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California calling: A new citizen's agenda for transportation

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/04/15 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

California has started a national conversation about transportation as a place not a speed.

<br />A street in the West Village of New York would probably earn an F on the LOS scale, making it illegal to build today.<br />This is what good Level of Service looks like to a pedestrian in University Circle at the intersection of Stokes and Chester. <br />University Circle Transportation and Mobility Study is upfront about how improving streets for walking and biking will grade on the LOS scale.

At a roundtable discussion on “Transportation Reform’s Role in Creating Great Communities” at last week's 23rd Congress for New Urbanism, panelist and Director of Pasadena, California Department of Transportation, Fred Dock, described how the city will meet a new law requiring all jurisdictions in the state to jettison a little-known traffic engineer’s policy that has had an outsize influence on the way we live.

The metric, known as “Level of Service” (LOS) gives a letter grade to what engineers think is an acceptable amount of traffic. It is often the culprit for why roads get widened and traffic speeds increase.

After a year-long conversation in Pasadena, Dock says, they agreed that LOS will only continue to give a failing grade to the streets that attract new investment and people—streets like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland and Main Street in Hudson.

And so Pasadena will replace LOS with a metric that considers how a street serves needs in addition to moving cars. The city decided that Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) is the better metric for building places that achieve community goals like safety and health and meeting the challenge of climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

As soon as its ratified, all developments and the state-approved General Plan of Pasadena must reduce VMT. So, a bike lane or building densely near a rail station would qualify, Dock said, and likely get approved.

“It sounds simplistic, but you can measure what people need,” he said. “We took 60 years to come up with (LOS), and it’s not really measuring what people need.

“The goal now is for anything going forward to be better than before. If its infill development, it shouldn’t be an issue. If its development on a greenfield, it will be a harder sell.”

Was I alone in thinking about how California led the nation in regulating carbon emissions as a pollutant (which led to EPA’s new rules regulating it on a national level)? Could this be California once again opening the door to a national discussion—about the goals of transportation, this time?

Indeed, a City of Ft. Lauderdale planner and traffic engineer sitting next to me asked moderator John Thomas, Director, EPA Sustainable Communities Office, when we could expect a federal policy to replace LOS with a more people / place oriented metric?

Thomas hedged, saying it will depend on how local, regional and state agencies commit to the idea.

I asked Thomas and the panel if a Visual Preference Survey—where people are shown and asked to rank images of the type of streets and places that are universally loved alongside the ugly, shoddy and unsafe places that our taxes are building—if it would be effective in building a case for a new, federal metric for transportation?

Panelist James Frye, Vice President at HNTB Corporation, agreed it was a technique he would consider using.

Little Rock, Arkansas used a Visual Preference Survey to great effect, said Jim McKenzie, Executive Director of the regional planning agency, Metroplan.

They ran a multi-page, color spread of contrasting images in the daily newspaper 20 years ago.

“It completely changed our investment strategy,” he said, adding that a sustainable master plan emerged as a result. “Now, it’s a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. Is the (road project) consistent with the plan?”

Dock added that Los Angeles is in the process of figuring out how to ditch LOS for a vibrant place metric in transportation.

“If L.A. can do this, anyone can.”

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6 years ago

John - thanks for your comment. I've learned a lot hearing from engineers like Ian Lockwood talk about Level of Service. He reminds us that it is still an invention of people granted possibly in a vain attempt to seek order during the era of car driving. He is effective at pointing out the different values that LOS is based on. They are often at odds with what the community expresses as its priority values. I think the point of the post is California, through its ballot initiative known as CEQA, has successfully challenged this "black box," or the formula that engineers use to apply LOS, and have instead introduced a conversation that says, indeed, complete streets align closer to our values. On the question of NEPA, I think history will show that LOS induced greater demand for VMT and thus, which is worse, a billion cars on the road or half of that with a minute more of idling?

John W
6 years ago

LOS isn't some arbitrary "letter grade to what engineers think is an acceptable amount of traffic." It's just a letter assigned to different ranges of delay per vehicle. If people are willing to accept more delay for drivers in exchange for more complete streets that benefit pedestrians, transit users, and bicyclists, that's great. However, I think it is fair to continue to evaluate the impacts to motorists as one of many criteria when making design decisions. Full impact analysis is consistent with NEPA requirements too.

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