy of contenders as metropolises race to provide a better riding environment for all users from 8 to 88. These facilities have been hugely popular and have resulted in phenomenal gains in ridership numbers and often have increased safety of their respective corridors.

This curb-protected cycletrack on the campus of UCR is the only real protected bikeway the Inland Empire saw get installed last year.
This curb-protected cycletrack on the campus of UCR is the only real protected bikeway installed in the Inland Empire last year, but more could be on the way thanks to new legislation.

However, the benefits of safer bikeways continue to largely elude the residents of the Inland Empire. After years of being the most sprawled region in the nation and having the worst street environment for vulnerable road users in the state of California, leaving that legacy behind has been a long, drawn-out process. Thus far, the response has been what are largely meaningless token efforts in the grand scheme of things.

Regional Planning

Both SANBAG and WRCOG maintain non-motorized transportation plans, though they’re slightly different. The SANBAG document is mostly a snapshot at the city level and includes information on what each city and town has done and will be doing, but doesn’t include a lot of regional connectivity. Meanwhile, the WRCOG document [PDF] is primarily focused on establishing non-motorized corridors, many of them located along flood control channels, but doesn’t really give much information on what is occurring at the local levels. Those county-level documents are augmented by Bike and Trails Master Plans that have been completed by various cities.

But when it comes down to it, much of that planning has turned out to be useless. Hardly any of the Riverside trails have been completed and while several cities have been working on the stuff that is contained in their local Bike/Trails Master Plans, a lot of it is also just fluff. Most of those documents take the easy way out and put bikeways where it would be convenient and they usually disappear completely at intersections and other conflict points. Much of the stuff that might be better either doesn’t connect anywhere or is waiting for funding.

Class II bike lanes in the Inland Empire often are not even wide enough to fully fit the words.
Class II bike lanes in the Inland Empire often are not even wide enough to fully fit the words.

The result is a bunch of Class II ‘BIK LANs’* next to four- and six-lane arterials, hardly an 8-88 environment. That is standard even in new developments, while older ones are left with sharrows if anything at all.

Bike lanes give way to poorly-positioned 'sharrows' along 6th St. in Corona.
Bike lanes give way to poorly-positioned ‘sharrows’ along 6th St. in Corona.

Furthermore, compromises in design to meet LOS (level of service) requirements was often at the detriment of planned bikeways. Does an intersection “need” a dedicated turn lane? No problem, just end the bike lane sooner!

Change is Afoot

All of that is about to change. The passage of SB 743 in 2013 ripped out measuring traffic impacts using LOS from an environmental review done under CEQA. In its stead, a new metric of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has been proposed. While LOS measures how fast cars can move through a segment of road or an intersection, VMT measures how many more miles a development would add to the average for the region.

As an area with few high-paying/skilled jobs, the Inland Empire would be particularly impacted as many of the residents working in such industries make daily treks to LA/OC/SD counties for employment. Until more skilled jobs start coming this direction, it will be exceedingly hard for a developer looking to build anything but “affordable” housing to show that the residents are likely to not drive 40 miles each way each day for work. Which is fine. Trips to work of that magnitude will likely not be mitigated effectively for years to come.

Actual Mitigation

But SB 743 is a powerful tool for local bikeway and livable streets advocates. While local residents may continue to drive to surrounding counties for work, that’s not all the driving they do. It is estimated that as high as 40% of all driving is done to destinations that are two or fewer miles away. That is a distance that can be biked easily by the vast majority of people, but they aren’t going to do it in the presence of lots of motorized traffic that is traveling anywhere from five to ten times as fast as they are.

That’s where protected bike lanes and other next generation bikeways become crucial. Under the LOS-based CEQA, traffic was accommodated, not mitigated. That resulted in wide, fast roads and vast wastelands where they meet. Under the new rules being finalized, developers would be required to provide actual mitigation measures that would make sure that VMT is not raised. Protected bikeways allow them to still build while lowering local VMT to counter the added VMT of residents driving to the surrounding counties for work. That offers incredible opportunities for great bikeway connections within cities and the region.

New Standards of Excellence

There has been some progress on toward getting better bikeways in that AB 1358, California’s Complete Streets Act, does require all users, including bicyclists, to be considered in General Plan Circulation Elements as an integral part of the transport network. Unfortunately, many of those standards coming out of those plans are still not adequate for providing a network of protected bikeways usable by all aged 8-88.

Last year’s passage of AB 1193 changes all of that. With Caltrans being required to finish standards for protected bike lanes within the next year, agencies in the region and indeed the entire state will soon have the life-saving option of protected bikeways at their disposal. Hopefully, Caltrans goes a step beyond the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide and includes separation criteria in the standards. A Class II bike lane might be a decent choice for somewhere like a neighborhood street, but it really shouldn’t even enter consideration for arterials showing traffic counts of 35000 pce and a speed limit of 50 MPH.

Those two changes are the foundation to getting the best bikeways included from the very beginning without having to beg for it. Planning is certainly good, but bikeways shouldn’t be limited to only those included in a plan and certainly not be seen as “extras” contingent on all the stars aligning. Fortunately, it is now easy for agencies to make sure that protected bikeways are automatically included. Building an road where traffic counts will warrant multiple lanes? There should be no question that a Class II bike lane is no longer a viable option. Likewise, it should be obvious that if there is a protected bikeway on the street, then it needs to continue as a protected intersection whenever the parallel road has signals too.

 A Future of Better Biking

Bicycles should play a crucial role in the future of the Inland Empire and it is hoped that the updating of standards plays a pivotal role in that endeavor. However, it is still important that IE residents stay vigilant and make sure that the public officials are fulfilling their duties. Active involvement is needed to ensure that the standards truly provide the best biking environment. Several cities have master plans for bikeways/trails as well as various goals and policies seeking to support biking. It’s time to make sure that those promises become action.

*A ‘BIK LAN’ is a bike lane that is so narrow that the words “bike” and “lane” can’t even fit without some parts, generally the letter “e”, ending up in the gutter pan.