California Thinks Your Time Is Worthless

California’s S.B. 375 mandates that cities increase the population densities of targeted neighborhoods because everyone knows that people drive less in higher densities and transit-oriented developments relieve congestion. One problem, however, is that transportation models reveal that increased densities actually increase congestion, as measured by “level of service,” which measures traffic as a percent of a roadway’s capacity and which in turn can be used to estimate the hours of delay people suffer.

The California legislature has come up with a solution: S.B. 743, which exempts cities from having to calculate and disclose levels of service in their environmental impact reports for densification projects. Instead, the law requires planners to come up with alternative measures of the impacts of densification.

On Monday, December 30, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released a “preliminary evaluation of alternative methods of transportation analysis. The document notes that one problem with trying to measure levels of service is that it is “difficult and expensive to calculate.” Well, boo hoo. Life is complicated, and if you want to centrally plan society, you can either deal with difficult and expensive measurement problems, or you will botch things up even worse than if you do deal with those problems.

The paper also argues that measuring congestion leads people to want projects that might actually relieve congestion, such as increasing roadway capacities. This would be bad, says the paper, because increased capacities might simply “induce” more travel. The fact that such increased travel might actually produce some economic benefits for the state is ignored. Instead, suppressing travel (and therefore suppressing economic productivity) should be the goal.

The document suggests five alternative measures of the impacts of densfication on transportation:

  1. Vehicle miles traveled;
  2. Auto trips generated;
  3. Multi-model level of service;
  4. Auto fuel use; and
  5. Motor vehicle hours traveled.

There are many problems with these alternatives. First, they really aren’t any simpler to reliably calculate than levels of service. Second, they ignore the impact on people’s time and lives: if densification reduces per capita vehicle miles traveled by 1 percent, planners will regard it as a victory even if the other 99 percent of travel is slowed by millions of hours per year. Third, despite the “multi-modal” measure, these measures ignore the environmental impacts of transit. For example, they propose to estimate automotive fuel consumption, but ignore transit energy consumption.

Worst of all, the final “measure” proposed by state planners is to simply presume, without making any estimates, that there is no significant transportation impact from densification. After all, if you add one vehicle to a congested highway and traffic bogs down, can you blame that one vehicle, or is everyone else equally to blame? If the latter, then it seems ridiculous, at least to the planners, to blame densification for increased congestion when the existing residents contribute to the congestion as well. By the same token, if an airplane is full, and one more person wants to take that flight, then the airline should punish everyone who is already on board by simply delaying the plane until someone voluntarily gets off.

The real problem is that planners and planning enthusiasts in the legislature don’t like the results of their own plans, so they simply want to ignore them. What good is an environmental impact report process if the legislature mandates that any impacts it doesn’t like should simply not be evaluated in that process?

All of this is a predictable outcome of attempts to improve peoples’ lives through planning. Planners can’t deal with complexity, so they oversimplify. Planners can’t deal with letting people make their own decisions, so they try to constrict those decisions. Planners can’t imagine that anyone wants to live any way but the way planners think they should live, so they ignore the 80 to 90 percent who drive and want to live in single-family homes as they impose their lifestyle ideologies on as many people as possible. The result is the planning disaster known as California.