As I looked through the Sterling Apartments Final EIR, one of things that struck me was a typical complaint that commenters have made about most projects in Davis – the impact of the development on traffic. In fact, I would wager that traffic impacts were a key consideration in why Nishi was narrowly voted down last June.
After reading through the responses to the Draft EIR and some of the notations from the 2001 General Plan and the General Plan Transportation Element, there seems to be a disconnect between community concerns about traffic impacts and city policies regarding level of service requirements.
In background material provided by the city, prior to 2001, the LOS (Level of Service) standards in the General Plan were: “C” on new streets and “D” on existing streets. However that changed in the 2001 General Plan Mobility Element adopted in 2001, which reduced the standards to: “D” during non-peak hours, “E” during peak hours, and “F” during peak hours in the Core Area.
Then in the 2013 Transportation Element, the LOS standards changed to Standard TRANS 2.1d: Where the LOS for major intersections is D during non-peak traffic hours, E during peak traffic hours, F during peak traffic hours in the Core Area and Richards Boulevard/Olive Drive area, and F during peak traffic hours in other areas if approved by City Council.
A Level of Service of D produces between a 35 to 55 second delay at a signalized intersection: “Approaching unstable flow (tolerable delay, occasionally wait through more than one signal cycle before proceeding).” LOS E produces a 55 to 80 second delay depicted by an “unstable flow” or “intolerable delay.”
Finally, Level of Service (LOS) F means more than an 80 second delay, or a “forced flow” or “jammed.”
The Final EIR has a good description of the rationale for allowing LOS F in the core area. First, “High LOS standards to achieve low levels of congestion are not necessarily linked to urban vitality and quality of life.” Second, “The reduced standards would be consistent with community objectives of avoiding road widenings which would be unacceptable in terms of community character.” Third, “High LOS standards make infill development more difficult because infill uses the capacities of streets and may cause traffic volumes to approach the capacities of streets.” Finally, “Allowing higher levels of congestion may encourage alternative modes of transportation.”
The EIR notes, “Davis streets shall have no more than four through automobile lanes, plus a single left-hand turning lane, even if this requirement reduces LOS. Additional turning lanes may be added for safety or design considerations.”
The implications of allowing LOS F in the Core Area were analyzed in the General Plan EIR when the policy was first adopted. They note: “The effects of the City’s LOS standards will be to limit the number of lanes that planning area roadways could add (no more than four) to accommodate traffic increases associated with new development. However, this increase is offset to some small extent by other policy changes in the General Plan Update.”
The city has placed an emphasis on infill development “in areas proximate to employment, entertainment, retail, and activity centers rather than increasing roadway capacity and, thus, road width. Encouraging infill development reduces the sprawl-related impacts associated with increased vehicle trips and vehicle miles traveled (VMT).”
They further note: “The City’s policy determination to allow LOS F in the Core Area differentiates the Core Area from other parts of the City that are less dense and may be less accessible to transit. While traffic congestion may increase in the Core Area, the City has determined that this congestion is acceptable. Traffic delay may be an inconvenience to drivers, but these delays would not result in a physical environmental impact. Inconvenience is preferable to the significant environmental impacts and adverse impacts to residences and businesses that are caused by widening roadways to accommodate increased traffic and by increased VMT.”
All of this is interesting, but there are a few thoughts here that we might wish to further consider in future efforts.
First, the last paragraph suggests that traffic delay is preferable to increased VMT. But do we know if this is actually true? If cars are idling because of traffic congestion, how long before that begins to offset the benefits of compact city design and density?
Second, the community has largely come to the conclusion that further development on the periphery, at least at this time, is largely off the table. That is not to say that the citizens won’t in the future, even the near future, approve a peripheral development, however, the fact is that since Measure J passed in 2000, the only development we might consider peripheral to come into being is the Cannery, which was exempt from a vote.
The offset from having more peripheral development and impact on agricultural land is the increased pressure to put more density near the core area – which comes into conflict with people wishing to avoid traffic impacts.
Finally, I wonder how much of a discussion the city policy on Level of Service has actually engendered in the public. I have reached out to some who were involved in the discussion back in 2001 to understand this better.
The city justified the allowance of LOS F in the Core Area based on four considerations, as mentioned earlier.
First they note the lack of link to urban vitality and quality of life – and yet we see in the discussions of new infill development or Nishi, traffic impacts are at the top or near the top. So it would be interesting to dive into the basis for that justification.
Second, the community has objected to road widening. We have in the past noted that the community would rather have traffic congestion than widening the Richards Tunnel. Of course, that was not the only consideration there as many, myself included, believe that widening the Richards Tunnel simply shifts where the congestion occurs.
In fact, I have argued in the past, and continue to believe, that Richards Tunnel is not the actual bottleneck. Proof of that is that passing through the tunnel does not alleviate peak hour traffic congestion, which continues along the main route of 1st Street and even down B Street.
Despite this seemingly conscious choice of the voters, traffic has been used as a rationale to restrict future development.
Third, “High LOS standards make infill development more difficult because infill uses the capacities of streets and may cause traffic volumes to approach the capacities of streets.” This is ironic because, in effect, traffic considerations have been used to argue for limiting density of new infill.
Finally, they note that congestion may encourage alternative modes of transportation. And yet there seems to be the belief that alternative transportation use has decreased, at least among the permanent residents in Davis. It would be interesting to see a study to see if there is a causal relationship here – at the very least.
This dovetails with a conversation I had this week regarding the downtown and the concern that the lack of parking and the seeming vilification of those using automobiles for transportation has led to a Davis that serves only local people shopping in the locally-operated stores.
There is of course dispute in that view, but it remains a topic of conversation.
The bottom line for me is that the city has set a level of service for streets that seems at odds with what people want when it comes to discussions of traffic impacts of development. How was that standard decided and is the public agreeable to it?
—David M. Greenwald reporting