This City Ditched its Car-Centric Traditions to Better Serve All Transportation Users

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Road Diet on Union Street to include bike lanes
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Fred Dock knows that, as cities grow, managing transportation gets tougher.

Dock, who headed up transportation for Pasadena, Calif. (34.4% Latino), also knows many cities overly focus on reducing automobile congestion and boosting speed, thus neglect walking, biking, and transit.

Two things happen in these cities. Roads become dangerous for people walking and biking, and people are forced to depend on automobiles—the dirtiest, least efficient, and most expensive mode of travel.

Fred Dock presenting in changing the DNA of city streets at a 2015 Mayor's Innovation Project event
Fred Dock presenting in changing the DNA of city streets at a 2015 Mayor’s Innovation Project event.

Dock wanted to help Pasadena out of this trap.

Pasadena city leaders hoped to create an integrated, multimodal transportation system with choices and accessibility for everyone.

But they wouldn’t achieve this vision using current auto-centric road metrics—that’s when Dock stepped up to update the city’s transportation metrics to help emphasize healthy, sustainable options like walking, cycling, and public transit.

Auto-Centric Road Design Contributes to Death, Disease, Dependence

The hallmarks of auto-centric road design are nothing new to Dock, a traffic engineer for over 30 years:

  • Wide and/or multiple lanes
  • wide turning radius at intersections
  • unbuffered, poor quality, or missing sidewalks
  • long distances between crosswalks
  • no bike lanes
  • inadequate transit service
  • limited trees
  • numerous driveways with curb cuts
  • large parking lots separating buildings from the street
  • separation of businesses and residences
Arterial in San Antonio Texas Source Kim Man Hui San Antonio Express News
Arterial in San Antonio Texas. Source: Kim Man Hui San Antonio Express News

Sadly, the downsides are nothing new to Dock, either.

High-capacity, high-speed roads can boost traffic crashes, endanger walkers and bikers, and push homes and businesses further apart—reinforcing auto dependence and making life harder for low-income families.

Auto-dependence is associated with economic segregation, especially for people who can’t afford or choose not to own a vehicle. Latinos, for example, are less likely than their peers to own a vehicle, and depend more on public transit, according to a Salud America! research review.

Primary arterials, for example, represent just 4% of the nation’s roadways, but account for almost 30% of traffic fatalities, according a report from the Urban Land Institute.

“Despite our high standards for road safety and high levels of investment in public funds in the name of safety, our traffic fatality rate is more than double most other industrialized countries,” according to a narrated presentation about transportation by California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR).

Also, without safe, reliable options to walk, bike, or take transit, communities miss out on critical physical activity to remain healthy and reduce their risk for disease. Physical inactivity accounts for about 11% of U.S. premature deaths, and more than 23,000 annual deaths in California.

Doubling walking and transit trips and tripling bicycling trips could save Californians $1 billion to $15.5 billion by preventing premature deaths and disability.

“There has been so much focus on moving automobiles fast and long distances, that we have overlooked other important things,” Dock said.

Residents in Pasadena did not want to be dependent on automobiles.

They wanted transportation choices.

Dock sought to give Pasadena residents those choices.

Working on One of the Most Innovative Urban Infill Developments

Dock considered himself a conventional traffic engineer until an urban infill development project in Los Angeles launched Dock’s career in a new direction, known as new urbanism. The New Urbanism movement emerged to overtake suburban sprawl, reduce auto dependence and make cities clean and walkable.

The L.A. project was an infill development called Playa Vista. Infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within urban areas that are already largely developed.

Playa Vista
Playa Vista

The Playa Vista development, a 460-acre pedestrian- and transit-friendly, master-planned community, opened in 2003 at the site of the former Howard Hughes’ aircraft company headquarters.

“It helped lay the groundwork for understanding the differences we see in transportation needs as we look at new development and the built environment,” Dock said.

All homes in Playa Vista are within a five-minute walk to a park.

Streets are narrow. Most parking is underground. There is a densely packed array of housing, jobs, and commercial sites within a safe walk or quick shuttle ride.

Walkable urban places, like Playa Vista, correlate with economic, social equity, and environmental benefits, according to Foot Traffic Ahead 2019.

“Transportation and travel policies and practices that create or enhance pedestrian and bicycle networks and expand or subsidize public transit systems can be another approach to encourage walking and biking for transportation,” according to a federal report.

That was Pasadena’s vision.

Pasadena’s Vision for the Future: Fewer Automobiles

Located 10 miles northeast of downtown L.A., Pasadena is an older suburban community challenged by through traffic to newer outlying suburbs.

