For years, transportation planners throughout the United States calculated the efficiency of roads and highways using a “level of service” concept. Formally introduced in 1965 by the U.S. Department of Transportation, level of service, or LOS, measures congestion, examining the delay experienced by motorists at intersections compared to free-flowing traffic.

For decades, “LOS guided transportation planning in the U.S.,” said Michael Schmitt, a senior sustainability consultant with the planning and design firm Kimley-Horn, at ULI’s 2023 Carolinas Meeting in February.

But while LOS has been a useful tool for measuring car traffic, it has been charged with magnifying sprawl, reducing safe options for pedestrians and cyclists, and leading to induced demand, in which new roads built to ease congestion quickly fill up.

In recent years, another metric, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has become popular. VMT examines the demand for vehicles on public roads and tends to reward density and complex multi-use areas.

Both concepts have their uses, Schmitt said. But taken together, they illustrate the point that how we measure something is often, intentionally or not, a policy choice that shows up in our built environment.

Scott Huler, a journalist and author of On the Grid, agreed. “Everything is a policy decision. The built environment is our values made flesh.”

Today, city planners across North Carolina’s rural, suburban, and urban environments assert that a vibrant walkable downtown is their goal. They’re aiming to put that value into practice using a broad range of transportation options.

For example, North Carolina’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is planning to address municipalities’ reliance on some congested, pedestrian-unfriendly roads by taking advantage of historic funding available from the federal government. As part of the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the federal government is offering $4.6 billion to states (which have to provide a 20 percent match) for improvements to intercity passenger rail services.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the rail space,” said Julie White, NCDOT’s deputy secretary for multi-modal transportation. Her agency will be implementing a pilot project connecting downtown Raleigh with smaller towns to the north, by utilizing a former freight line that’s been out of service as passenger rail.

White and her colleagues are aiming to be extremely deliberate about the project and its impacts. They’ve met with officials in towns along the line to discuss concerns—many of which focus on the initiative’s potential effect on housing prices—as well as ways to promote dense development near the stations.

“What can they do now through zoning and planning?” asked White. “That’s the theme: thinking ahead.”

Meanwhile, in Charlotte, city officials are employing a wide range of transportation options to meet residents’ varied needs. Ed McKinney, deputy director of the city’s department of transportation, said that he and his staff are realizing that in some burgeoning neighborhoods, roadbuilding is accomplished more quickly and cheaply by developers in the area.

That frees the agency up to focus on more innovative ways to get people from A to B. For example, the region’s transit system is soon planning to launch a “microtransit” option that offers on-demand ridesharing to residents. The city also has a new dedicated two-way cycle track in the Uptown neighborhood. “We had to eliminate [car] lanes, but every day more people are using it,” said McKinney. “We have to rethink our old thinking about transportation—it’s not about moving cars; it’s about moving people.”

Charlotte recently experimented with creating dedicated bus lanes, which can be extremely cost-effective; but like the new bike infrastructure, they took away a lane originally devoted to car traffic. Public pushback was significant, McKinney said, something he attributes to the agency’s lack of public outreach around the change.

Indeed, said White, even when policy changes reflect values that seem to be broadly held by residents, actively communicating with them is still key. “A mentor once told me, ‘People have to believe in the process. If they believe in the process, they’ll accept the outcome,’” she said. In her experience, “The more robust the community engagement, the better product you get and the more people buy into it.”