Level of Service (LOS) to Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)

Level of Service (LOS) to Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) image
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The shift from LOS to VMT is one of the most impactful changes on California’s travel, development, health, air quality, and more.  

While challenging initially, replacing LOS with VMT has promoted better planning, incentivized more investment in the safety of bicycling and walking, and given local governments more freedom to implement their jurisdiction’s vision for transportation networks.  

What is LOS vs. VMT?  

Level of Service (LOS):  A “Level of Service” (LOS) rating system was used in the past as a means of determining projected traffic impacts of proposed developments on nearby intersections, streets, and highways. The LOS measurement system assigned alphabet letters to the various degrees of projected traffic congestion and intersection backups. A roadway or intersection with only light traffic and few significant backups were assigned a grade of “A.” As congestion worsened, the letters progressed. For example, a grade of LOS “E” or “F” signaled severe and excessive future traffic congestion. Understanding these effects early in a development’s design phase gave planners a valuable tool for controlling the situation by requiring developers to adjust their designs and project plans to avoid congestion on nearby roadways. Because LOS only evaluated congestion, it focused on the movement of motor vehicles, which discounted other modes of transit and resulted in dangerous, high-speed streets and sprawling land use. As defined under Senate Bill (SB) 743, LOS is no longer used, and it is expected that Vehicle Miles Travel (VMT) will be the new standard for assessing the effects of growth and development in California. 

Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT):  As excessive automobile use began to cause environmental damage in terms of fossil fuel consumption, GHG emissions and severe traffic congestion, there was an increasing interest in placing limits on the amount of driving that could occur in an area. This concern led to the use of “vehicle miles traveled” or VMT as the metric to evaluate a project’s impacts on the transportation system. VMT is used in transportation planning to measure the amount of travel for all vehicles in a geographic region over a given period, typically a one-year period. VMT is calculated by summing the miles driven by all cars and trucks on roadways within a region. Measuring VMT in crowded places provides what is needed to keep track of the VMT and imposes restraints on driving when and as necessary. VMT is used to evaluate every development project (with exceptions). It gives a clearer picture of the transportation-related impacts of a project. Generally, to lessen a project’s impacts on VMT, it includes on-site measures (i.e. bicycle lockers and transit vouchers) and off-site measures (i.e. paying into a mitigation bank that will then be used to fund transportation projects elsewhere in a City).  The expected result is a more appropriate mix of train, bus, boat, bicycle, and car travel. By reducing VMT, we reduce the amount of air pollution from cars. 

History and policy updates  

In 2013, California passed Senate Bill (SB) 743, requiring that jurisdictions no longer use automobile delay in transportation analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The State issued guidelines calling for the use of VMT, mandatory on July 1, 2020. Before July 1, 2020, LOS was the main measurement used to evaluate environmental impacts related to transportation. 

The State’s goal was to promote: 

  • Reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
  • Development of multimodal transportation networks (i.e., networks that serve a variety of users including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and drivers)
  • A diversity of land uses (i.e., neighborhoods and cities with housing, jobs, shops, and services near each other)

As mandated by the State, cities and counties have adopted their own VMT policies, transitioning from LOS to VMT.  

VMT in practice 

FCS has assisted several cities in evaluating a project utilizing VMT as a metric. The recent Scannell Properties Project is one example of FCS putting VMT into practice.   

Scannell Project. FCS prepared the EIR, including a stand-alone Cultural Resource Assessment, Transportation, and Noise Study for the Scannell Properties Project in the Bay Area. In terms of VMT, the project was found to exceed the VMT threshold of 12.75 VMT per employee, resulting in a significant impact.  To reduce VMT, the project developed a Transportation Demand Management Plan focusing on ways to reduce commuting through flex schedules, ride-sharing, vanpools, and offering incentives for transit use.  

The project will also incorporate several cutting-edge measures to reduce emissions and improve air quality by utilizing 100 percent renewable electricity to meet operational demand. The Scannell Properties Project will also transition to a zero-emission fleet on a set time schedule, phasing in a green development plan within the next 8-10 years with an accelerated schedule starting in 2021 and ending in 2027. The Scannell Properties Project went beyond what was otherwise required in the California Building Code concerning installing preferential and clean air vehicle parking and EV charging infrastructure, as well as a nonresidential rooftop solar system. 

What does this mean for you? 

In short, instead of measuring whether a project makes it less convenient to drive, transportation impacts will now be measured against whether a project contributes to other goals, like reducing GHG emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development. FCS has relationships with several transportation consulting firms that specialize in VMT analysis and can assist you in evaluating your project’s impacts with respect to VMT in accordance with CEQA and SB 743.

Firstcarbon Solutions (FCS), an ADEC Innovation, comprises over 100 individuals offering due diligence, technical analysis, planning, environmental compliance, permitting, and mitigation/monitoring services for public and private projects. FCS has more than 30 years of experience navigating the complexities of CEQA and securing project approvals. Our technical and legal teams are ready to provide assistance and guidance in moving your project forward. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about how we can help with your specific project requirements.


About the author

Liza Baskir

Liza Baskir thumbnail

Liza has over 6 years of experience in managing the preparation of CEQA and NEPA documents, including Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), Initial Studies/Mitigated Negative Declarations (IS/MNDs), Addenda, Environmental Assessments (EAs), and Categorical Exemptions and Categorical Exclusions. She has completed CEQA and/or NEPA documentation for materials recovery facilities (MRFs), mixed-use developments, housing elements, residential, commercial, retail, transportation, industrial, recreational, and institutional projects. 

How we can help

In an ever-changing regulatory and sustainability environment, FCS understands the challenges you face. Our highly qualified environmental specialists, energy management consultants, and technical experts deliver integrated, industry-specific solutions that move your project forward—so that you can focus on what matters.