Sunday, August 10, 2014

Level of Service (LOS) and Livability: Lessons for Lee County

BikeWalkLee has for some time focused on the need for a paradigm shift away from the current auto-focused "Level of Service" (LOS).  The paradigm shift is now happening in states and communities across the country, as demonstrated in two recent national webinars on the topic and reported here by FGCU student Vitor Suguri.  

By Vitor Suguri, FGCU MPA Graduate Student

Background:  One of BikeWalkLee's long-time concerns has been with the current Level of Service (LOS) transportation planning methodology that spews out the "need" for wider and faster roads.  The current automobile LOS is a fundamental barrier to a paradigm shift to a 21st Century transportation vision that focuses on a balanced multi-modal transportation system, supporting economic opportunity and livable communities (not just congestion management).  For the past 5 years, BWL has been emphasizing the importance of changing our transportation planning tools and assumptions in order to realize the vision of complete streets and sustainable communities.  The "poster child" of the problem is the auto LOS, which has resulted in over-designed roads that handle capacity that only occurs at the very heaviest travel periods and overestimates our need for more or wider roadways.

Over the past decade, many in the transportation profession and policymakers across the country have recognized the need to reform/replace this tool, and the paradigm shift is beginning to happen in states and communities across the country.  Locally, BikeWalkLee has worked with County committees and staffs on revising the current LOS as part of the County's update of the Comprehensive Plan, Horizon 2035.

Report from "LOS and Livability" Webinar,  by Vitor Suguri, FGCU MPA Graduate Student
A recent national webinar on this issue highlights the potential positive changes  for Lee County. 
FHWA July 22ndWebinar, "LOS and Livability: Making the Connection".

The “Level of Service” (LOS) has been traditionally used as a tool to measure the capacity of a road or street.  Until recently the main focus of LOS was solely on the automobile and other motorized modes of transportation.  This focus, generally speaking, only accounted for how quickly a trip would take from point “a” to point “b”.  Therefore, when a road became congested, the solution was to make the road wider. With the update of the Lee County New Horizon 2035 and MPO Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP),there is an opportunity to incorporate more relevant planning tools to support a balanced multi-modal transportation system. This may occur by placing more emphasis on connectivity, accessibility, and safety.

On July 22nd the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in partnership with the Project for Public Spaces and Sevatec, hosted a webinar that highlighted the need for LOS goals that consider all road users, supports livable communities, and help achieve Context Sensitive Solutions.  The webinar featured Keith Harrison, P.E. (Safety/Geometric Design Engineer, FHWA Resource Center), Paul Krekeler (GreenLITES Program Manager, NYSDOT), Allen D. Biehler (Executive Director, University Transportation Center, Carnegie Mellon University), and Peter Hurley (Program and Policy Director, The North American Sustainable Transportation Council).

One of the key words used through the webinar was livability. The presenters emphasized that livability is a key part of a “bigger picture” and LOS should not be the sole measurement of roadway performance. According to Keith Harrison, a design of excellence should incorporate indicators such as the environment, safety, cost, mobility, culture, and preservation. All should contribute to the decision making process of road design or construction.  These represent a set of values that help to increase pedestrian and bike safety – a significant issue for Lee County.

Florida Presenter Peter Hurley, focused on the benefits associated with thinking of transportation from a “Triple Bottom Line” perspective. Transportation investments that increase walking, biking, and transit will lead to improved public health and reductions in per capita fuel consumption, thus retaining within the local economy many hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. These same investments can ensure benefits to the transportation disadvantaged; reduce injuries and deaths while improving overall livability for everyone.  Similarly, presenter Krekeler added that having a sustainability mission statement would ensure that transportation investments are promoting safety, preserving the environment, enhancing the transportation system as a whole, maximizing the return on the investment – the outcome of seeing beyond mere infrastructure to whole system thinking.

Allen Biehler shared how Pennsylvania dealt with a tight transportation budget while improving their existing roads in a way that responded to the livability principle.  Similar to Lee County MPO’s recent commitment, Pennsylvania DOT (PDOT) had adopted a Fix it First policy, which drove a reduction of funding for new capacity from 25% to 4%. PDOT has worked to establish  connections with a broad range of stakeholders with the goal of maintaining community values and preserving the natural environment. This type of forward thinking is beginning to be incorporated into the development of Lee MPO's 2040 LRTP and the County's Comprehensive Plan (Horizon 2035).  
It is clear from the webinar that there is considerable evidence to show that transportation planning must go beyond LOS and take on a broader range of measures of transportation success, including the environment, the people, and the economy. The webinar demonstrated that this paradigm shift is happening all around the country.  In fact, a new California law (enacted in 2013) calls for replacing LOS with vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in traffic impact analysis, supporting the state's goals of encouraging infill development and mode shift.  Another national webinar on the California experience, "Paradigm shift: From LOS to VMT" was presented on July 30th.  The slides and audio of the webinar are available online.
BWL's previous blog posts on the issue:

1.  BWL Blog March 1, 2014: Lee County Advisory Committees review key transportation element of New Horizon2035 Lee Plan

2.  BWL Blog November 26, 2012: BikeWalkLee's comments on draft transportation element of Comp Plan--a different path forward for Lee County

3. BWL Blog February 6, 2012: Gary Toth: Levels of Service and Travel Projections: The Wrong Tools for Planning Our Streets?

4.  BWL Blog June 19, 2010: The "deadly duo": Level of Service (LOS) & travel projections

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