Sunday Train: A Nation of Cycleways and Level of Service

Sacramento Kings fans rejoice! The California State Legislature has passed and Governor Brown has signed a measure paving the way for a new downtown Sacramento Arena, potentially keeping the Kings from high-tailing it to Seattle!

What does this have to do with sustainable transport? More than someone would think who only read the headlines. The bill as passed involves several changes to the evaluation of projects that will benefit sustainable transport projects, including:

Provisions of SB 743 will:

--Remove parking and aesthetics standards as grounds for legal challenges against developments in urban infill areas near transit stops.

--Modernize the statewide measurements against which traffic impacts are assessed and resolved, allowing developers to offset the impacts by building near mass transit stations.

--Expand an exemption from CEQA litigation for mixed residential/commercial projects located within transit priority areas where a full environmental impact review has already been completed.

The first of these three reforms reduces the opportunity to block a project on the grounds that it does not provide sufficient subsidy to motorists in the form of parking. The third of the three reforms reduces one of the disadvantages that mixed-use Transit-Oriented-Development faces compared to greenfield sprawl development.

But it is the second of the three reforms that is the real lede: within a half mile of a transit service that meets a quality of service threshold, it is no longer necessary to prove that the project maintains the same "Level of Service" to automobiles alone as an aspect of "Environmental Quality".

LOS and Auto-Uber-Alles

"Level of Service", often abbreviated LOS, is normally a pure reflections of the Auto-Uber-Alles ideology. Under the most common LOS rules, all transport projects must be judges based on whether they maintain the same Level of Service for automobiles.

What is critical here is that typically transport projects do not face any similar requirement to maintain the same Level of Service to pedestrians, cyclists, transit passengers, or intercity common carrier transport passengers. A dedicated bikeway that caters to a thousand cyclists a day but may inconvenience a hundred motorists a day is, under the typical LOS measurement, a project that reduces the level of transport service provided. On the other hand, a road widening that benefits a hundred motorists a day but inconveniences two hundred pedestrians a day is an increase in level of transport service provided.

This issue was address this April at Reconnecting America:

Are We There Yet? The Bias Of Traffic Engineering

Studies have shown that people who live or work near transit are more likely to use it. This may seem like a no-brainer but conventional transportation models that are used to determine how many roads and how much parking should be built assume that every person, no matter where they live, will make the same transportation choices.

“Level of service” or LOS standards are geared so as to always prioritize the movement of cars: Every change to a street — whether it involves adding a bike lane or painting a crosswalk — must be assessed in terms of the impact on car traffic. If the change slows car travel, cities must spend significant time and money on additional analyses and “mitigation measures” before even minor changes can be made.

“Travel models and LOS standards are a deadly duo used to get rid of traffic congestion — it’s tantamount to using a rototiller to get rid of weeds in a flowerbed,” writes Gary Toth, transportation director for the national nonprofit Project for Public Spaces (PPS), on the PPS blog. “Sure you get rid of the traffic congestion and you get rid of the weeds, but it’s time to acknowledge that the collateral damage is too great. In ridding our communities of the weeds of traffic congestion, we have also pulled out the plants that made our gardens worthwhile in the first place.”

Environmentalists Not Dancing In The Streets

Now, if these three reforms are a win, why were environmental groups in California not supporting this bill? Well, this is a watered down version of a reform that was contained in another bill, SB731, and it left out some of the language that got environmental groups on board for reform of the transport rules in California's Environmental Quality Assessments:

SB 743 leaves out a critical counter-balance measure that originally got many environmental justice groups onboard with CEQA reform and changing traffic impact studies, mainly to assess and try to mitigate the impacts of infill on local communities due to displacement and other localized impacts. The leader of one environmental group wrote in an email, “By cherry-picking one provision, LOS, underserved communities are again getting the short end of the stick in order for wealthy NBA owners to have an easier time building a stadium.”

The bill that was signed into law eliminates a decline in (auto-only) Level Of Service from blocking a project in a Transit Priority Area, which is the 1/2 mile around a bus stop or train station that provides (or will provide by 2030) at least every 15 minute service during peak hour. The more comprehensive CEQA reform bill, which ended up being blocked in the California State Assembly, would have eliminated auto-only Level of Service entirely, in favor of an assessment of the total impact on the local community.

Take that cherry picking of LOS reform and then watering down the LOS reform. Add the that fact environmental groups judged that the broader California Environmental Quality Act reform bill had successfully avoided the every present risk that a reform of Environmental Quality Assessment rules will be an excuse for gutting them, and by not moving on broader CEQA reform, that risk of a bill that is an excuse for gutting CEQA stands. It is not surprising that environmental groups in California were less than enthusiastic about the progress that was made, as a side effect of pandering to the ownership of the Sacramento Kings in a bid to keep the team in the state.

Taking On LOS Everywhere

One critical flaw in the LOS reform that was passed in California is that it is an urban-centric reform.

A half-mile access to Bus and train service every fifteen hours in peak hour is common through the majority of the larger California urban areas. So within most of California's urban areas, a dedicated bikeway or priority bus lane at a congested intersection can be added on the basis of the net economic benefit of the project, without having to spend money mitigating any traffic impacts that may be predicted by the model ~ including impacts that will not occur, because the share of driving declines as a result of the improvement to sustainable transport.

