Reuters

An antiquated car-centric planning metric called "level of service" must be reformed by 2014.

Late last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill designed to expedite construction of a new sports arena in downtown Sacramento. That's great news if you're a Kings fan (or new minority owner Shaquille O'Neal). It's even better news, oddly enough, if you're a fan of livable cities.

That's because the new law carries a provision to reform a pernicious and antiquated planning metric called "level of service." A highway-era relic, LOS encourages planners to favor cars over all other travel modes when it comes to urban street design. The law will replace the metric with one more inclined to encourage smart growth in all "transit priority areas" (read: metro areas) across the state.

"Getting people out of their cars has tremendous social benefits," says Amanda Eaken of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was a strong advocate for the new law. "So we've got to modernize our impact analysis framework to reflect that all users of the transportation system matter."

LOS is used in different ways by city planners and transport engineers across the country. In California, it operates via the state's environmental code, the California Environmental Quality Act. Under CEQA, any proposed project involving street reconfiguration must determine whether or not these changes downgrade LOS — or, put another way, whether or not they increase car delay.

The problem with LOS is that it makes projects with clear environmental benefits seem like a sustainable drag. A simple plan to add a crosswalk, for instance, might downgrade LOS because it causes cars to advance through an intersection more slowly. The result is often that a project is cancelled or that some form of LOS mitigation favorable to cars, such as a wider road, is implemented.

While LOS might have made sense in the past, says Eaken, modern advocates of sustainable cities see it as completely backward.

"Ironically, this framework had made the kinds of things that make cities more walkable, more livable, more bike-friendly, more transit-friendly, more difficult," she says. "It had incentivized anything that puts more cars through an intersection."

The new law calls for the state's Office of Planning and Research to offer a new CEQA transportation guideline by next summer. That metric, by law, must "promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses." Lawmakers made a few suggestions for LOS replacements, including metrics that gauge vehicle miles traveled or automobile trip generation.

Jason Henderson of San Francisco State University, author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco, says ATG is "the way to go." Guided by this type of metric, CEQA would give the green light (so to speak) to any project that would reduce the number of car trips in an area. That could take the form of a bike lane, or a bus-rapid transit station, or a residential building that deemphasized parking.

"If a project generates car trips, it's bad for the environment," says Henderson. "Things that don't generate car trips should get an easier pass."

A few years ago, in preparation for its own local departure from LOS, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority conducted a thorough study of ATG. The relative advantages were clear: ATG was a superior indicator of environmental impact, consistent with a "transit-first" policy, and resulted in system-wide (rather than intersection-specific) mitigations [PDF]. The metric outperformed LOS on seven critical CEQA criteria:

The new law hasn't satisfied everyone. Some environmental groups argue that the new Sacramento sports arena essentially avoids environmental review in the exchange, opening the door to sweeping exemptions for infill development projects. Additionally, local transportation departments will still be able to use the LOS metric in projects that fall outside the CEQA jurisdiction. (The connection between the arena and the LOS reform is a loose one: the law's main focus was facilitating arena development, with the LOS language lifted from another bill that never passed.)

On balance, however, the law seems like a win for California cities. And as recent Sacramento Kings teams can attest, a win is a good thing however it comes.

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