Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

An End to LOS in Pasadena

Members of Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition pose for a celebratory picture after the City Council voted unanimously to end the city's old car-centric LOS transportation metric. (Photo courtesy PasCSC)

Members of Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition pose for a celebratory picture after the City Council voted unanimously to end the city’s old car-centric LOS transportation metric. (Photo courtesy PasCSC)

On November 3, Pasadena’s City Council voted unanimously to ditch the car-centric measure of mobility called “level of service,” or LOS.  The policy change was developed and proposed by the staff at Pasadena DOT and is a critical element of Pasadena’s efforts to become a more environmentally-friendly city by encouraging multi-modal transportation, and denser, mixed-use development downtown.  Pasadena’s local complete streets advocacy group, Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition (PasCSC), lobbied for this change as a necessary step in making the city’s streets safer and more user-friendly for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.  The state of California is currently reassessing LOS and working on its own statewide multimodal metric, but to my knowledge Pasadena is the first city in Southern California (though certainly not the last) to break from the old LOS standard.

For the policy wonks, LOS was developed by traffic engineers decades ago as a means of measuring the increased automobile traffic that often comes with the growth of cities.  It made sense in an era when cities were being redesigned around the automobile and it was assumed that everyone would—and should—drive.  It makes far less sense when cities are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, automobile pollution, and encourage alternative modes of personal mobility.  Providing for the convenience of automobile mobility as the only measure of transportation quality had the unintended consequence of creating what is known as “induced demand” as wider roads encouraged more driving, more driving begat more auto-centric development, which, under LOS, mandated wider roads, ad infinitum.

One of the downsides of LOS has been that it measured the transportation impact of property development and road use solely by its impact on automobile wait times at intersections.  Put another way, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users didn’t count, so their needs usually went unmet under the LOS rubric.  A short wait time for cars at an intersection would, for example, receive an ‘A’ grade, while a longer wait time for cars would receive lower grades.  Pedestrians who had a long wait at a traffic light and then a dash across the street to beat the short crossing signal were not counted under LOS.  A bus with 25 passengers counts as much as a single occupancy automobile under LOS.  A bike lane that might slightly reduce road capacity for automobiles would be D.O.A. under LOS, on the assumption that it might make drivers wait a few seconds longer at a stoplight, triggering a failing LOS grade.  Never mind that more people would be willing to leave their cars at home if they had safe, convenient alternatives, LOS meant drivers, and only drivers, counted.  Moreover, the widening of roads to achieve a good LOS score often resulted in unused road capacity during off-peak hours and has also been shown to induce higher automobile speeds and deadlier collisions.  The ‘S’ in LOS thus stood for service to motorists only, and reflected the domination of streets by cars in the late 20th century.  The new standard reflects the idea that cities should measure the movement of people, not just cars, when judging the impact of development.

The new standard uses a mix of Vehicle Trips (VT) generated, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita, access to alternative modes (walking, biking, transit) of transportation, as well as LOS.  The new measure also provides that mitigation of the traffic impact of development can include funding for alternative modes of transportation, whereas previously a developer would be required to provide more parking or road-widening.  Pasadena DOT staff believe that the new measure provides a fuller picture of the multimodal reality of modern city mobility and give the city the flexibility to encourage multi modality, safety, and sustainability.

Pasadena still has a long way to go to achieve its complete streets vision, but it is gratifying to see the city take one more step toward that vision.

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13 thoughts on “An End to LOS in Pasadena

  1. Not to rain on the parade, but the Passenger Car Equivalent ( metric already accounts for bikes, buses, and even horse drawn vehicles:

    >For example, typical values of PCE (or PCU) are:

    >* private car (including taxis or pick-up) 1
    >* motorcycle 0.5
    >* bicycle 0.2
    >* horse-drawn vehicle 4
    >* bus, tractor, truck 3.5

    So the author’s statement that:

    >A bus with 25 passengers counts as much as a single occupancy automobile under LOS.

    Is completely inaccurate. I would be interested to see if the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition included any traffic engineers or if they were aware of the PCE.

    • The views expressed are mine, not those of PasCSC, and no, I’m not a traffic engineer. I appreciate the information, but not the snark.

      • Since you are the author, you should consider making corrections to your factually inaccurate statements.

    • Steve Smith on said:

      So the PCE for the bus is 3.5 times a car? So PCE still grossly undercounts transit, cyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians?

      • This was my question as well. It is not clear from the Wikipedia article what the PCE values actually stand for. For example, if we want to measure the movement of people, transit should carry a value that reflects the number of people being moved rather than the vehicle. The thrust of my original argument, that LOS undercounts the movement of people by transit, walking or bicycling, and makes the single occupancy motor vehicle the standard by which all other mobility is measured, is still valid. How much LOS undercounts transit users or pedestrians is a question I leave for others with more expertise than I. The wikipedia article on PCE also notes that when multiple transportation modes are being counted, such as is the case in India, the use of PCE becomes more complicated. The city of Pasadena’s traffic engineers are attempting to use a more complicated metric that accounts for human mobility in modes other than the automobile. In that sense, I think it is a positive step toward safer streets and enables the city to encourage multimodality.

    • ubrayj02 on said:

      Never in my life have I seen or heard of the PCE being used at any of the regional DOT’s. Metro’s own analyses of projects receiving funding for improving regional bus transit measure buses as an impediment to LOS.

      LOS is a sledge hammer of stupidity when it comes to governing a population of human beings. The people in favor of its use should face civil charges.

    • Build LA on said:

      I don’t think the author is completely inaccurate. PCE may perhaps be used already, but in terms of capacity.

      LOS uses traffic count, especially at intersections to measure project impact.

      Both PCE and LOS are independent metrics.

      For traffic impact, most city council members look at the LOS, as have been discussed in many meetings and projects. And the author makes a point – strip sensors are placed across the street and vehicle counts are measured, not passenger capacity.

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  4. Build LA on said:

    Great news for Pasadena.

    It’s a shame however the Pasadena Star News endorsed Eric Sunada as councilman candidate in next door Alhambra.

    Sunada continues to follow the NIMBY bandwagon in Alhambra against higher density mixed-use developments, especially in downtown.

    Thanks Pasadena Star News for supporting people like Eric Sunada whose ideology is counterintuitive to highly walkable dense communities…

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