What about a small town that is too small to support a 4-per-hour bus service? Many small towns are an ideal size to support substantial Active Transport, both walking and cycling. For many small towns, a substantial expansion in cycle access to a walkable downtown would provide a valuable economic boost. And effective investment expanded cycle access to downtown is often a quite feasible investment for a small town to take on. But a large share of peak hour transport is likely to be oriented out of town, and even an effective system of local circulator buses feeding an Express Intercity bus or Regional Rail service is unlikely to maintain a four per hour frequency. A dedicated bike lane for a tricky stretch of road to encourage cycling, including to catch that Express Intercity bus or Regional Rail service would have to mitigate predicted impacts on motorists, even if the impact is minor. The traffic impact of a priority bus lane to improve the transit speed of either the circulator buses or an Express Intercity Bus lane would have to be mitigated, no matter how many people benefit from the priority bus lane.

And what about suburban retrofit? If we are going to retrofit much of suburbia from a sprawl transport system to a sustainable transport system, we need to develop local villages along regional sustainable transport corridors ~ whether trolleybus, light rail, heavy rail, or some other mode ~ and at best, it would only be the suburban village itself receiving relief from auto-only LOS regulations. A system of ensuring access to the suburban village from a surrounding three mile area by bike and neighborhood electric vehicle would typically require some lower speed limits on a connected network of side streets, or dedicated lower speed lanes on some connecting road arteries. Under auto-only LOS rules, any resulting delays to any cars would have to be offset somewhere, so that the entire project would likely involve widening other roads to accelerate the traffic on those roads, bringing with it greater risk of injury and death to the larger number of pedestrians that the suburban retrofit is attempting to encourage.

For both of these cases, the impact on motorists does not have to be severe in order to require mitigation. What is an auto "A" LOS? "Traffic flows at or above the posted speed limit and all motorists have complete mobility between lanes." What is an auto "B" LOS? "Slightly congested, with some impingement of maneuverability. Two motorists might be forced to drive side by side, limiting lane changes." But under auto-only LOS rules, this is a mark against a project, even if the project moves pedestrian, cyclist or transit Level of Service from an "E" to a "C".

Under a Pedal to the Metal sustainable transport policy, we are not going to want to restrict sustainable transport to large cities alone. We are going to want to pursue sustainable transport nationwide. And laying the groundwork for pursuing sustainable transport nationwide requires an across-the-board reform of LOS rules.

There has been substantial progress on this front since the state of affairs at the turn of the century. A total of twenty-seven (27) states [pdf] have some form of legislative language or DOT regulation that requires or encourages the recognition of most or all users of the public right of way. However, its notable that one of those states is our case at hand, California, which passed a complete streets measure in 2008 (2008-AB1358), but which as we have seen is only now reforming the heavy hand of auto-centric LOS regulations, and even there only partially.

The target to aim for is Multi-Modal LOS measurment, where Level of Service provided to all users of the public right of way. For example, in the Florida Quality / Level of Service handbook [pdf], motorist, pedestrian, cyclist, and transit passengers are all considered as users of the public right of way, and transport planners are directed to evaluate the Level of Service for each.

Note that the Florida DOT only applies a statewide standard on "highways" to automobile LOS (remembering that "highway" includes county and township highways), with the targets for the other three LOS in a particular project determined on a case-by-case basis [pfd]. However, this is still an upgrade to a policy of requiring any reduction in auto-only LOS to be mitigated, since the policy is to maintain at least a "C" quality of auto LOS outside of urban areas, and a "D" quality inside urban areas, so that projects addressing a severe obstacle to pedestrians, cyclists and/or transit users is not ruled out on the basis of an impact to motorists still enjoying the target LOS or better.

An Opportunity for Local Action

A great deal about how these kinds of policy changes work out is determined by how the reform is implemented.

Ideally, the Federal Department of Transportation, all state Departments of Transportation, and all local transport and highway planning would demand multi-modal Level of Service evaluation. But progress on any of these levels helps, which means this is a policy area that is wide open to advocacy at the local level, the level of city, town, village and/or county government.

Now, this is too much of a mouthful for effective advocacy when door-knocking at the local level, but not to fear: this is one aspect of the policy reforms being pushed for as "Complete Streets" policies. It is, indeed, in part thanks to the efforts of the Complete Streets Coalition that we have as many state laws and regulations that aim to push traditional auto-centric Departments of Transportation to look at the total transport picture.

Indeed, this year, the Complete Streets Coalition recognized that 500 Complete Streets policies had been put into place in various places around the country, which was a milestone they decided to Celebrate.

This was a milestone well worth celebrating. The more progress we make in getting the legal framework, the regulatory framework and, sometimes most importantly for transport policy, the modeling framework updated from an obsolete Auto-Uber-Alles position to a modern Complete Streets position, the better positioned we will be to make progress on implementing sustainable local transport using renewable energy sources under a Pedal to the Metal approach to abandoning our current suicide path.

See also California HSR Blog: Reforms to the Level of Service Rule Under Way Across Country

Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

As you can tell, I really do think that removing the bias of auto-only LOS rules in particular, and Complete Streets policies in general, is an important policy we can pursue right now to pave the way for the Pedal to the Metal push for sustainable transport that we shall have to begin in the coming decade, if we are to wrench our transport policy from the hands of the Climate Suicide Pact. However, the time has come to find out what you think.

So now, as always, rather looking for some overarching conclusion, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week's Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand "NT:" in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.





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