Pasadena, California Street Scene transportation fred dock story
A street in downtown Pasadena, Calif., with palm trees and retail stores (via Sketchkon).

In 1994 and again in 2004, Pasadena residents and leaders stated their vision to become a city where people can circulate without cars. They wanted to protect their neighborhoods from through traffic while encouraging walking, biking, and busing options.

This vision is stated in the city’s General Plan. Every city in California has a General Plan. Each General Plan is adopted by a city council and serves as a blueprint to guide city managers, department directors, and staff on how they make investments, where to build and, as importantly, where not to build.

“The plan is a guiding tool that spells out rules and responsibilities for the city to manage and modify transportation and land use decisions to meet demands and bring forward the city’s vision,” Dock said. “My role was to determine how to make transportation fit into those places.”

In 2009, Pasadena was updating its General Plan.

Dock noticed a problem that had the city looking too closely at traffic congestion over walkability.

“What we were seeing was a lot of mismatch between what we were mitigating things to do, and that mitigation was basically making it harder to get around on foot or by bicycle or using transit,” Dock said.

What we were seeing was a lot of mismatch between what we were mitigating things to do, and that mitigation was basically making it harder to get around on foot or by bicycle or using transit.

Fred Dock
Former Pasadena Director of Transportation

Metrics of Congestion Are Unable to Determine Success

When planning development and transportation projects, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an analysis of environmental impacts.

One required metric is level of service (LOS).

LOS measures traffic congestion and grades roadways based on automobile delay. A road with little delay gets an A, while a congested road gets an F.

But these grades fail to account for travel time to jobs, shops, and other destinations.

For example, LOS grades a road with a 45-minute commute time with 5 minutes of delay better than a road with a 20-minute commute with 10 minutes of delay. Even though the first road got a better grade, you could argue it fails to connect people to places in a timely manner.

LOS vs accessibilityReliance on LOS suggests mobility is more important than accessibility or that movement is more important than accessing destinations.

Unfortunately, measures of access, like travel time and distance, are often overlooked in conversations about congestion by the nation’s most regarded transportation professionals.

The Urban Mobility Report (UMR), for example, produced annually by the Texas Transportation Institute, exaggerates the effects of congestion, does not accurately estimate travel speeds, and conceals the effect of sprawl and travel distance on travel time, according to a 2010 report.

“Focusing on LOS has severely hindered the expansion of bike lanes in California, including a lawsuit that delayed San Francisco’s bike plan for years because it might delay car traffic,” according to Melanie Curry with Streetsblog LA.

Space needed to transport 200 people NACTO
Space needed to transport 200 people. Source: NACTO

To ensure development fits into the city appropriately, city staff use traffic forecast models to determine what kind of congestion mitigation strategies are required of developers. Congestion mitigation, like widening roads and adding turn lanes, encourage faster driving speeds and less auto delay.

Dock knew Pasadena used metrics to measure transportation impact on auto travel.

He had a hunch that mitigating those impacts negatively affected walking, biking and transit. He also knew that, as a measure of delay, congestion measures social impact and not environmental impact.

In 2009, with support from city leadership, Dock and his team began a rigorous look at the metrics used to measure transportation impacts.

Congestion Mitigation: Making It Harder for People to Walk, Bike

Dock analyzed travel across 22 corridors and compared findings with the conditions projected by the transportation impact analyses of new development.

He found two interesting facts:

  1. The underlying principles of the 1994 and 2004 General Plans were producing the desired outcomes for managing growth and travel; and
  2. The techniques for measuring transportation performance (and impact) were not reflecting those outcomes.

Dock recognized that travel delay was not happening to the extent estimated initially. There weren’t major increases in commute times during peak travel. Traffic volume plateaued on streets that had been road-dieted.

LOS worsens overall congestion.

Dock also recognized that congestion mitigation strategies were making it more dangerous and more difficult for people to walk and bike.

“Mitigation funds are spent adding lanes to help people drive through more easily, but worsens biking and walking and livability for people in the neighborhood,” according to a narrated presentation about the problem with LOS by the OPR.

Dock also recognized that congestion mitigation requirements placed on developers often discouraged infill development. Sometimes the projects required demolition of historic buildings. LOS assessments were costly and time consuming, sometimes taking months and adding millions of dollars to projects.

“The requirements put on developers to mitigate traffic impacts was stifling infill development and roadway improvement projects were destroying the fabric of the community,” Dock said. “Eliminating congestion is counterproductive to commerce.”

The city’s congestion mitigation strategies also contradicted California’s new requirement to reduce greenhouse gasses—not to mention the city’s vision for multimodal options.

