There are three little words that will make any livable streets advocate groan: Level of Service.
Level of Service, simply put, is a measure of vehicle congestion at intersections. Projects are graded from “A” to “F” based on how much delay drivers experience.
That’s all it measures: the free motion of motor vehicles. And that’s the problem. The safety of people on foot and on bikes doesn’t enter into the equation at all, and transit vehicles carrying dozens of people are subjugated to the movement of private cars. In fact, a high “level of service” generally makes for a much more stressful and dangerous street, since speeding traffic, and the wide lanes that facilitate it, is a leading cause of traffic injuries and deaths.
Last month, livable streets advocates in California finally made progress in a long battle to reform the state’s environmental laws, which perversely rewarded projects that cater to cars and maintain a certain Level of Service. When, for instance, San Francisco went to add a bike lane or a bus lane, the city first had to show — as part of environmental law — that drivers would not be inconvenienced. Then on September 27, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law saying that Level of Service requirements would no longer factor into the state’s environmental review process — at least in “transit priority areas,” which will incorporate sections of all the state’s urbanized areas.
The Natural Resources Defense Council celebrated the bill’s passage, writing that it will “have the potential to shape California’s future in a big way.”
California isn’t the only place rethinking its reliance on Level of Service to grade transportation and development projects. Portland, Oregon, issued an RFP last summer asking for help developing new performance measures to replace Level of Service. The RFP read: “The existing LOS standards and measures, which focus only on motor vehicle levels of service, do not reflect the City of Portland’s current practice which emphasizes and promotes a multi-modal approach to transportation planning and providing transportation services.”
Meanwhile, other cities that want to build better streets for walking, biking, and transit are finding ways around Level of Service without changing laws.