Talking Headways: Level of Disservice

podcast icon logoIn California, whether you’re building an office tower or a new transit line, you’re going to run up against the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The law determines how much environmental analysis you need to do for new projects. But sadly, in practice it’s better at propagating car-oriented development than improving the quality of the environment.

That’s because instead of looking at a project’s effect on the environment, CEQA looks mostly at its effect on traffic. And the measures CEQA uses to determine traffic impacts focus on individual intersections, instead of the region as a whole. As a result, they end up penalizing urban infill development and transit projects while promoting sprawl and road expansion.

Here’s the good news: The core traffic metric embedded in CEQA, known as Level of Service (LOS), is set to be overhauled in California. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB743. One thing that bill does is allow the Sacramento Kings to build a new stadium. But the other thing it does is allow for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research to come up with a new metric to replace LOS — a very hot topic on Streetsblog.

This week’s Talking Headways is a special one-hour episode all about how LOS works against sustainable development patterns and what is being done to change it.

Jeff produced this podcast for the NRDC Urban Solutions Program. Guests include Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard, Amanda Eaken of NRDC, and Chris Ganson of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Hope you enjoy it.

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  • Fakey McFakename

    Serious bashing and misunderstanding from Mr. Tumlin. LOS E, not LOS F, equals 100% capacity of a road or intersection. LOS F is anything over 100% capacity.

  • Oklahoma Sam

    Hey guys, you know the images in your stories are often linked to themselves. It’s really distracting to accidentally click on one and just have a big image pop up!

  • Ronald T Milam

    Thanks Streetsblog for expanding this discussion. Just a few items to think about…

    Is it reasonable to ‘blame’ CEQA for the use/misuse of LOS? CEQA does not require the use of LOS. Lead agencies (i.e., cities and counties) have the discretion under CEQA to select their own metrics and thresholds. Most choose to use LOS because vehicle travel delay increases are important to their community. That said, the interview does point out important problems or limitations of conventional LOS analysis but most of these can be handled through better transportation and land use planning as part of general plans (e.g. comprehensive plans for those outside CA), including multi-modal impact analysis in CEQA documents instead of just focusing on roadways, and using state of the practice LOS methodology. The general plan should directly address the tradeoffs between LOS and other community values as well as ensure that the community can afford to operate and maintain the existing transportation network before committing to expanding the network.

  • Jesse

    This was such an interesting topic despite being so wonky.

    In response to the consultant’s legitimate concerns about NIMBYs using the VMT metric for evil, here’s a specious argument I can imagine at a community board meeting: we can’t remove any on-street parking for this bike/ped project because it would mean drivers would have to spend more time circling the block for parking and therefore increase VMT.