LOS or Level of Service is a term that is used to measure automobile delay. Up until recently it was a required measurement for most transportation projects as an increase in vehicle delay would trigger the states environmental guidelines (CEQA). The unfortunate consequence of this requirement meant that even environmentally friendly projects like bike lanes or bus only lanes had to go through time consuming and costly reviews. Luckily, things are beginning to change.
The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) recently sponsored a new study that examines when a city is actually required to use LOS to determine environmental impacts. The study examines recent changes to CEQA which no longer require cities to use LOS to determine whether projects are creating significant impacts. The study illustrates how the City of Los Angeles could adopt new guidelines that would avoid the negative consequences incurred when vehicle LOS is the only metric studied.
What would this mean for biking, walking and Safe Routes to Schools? Currently, to improve LOS many streets are widened to increase capacity. This often results in longer crossing distances for pedestrians and faster driving speeds, which can increase the severity of collisions and make road conditions less pleasant for bicyclists. Moving towards new concepts such as “Auto Trips Generated,” “Multi-modal LOS,” or person-centric (instead of vehicle-centric) metrics will allow cities to change development patterns and ground their decisions regarding transportation investments on a broader range of goals and environmental objectives.
Recent California State and Los Angeles City policies support a move away from the use of LOS as the only metric for measuring a project’s traffic impacts. These include AB 32 (Global Warming Solutions Act), SB 375 (Sustainable Communities and Protection Act), AB 1358 (the Complete Streets Act), the City of Los Angele’s Climate Action Plan and the City’s Bicycle Master Plan. In order for Los Angeles to remain in compliance with these policies it will need to look for an alternative measurement or means of mitigating the impact these projects incur. Simply continuing to widen roads will not reduce greenhouse gasses or encourage alternate transportation modes.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the analysis done by LACBC is the documentation of a city’s right to use an alternative measurement for these projects. Many cities are afraid of being sued for not following accepted standards. The study by LACBC lays out clear evidence and case law that under CEQA cities do indeed have the discretion to adopt or utilize “appropriate methodologies.” “In fact, public policy considerations and legal guidance suggest that the City must begin to use multimodal metrics when evaluating the potential impacts of bikeways and other similar transportation improvements.”
LOS served as a useful tool to meet a specific set of policy goals for the last 50-60 years, namely reduced delay through capacity expansion. Today however, its usefulness is declining as our policy goals shift to include livable and walkable neighborhoods. So, while LOS will probably not be completely replaced as a tool for measuring traffic congestion, its days as the dictator of our streets are definitely numbered.