The Beginning of the End for Level of Service?

There are three little words that will make any livable streets advocate groan: Level of Service.

"Level of Service" is the metric that, perhaps more than any other, fuels the decimation of walkable streets. Image: Andy Singer

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.

Rachel Weinberger helped write Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability framework. Level of Service requirements presented a barrier to safer street designs there, too, but by testing out new engineering approaches as pilot projects, reforms could be advanced without hacking through too much red tape. Internally, the city used performance measures that prioritized goals it considered more important than vehicle Level of Service, such as spatial efficiency.

“A lot of places are trying to rethink it,” said Weinberger, who is now director of research and policy strategy at Nelson\Nygaard. “People are starting to say, ‘We’ve been using this performance measure and we’re not getting the whole picture, and we’re not getting the result we really want.'”

The state of Florida, for example, uses a multi-modal Level of Service analysis. The state of Virginia is considering something similar, said Weinberger.

Another innovator is Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte first adopted a soft approach to its use of Level of Service about 10 years ago, when the city passed its complete streets policy, says Dan Gallagher, the city’s transportation and planning manager.

“We realized if we were going to be a city that could move cars but also be accommodating for bikes, pedestrians and transit users, a strict level of service approach probably wasn’t going to be the best thing,” Gallagher said. “What we’ve moved to is more of a comprehensive look at our improvements.”

Charlotte still uses Level of Service in its planning, but in combination with metrics that measure “Level of Service” for cyclists and pedestrians as well. Multi-modal Level of Service measures have been pioneered by groups like the National Cooperative Highway Research program.

The use of "Level of Service" performance metrics can lead to road widenings that entrench dependence on driving and jeopardize pedestrians. Photo: ## News##

The city of Seattle is another conscientious objector. Michael James, a project manager at the Seattle Department of Transportation, said the city is considering whether to adopt a multi-modal Level of Service in its next comprehensive plan.

“We’re really trying to move away from using level of service because it really just focuses on driver access and it’s more of a measure of driver convenience than anything else,” James said. “We still do use LOS at intersections, but primarily to make sure our transit is still moving.”

Of course, for every state or local agency that eschews transportation decisions based primarily on Level of Service, there are many more that use it to quash projects that might be beneficial for pedestrians and cyclists. The sad thing, according to Gary Toth at Project for Public Spaces, is that there is absolutely no requirement for states and cities to do so. Adherence to Level of Service is simply a convention that survives from the bygone era of highway building. Even with the advances in multi-modal Level of Service, many communities will forgo this measure because the data needed to calculate is more difficult to obtain.

“We have a long way to go,” says Toth, “but the door is opening.”

9 thoughts on The Beginning of the End for Level of Service?

  1. If your local transportation planners are fixated on the concept of Level Of Service, it might be easier to promote the idea of Multimodal Level Of Service rather than try to get them to abandon LOS entirely. The Highway Capacity Manual now includes Multimodal Level Of Service. Insist that they make those calculations, and not just look at Automobile LOS.

    Here is a look at the development of the Pedestrian Level Of Service measurements over a dozen years ago:

  2. “there is absolutely no requirement for states and cities to do so. Adherence to Level of Service is simply a convention”

    I don’t think that is entirely true. In California, until this new law passed, EIRs had to study and mitigate impacts on LOS – and the most obvious mitigation is widening streets. EIRs still have to do this outside of “transit priority areas.”

    How should the law be changed for areas that are not “transit priority areas”? I have heard the opinion that it is good to require them to widen roads, because the extra cost will discourage development in these sprawl areas. But it would probably be better to come up with a standard based on trip generation rather than LOS, so they would have to put that money into trip-reduction programs instead of widening roads.

  3. Great
    article, and good people quoted. I think we should steer the discussion
    toward what kinds of places we are building and if they are good enough
    (outcomes -vs- methodology). One important nuance is ‘scale’. A lot of
    the newer communities have mixed-use
    and density but at a much larger scale, ie. one huge intersection the
    size of a football field (that is not walkable regardless) – vs- the two
    or three that you may see in a inner-suburbs..or city context.

  4. What do you think is the history of LOS in the context of environmental law? Is it because delaying drivers led to more emissions?

    I’d argue that now, all the livable-streets reasons aside, with more hybrid cars, idling isn’t as much of an issue. And we’re finally beginning to focus on the fact that driving isn’t a necessity everywhere, and instead of make it easier to drive by increasing LOS, we can get rid of the problem entirely by creating great alternatives.

    Good article 🙂

  5. Where is NY State in this? At the back of the pack? Why is NYS so regressive when it comes to road building?

  6. Hi Charles, we had coffee in your town back in 2006, long time no see. Actually state CEQA statutes only stated that EIRs had to examine the impacts of a project would have on local traffic. LOS became the default method, and became enshrined in local CEQA guidelines and LOS levels became defined in local CEQA impact thresholds.

  7. I can tell you from experience that Multi-Modal LOS is a good and interesting tool, but it is unwieldy as a complete replacement for traditional LOS, so there will need to be more policy decisions like SB743, that either de-emphasize LOS altogether or constrain its applicability and introduce MMLOS in smaller study areas.

  8. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that the basis for LOS was vehicle emissions, so if you delay vehicles and end up with congestion, you get more smog. Harmful emissions several decades ago, per vehicle, were about an order of magnitude higher.

    Of course, the elephant in the room was the thought that another way to reduce emissions was to reduce the number of motor vehicles on the urban roads. Even now with cleaner cars, the long term dependence on SOV’s is not sustainable and endangers people in our urban centers due to designs that require us to kowtow to LOS.

    My wife and I honeymooned in Italy in 1992. Our time in Rome was wonderful except that every day we got back to our B&B tasting soot and auto exhaust in our mouths due to the lax environmental standards back then and hordes of vehicles on the roads. The car-free sections of some major Italian cities were our only respite.

    Good article, Angie.

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