Traffic studies are a great way to kill an infill project. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), they’re required for most big projects. And when you’re building in an already-developed area, you’re likely going to make traffic worse in the immediate surroundings. So most infill projects flunk that test, while they ironically decrease traffic region-wide.
That’s why I’ve been a strong supporter of the effort to implement SB 743 by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), which recently released new draft implementing guidelines. Essentially, SB 743 required OPR to transition California away from the traffic study metric of “level of service” (or auto delay) and toward a “vehicles miles traveled” (VMT) approach.
Under VMT, most infill projects generate so few driving miles per capita that they’d be exempt from further study. Sprawl projects would meanwhile come under greater scrutiny for loading up our highways with long-distance commuters, even if they don’t delay much traffic in the immediate vicinity.
While sprawl builders and their allies have protested the change, we now see growing opposition in infill areas from local opponents of density. San Francisco has been ahead of the state in making this switch, and Zelda Smith of the 48 Hills blog is up in arms:
Regional congestion is an abstraction that has never been and never will be experienced by anyone. Local congestion is something that everyone has experienced, and that everyone will experience more intensely as a result of SB 743. The staff report to the Planning Commission concedes as much, averring that “it is often not feasible in developed urban areas like San Francisco to improve LOS.” So we just make local traffic congestion worse by disregarding the local traffic impacts of infill development?
I’m actually sympathetic to this argument to some degree. Local congestion is a problem for the people who live there, and even if most new residents of an infill project walk or take transit, the project will create a local burden.
But that doesn’t mean we need to toss out the VMT metric and keep the dysfunctional status quo. Rather, local governments are still free to mitigate local traffic impacts through their codes, rather than relying on CEQA. And a great way to mitigate the traffic impacts of a local infill project would be to increase bike and pedestrian infrastructure and require transit passes for new residents, rather than downscaling the project or widening local road lanes.
If you oppose density just because you don’t want change, those mitigations won’t satisfy you. But if you’re genuinely concerned about increased traffic in your neighborhood, it would be a better solution than forcing change through CEQA and litigation threats.