Dock didn’t think mobility for people driving a private automobile should be used to justify mitigation strategies that oppose such clearly stated goals—circulating without cars and reducing greenhouse gasses

Dock felt projects should be scored on more than their impact on traffic congestion, but also on their value in improving social, environmental, economic, and health goals.

He wanted the city to consider other impacts of development.

Identifying New Ways to Measure Transportation Impact in Pasadena

Dock and his team considered metrics to measure what was important to achieve policy goals as outlined in the General Plan, as well as the city’s modal master plans (Short Range Transit Plan, Bicycle Transportation Action Plan, Pedestrian Plan, Intelligent Transportation System Plan), according to Dock’s article in the Journal of the Transportation Research Board.

They thought they would retain LOS. So, they needed measures that could easily forecast and balance out LOS to measure performance on Pasadena’s streets.

At the time, the city was developing a forecasting model that would provide enough detail to address the interaction of land use in the city’s Central District and could be used by the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the Southern California Association of Governments.

The availability of the forecasting model platform allowed for refinement of the vehicle trip metric and facilitated the development of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) metrics.

VMT is calculated as the sum of the number of miles traveled by each vehicle in a region in a one-year period. It is not traditionally used as a transportation metric, but more so for air quality and greenhouse gas analyses.

VMT has potential benefits for transportation measurement, according to state planners:

  • Reducing VMT will reduce emissions directly from vehicles and reduce impacts of sprawling, high-VMT development, like energy and water use, impervious surface, and consumption of agricultural land and open space.
  • Reducing VMT is good for traffic safety. The traffic death rate is five times lower in compact, low-VMT areas than in sprawling, high-VMT areas, according to planners.
  • VMT is one-fifth of the effort and cost of an LOS analysis.

Better Outcomes for Public HealthVMT could also help streamline the development review process for conforming urban infill projects.

So Dock proposed VMT as Pasadena’s new primary transportation metric.

He took it a step further to allay neighborhood fears of traffic intrusion by considering land uses with intense vehicle trip-making characteristics, too. Staff developed a metric of vehicle trips per service population as a surrogate for potential traffic volume growth to supplement VMT per capita.

But Dock and his team wanted to measure more than vehicle travel.

“Without access to improved transit, walking or cycling environments, it isn’t logical to assume any change in behavior by people traveling,” according to Dock.

Identifying Metrics to Measure Walking, Biking and Transit

Dock and his team did more research into the level of transit, walking, and biking infrastructure necessary to elicit more use of these modes.

They found research supports improving frequency of transit service, proximity to transit stops, dedicated bicycle facilities, and proximity to bicycle facilities to increase biking and transit.

But walking infrastructure, like sidewalks and crosswalks, is not enough to increase walking.

In urban areas, having more destinations to walk to, has a greater effect on walking, according to Dock.

Fred Dock presenting on Complete Streets at Los Angeles Region Planning History Group in September 2016.

This led Dock and his team to create a Pedestrian Accessibility Score that measures proximity to diverse destinations. Staff tested the sensitivity of existing environmental quality indices for pedestrians (PEQI) and bicycles (BEQI) and decided to use a subset of each. Transit stop conditions are included in PEQI.

Raising awareness among decisionmakers and community members was very important throughout this process, Dock said.

“What becomes problematic is communicating the city’s traffic management strategies to people, particularly to drivers on the streets in relation to usable information,” according to Dock. “To a driver on only the congested part of a corridor, it’s likely irrelevant that overall corridor travel time is not increasing. Regular messaging about system performance becomes important and requires different tools to accomplish.”

Dock presented on the inadequacies of LOS and the benefits of measuring outcomes. He shared that the current tools used to approve development were hindering the accomplishment of some of the elements of Pasadena’s General Plan and may be producing unintended consequences.

Slide from presentation by Fred Dock and Jeff Tumlin on Lesson from LOS Reform
Slide from presentation by Fred Dock and Jeff Tumlin on Lesson from LOS Reform.

He took time to identify differing perspectives, issues beyond disliking growth and development and identified reasonable consensus to move forward.

“Pasadena’s pioneering work in using VMT in CEQA analysis was born from an early realization among residents, elected officials, and city staff that their city’s goals of developing transit-supportive land use patterns and a multimodal transportation system were being undermined by auto-oriented LOS-based CEQA analysis,” according to a case study by ChangeLab Solutions.

During this time, the state was also exploring the elimination of auto delay and LOS metrics.

