DOTs Can Rein in VMT

By Eric Sundquist, SSTI Director

Electric vehicles alone are unlikely to achieve needed reductions in transportation greenhouse-gas emissions; transportation agencies must come up with strategies to reduce vehicle-miles traveled as well. VMT reduction would also have co-benefits of cutting traffic, reducing other environmental problems and transportation costs, while improving safety, livability, and the ability to travel by non-auto modes.

SSTI’s final 2020 Community of Practice meeting took on this topic, with a discussion led by Don Andres, Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Director for the office of Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, and Ellen Greenberg, Deputy Director for Sustainability at Caltrans.

Greenberg described work that Caltrans has done pursuant to SB 743 (2013), which has prompted the removal of level-of-service (LOS) measures in environmental reviews for land use and transportation projects. In place of LOS, California now considers VMT impacts, which, in the case of highways, takes the form of induced demand from capacity expansions. She explained how large a shift in thinking this takes for DOTs, which have traditionally viewed their roles as meeting travel demand, not shaping it.

Caltrans recently adopted guidance for determining whether and how much induced demand—new VMT—could be expected from highway projects. The method is based on elasticities of VMT-to-lane-miles—a concept that could apply outside of California as well. Caltrans guidance and other information on its SB 743 program can be found here.

Andres, whose boss is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Future of Transportation Caucus, applauded the state-level interest in VMT reduction. While many members are not familiar even with the term “VMT,” he said, there is growing interest in modernizing transportation policy to ensure more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

The House-passed transportation bill from this session, for example, had a provision for developing induced demand metrics. Rep. Garcia is also pursuing a break from the decades-long 80 percent/20 percent funding split between highways and transit, in order to bring transit to parity.

A recording of this session and other sessions from our Community of Practice, including one on travel and land use after COVID and another on antiracism and equity, can be found here.