Why Drivers Should Support Reductions in Driving

Joshua Stark Headshot

Rendering of transit-oriented developmentIn this blog post, TransForm is going to take a surprising angle to support SB 743 — a seven year-old law that has yet to be implemented, which will fix a warped interpretation of California’s environmental laws that’s fueling our car culture.

We are going to explain how it will benefit car drivers.

What we hope to do here is equip climate, equity, and sustainable transportation advocates to combat the misinformation being peddled by some regions, suburban developers, and Big Asphalt (roadbuilding interests). And there’s no time to waste: SB 743 is set to finally go into effect on July 1, but these powerful interests are trying to delay implementation and yet again stall progress towards a cleaner, greener California.

What is SB 743?

The law changed the way California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) measures the transportation impacts of development projects. For decades, this metric was based on the wrongheaded assumption that allowing more cars to go faster (known as “Level of Service” or LOS) was better for the environment. The idea that more + faster cars = better environment isn’t just absurd, it is racist and exclusionary to think only of drivers when thinking of transportation. Read on and you’ll see this even works against the interests of drivers.

After extensive work, SB 743 (Steinberg, D - Sacramento) removed LOS as the CEQA metric for determining environmental impacts from transportation, and California replaced it with “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) in 2013. This new metric looks at how much additional driving a project will generate, and identifies more VMT as a negative environmental impact — the way it obviously should be. (For some great descriptions and deep dives into SB 743, check out ClimatePlan, Streetsblog California, and Fehr and Peers.)

While we strongly believe that reducing VMT instead of increasing LOS will be good for racial and economic justice in California, it’s important to be clear that we are living in and still mostly building and exacerbating, deeply entrenched racist land use and transportation planning systems. SB 743 can help us begin to address the suburbanization of poverty by shifting land use patterns to provide amenities closer to where people already live, but there’s a lot more work to do to wrestle with the powerful daily impacts of where we have built, how we build, and for whom we build our transportation infrastructure.

All eyes on July 1

Now, in a last-ditch effort to further delay the switch from LOS to VMT, some regions and suburban sprawl developers are doing intellectual gymnastics to try to convince people that planning and building in ways that allow people to drive less would be BAD for California. They even falsely claim it will be harmful to communities of color and public health — an absolute red herring that is as backwards as using LOS as a measure of environmental quality.

This anti-VMT video uses images of transit, New York City, and Asian cities as scare tactics to make drivers think they are under threat, when in fact it’s Big Asphalt and Big Sprawl with something to lose.

Right now, we need to convince the Governor to stay the course. Focusing on VMT is actually better for everybody, including drivers. Here’s why...

Argument No. 1: LOS is bad for drivers because it creates more traffic

If LOS is such a great way to keep traffic moving, then our traffic should have been improving over the years. Instead, it is the worst in the nation. Put it this way: if simply building more lane-miles was a cure for congestion, then Los Angeles would be a driver’s paradise.

The status quo methods for “fixing” traffic through LOS (more lanes, wider roads) actually make traffic worse. Many planners know this, but most people and politicians don’t. New lanes and roads look good for a few months, but they invite more cars to fill up the road space (a proven phenomenon known as “induced demand”).

The new roads LOS rationalizes also get used by sprawl developers to put more housing tracts farther away from jobs and transit. And with the continuing suburbanization of poverty, many families are one paycheck away from losing a car and becoming effectively stranded in isolated residential communities. That’s a big reason why SB 743 is good for racial and economic justice.

Put simply: LOS doesn’t reduce congestion, LOS lengthens congestion.

Argument No. 2: Solving for VMT will actually reduce congestion.

SB 743 changes the focus of planning and building away from moving more cars faster through a space to reducing the amount of cars and driving through a space. It tells planners and engineers to consider how much more driving will happen because something is built, and how to mitigate those impacts.

Mitigating VMT leads communities to plan, develop and build destinations closer to where people already live and work. It requires a focus on how people can move through public spaces, not cars, and improving alternatives to driving -- better transit service and infrastructure to support safe biking and walking. Of course, people will still move through many of these corridors in cars, and minimizing new VMT will lead to far better outcomes for traffic.

Argument No. 3: SB 743 can make driving safer

Over 3,500 people are killed each year in traffic, the vast majority of whom are drivers. Cyclists and pedestrians are also vulnerable, and Black and brown people walking and biking are killed at much higher rates. LOS encourages projects that cause faster speeds (an “A” grade in LOS means cars are going at or greater than the speed limit), which are deadly, while still making traffic worse. And car collisions cause congestion, too.

We know that many drivers are more interested in easing traffic congestion than switching to transit or other modes. Reducing overall Vehicle Miles Traveled should actually do more to achieve that goal than increasing Level of Service ever could. It does that by improving alternatives to driving for the many other drivers who would want them, including by making those alternatives faster, safer, and more affordable. And that makes driving safer, too.

We’ve waited too long for this law to go into effect, though luckily many regions and planners have already made the shift. More delays will doom California to more traffic, more accidents and fatalities, more sprawl, and longer commutes. Urge Governor Newsom to stay the course and finally fully implement SB 743.


About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.