California Transitions from LOS to VMT and Induced Demand

In September 2013, California passed Senate Bill 743 to invalidate use of LOS metrics for CEQA after 2020.

“With emissions from the transportation sector continuing to rise despite increases in fuel efficiency and decreases in the carbon content of fuel, California will not achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions to meet mandates for 2030 and beyond without significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded, and built,” according to a 2018 Progress Report from the California Air Resources Board.

“Traffic impact studies must serve the dual purpose of General Plan consistency and compliance with CEQA; therefore, consistent performance measures and thresholds of significance must be established,” according to a memo from Dock to the Transportation Advisory Commission.

Also part of the 2013 legislation, any projects adding roadway capacity must look at induced demand.

“Most forecasting doesn’t have an iteration that looks at induced demand,” Dock said.

VMT was recommended as an approach to replace LOS later in 2014, but at the time, without specific replacement metrics and recommended thresholds of significance for CEQA analysis, Dock and Pasadena leaders were unsure how to move forward with their metrics.

Streamline projects needing review.So, staff tested VMT, vehicle trip (VT), and transit and bicycling proximity metrics. They found them effective in identifying impacts.

With input from city staff, consultants, decisionmakers, and thousands of community members, Dock and his team decided they needed multiple metrics to help approve projects that fit with the city’s vision for itself.

Dock and his team proceeded with recommending the following new metrics to necessary council committees:

  • VMT per capita
  • Vehicle trips per capita
  • Proximity and quality of bicycle network
  • Proximity and quality of transit network
  • Pedestrian accessibility

“The city’s approach to traffic management is not to eliminate congestion, but to manage it to provide reliable travel times across the city’s mobility corridors,” according to Dock.

On June 12, 2014, the Transportation Advisory Committee passed a motion supporting all the recommended metrics.

On September 10, 2014, the Planning Commission passed a motion supporting the three recommended metrics related to walking, biking, and transit and opposing VMT and vehicle trips.

Metrics' CEQA Thresholds of Significance
CEQA Thresholds of Significance

On October 14, 2014, the Municipal Services Committee passed a motion supporting the five recommended metrics as well as LOS for large development projects.

“The changes recommended here are not monumental, but instead they seek to effectively and efficiently align the revised mobility policies to the transportation performance measures and thresholds of significance used to serve everyone using Pasadena’s transportation system,” according to Dock’s memo.

The Pasadena Department of Transportation formally requested city council adopt a resolution replacing two existing Transportation Performance Measures with five new Transportation Performance Measures and Set Thresholds of Significance for CEQA for the new measures.

In November 2014, Pasadena City Council adopted the five recommended metrics and thresholds for CEQA analyses.

The new road performance measures will help the city determine “how to balance trade-offs among travel modes and among the mobility needs of different members of the community,” Dock said.

The New Transportation Metrics and Beyond

Pasadena’s thresholds, now five years old, are less rigorous than what the state wants to see in 2020, per SB 743.

The city will have to ratchet up the thresholds to meet the state’s higher bar, Dock said. Although, Pasadena will have an easier time than many other cities in California.

“The experience using VMT and the other metrics has been positive and well worth the effort expended to change metrics,” Dock said.

After images of Pasadena’s planned Union Street parking-protected bikeway Images via Pasadena DOT
After images of Pasadena’s planned Union Street parking-protected bikeway Images via Pasadena DOT

Investment in modeling tools and training needed to develop the new metrics helped to shorten the development review process.

For example, in the three years following adoption of the new metrics, 41 projects were reviewed, 17 of which required analysis using CEQA metrics and 24 of which required local metrics. Only three projects requiring CEQA analysis and six projects requiring local analysis were determined to have significant impacts requiring mitigation.

Prior to the change in metrics, a greater proportion of projects would have required the lengthy and costly analysis as well as counterproductive mitigation strategies. “The reduction in study costs could save in excess of $27 million per year [in California],” according to the ORP.

Land use patterns to increase density and infill can now be used as mitigation strategies to offset trip generation, whereas before, densification and infill would have required their own mitigation strategies.

“The goal is to manage traffic so everyone can use the system,” Dock said. “Now, Pasadena should get closer to that goal.”

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Journal of the Transportation Research Board: Pasadena’s Experience using Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) to Measure Transportation Impact

The State Smart Transportation Initiative Webinar: Moving beyond LOS: The Pasadena story

ChangeLab Solutions Case Studies and Lessons Learned: How Measuring Vehicle Miles Traveled Can Promote Health Equity

California Governors Office of Planning and Research: Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA 

By The Numbers By The Numbers

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Pedestrians survive when hit by a car at 40 MPH

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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