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The Feds Want to Reform the Cult of “Level of Service”

FHWA is trying to encourage states and localities to move away from using Level of Service. Cartoon by Andy Singer, via PPS.

The old way of making transportation decisions prioritized the movement of cars above all. The Federal Highway Administration will encourage local agencies to shift to other methods. Cartoon: Andy Singer via Project for Public Spaces

“What you measure is what you get,” the saying goes.

That’s certainly true for transportation policy. And for a very long time one metric has reigned supreme on American streets: “Level of Service,” a system that assigns letter grades based on motorist delay. Roughly speaking, a street with free-flowing traffic gets an A while one where cars back up gets an F.

Level of Service, or LOS, is what traffic engineers cite when they shut down the possibility of transitways or bike lanes. It also leads to policy decisions like road widenings and parking mandates. Even environmental laws are structured around the idea that traffic flow is paramount, so they end up perpetuating highways, parking, and sprawl. Because if the top priority is to move cars — and not, say, to improve public safety or economic well-being — the result is a transportation system that will move a lot of cars while failing at almost everything else.

The good news is that there’s a growing recognition inside some of the nation’s largest transportation agencies that relying on LOS causes a lot of problems.

Just last week, the state of California introduced a new metric to replace LOS in its environmental laws. Instead of assessing how a building or road project will affect traffic delay, California will measure how much traffic it generates, period. Car trips, not car delays, will be the thing to avoid. This is likely to have the opposite effect of LOS, leading to more efficient use of land and transportation infrastructure.

Change is afoot at the federal level too. Officials at the Federal Highway Administration are looking at how they can spur changes like California’s LOS reform in other places.

Read more…

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Today’s Headlines

  • Survey Shows Support for BART Bond (SMDailyJournal, SFBay)
  • The Most Crowded and Least Crowded BART Stations (SFGate)
  • Parking Fees Going up at BART Stations (CBSLocal)
  • Downtown Oakland Now Hottest Area for Development (BizJournal)
  • More on Super Bowl Costs to SFMTA (SFist)
  • Super Bowl Security Checks on Marin Ferry (MarinIJ)
  • Burlingame Looks at Options for Caltrain Grade Separation (SMDailyJournal)
  • Traffic Impact Requirements Added to Mill Valley Development Reviews (MarinIJ)
  • Editorial Compares Bad Drone Operators to Scofflaw Cyclists? (SFist)
  • Revamped Dolores Park Already Filled with Litter (SFWeekly)
  • Bay Bridge Light Sculpture to Turn Back on This Weekend (InsideBayArea)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA
Get state headlines at Streetsblog CA


Streetsblog Talks with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Supervisor Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener, who has served District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 2011, was re-elected this week as chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. The Authority was created in 1989 and it works closely with the Municipal Transportation Agency, funding and shepherding long-term projects such as the Van Ness and Geary bus improvements and the Central Subway. Wiener has long been a leader in transportation issues—probably because, unlike some elected officials, he actually rides the trains and buses.

Here’s what he wrote in a post about his reappointment as chair of SFCTA:

    “I’m deeply honored that my colleagues just reelected me as Chairman of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. I will continue to work very hard to improve transportation options as our city and region grow. We have so many needs – increased frequency and reliability of service, more subway lines, a complete revamping of BART and Caltrain, a second transbay tube, and high speed rail to downtown San Francisco. We have huge challenges, and with aggressive and innovative work, we will meet them.”

Streetsblog talked with Wiener about cycling, his goals for improving Muni, and general mobility in San Francisco. But first, late last December Supervisor Wiener pulled out his phone to check an appointment and got robbed. The thieves took his phone and then demanded money. Wiener got his phone back and managed to maneuver them in front of an ATM camera. Streetsblog started by asking him about that encounter and what it says about personal safety in San Francisco.


Streetsblog: So you got the thieves on a security camera?

Scott Wiener: It was either an incredibly smart move or an incredibly stupid move, but I got my phone back and the people are in custody. I was walking down 16th Street at Valencia and I had briefly taken my phone out to look at my calendar to see where I was going. A woman who was with two guys snatched the phone out of my hand and I was able to get it back from her by paying. So I got them to an ATM machine so that they would be on video; two of the three are now in custody.

Read more…

Via Streetsblog California
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A State Legislator Is Really Proposing to Slash Fines for Running a Red Light to Turn Right

State Senator Jerry Hill (D-Millbrae) has been earning a lot of attention recently for a proposal to slash the fine for drivers turning right at a red light without stopping. This move seems particularly heartless considering California’s streak of leading the country in traffic fatalities, nearly a quarter of which were pedestrians. Failure to yield is one of the top five causes of traffic crashes.

A truck inches through the crosswalk, ready to make a right. Photo: Damien Newton

A truck inches through the crosswalk, ready to make a right. Photo: Damien Newton

Hill’s legislation reduces the fine for rolling through a red light. His statements in the press have focused on the unfairness of ticketing a driver shooting through a red light at forty miles an hour at the same level as a driver turning right without stopping. Hill’s legislation would halve the fine for red-light runners who are turning from $500 to $250.

But rather than acknowledging the unsafe driving crisis in the state, Hill is focusing his attention on a different boogeyman: red light cameras. Many of the tickets his constituents complain about are from red light camera programs in Millbrae and San Mateo.

“I think the public outcry over red light cameras is growing and I think the governor is becoming more sensitive as he raised the issue over the large amount of assessments and add-ons that go into traffic tickets,” Hill told the San Mateo Daily Journal when he introduced the legislation.

In the same piece, Hill points to national data from 1998 that back up his argument that turning right at a red light without stopping isn’t all that dangerous. Needless to say, safety advocates are not impressed with Hill’s arguments.

“There’s a reason that the law says come to a complete stop before making a right–for the safety of people, especially those on foot,” wrote Nicole Ferrara, the executive director of Walk SF, in an email to Streetsblog. “This proposal to reduce the severity of these fines sends the signal to drivers that running red lights, not coming to complete stops, and not taking the time to look for people in crosswalks is all fine and good. We disagree. Stopping is part of driving, and it’s a disappointment that some of our state leaders don’t understand that.” Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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Study: Upward Mobility Much Higher in Regions With Less Sprawl

Living in a sprawling area, like Atlanta, or a compact one, like Boston, doesn’t just affect how you get around. A new study published in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests it may also have a significant impact on your chances to escape poverty.

Children in a sprawling area like Atlanta are less likely to escape poverty than children living in compact regions, according to a new study. Image: ATL Urbanist

Children in a sprawling area like Atlanta are less likely to escape poverty than children living in compact regions, according to a new study. Image: ATL Urbanist

The study by Reid Ewing at the University of Utah compared upward mobility across 122 U.S. metro areas ranked from the most sprawling to the most compact. The researchers found a “strong, directional relationship” between compact built environments and upward mobility.

The study used previous research that measured the chances a child born in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30. There are huge differences between metro areas. For example, in Memphis Tennessee, the upward mobility rate was just 2.4 percent while in Provo, Utah, it was 14 percent.

The research team found that as compactness doubles, the chances of a child going from the bottom fifth to the top fifth increase 41 percent.

Ewing looked at how sprawl may affect children’s life chances by influencing factors like racial segregation, which previous research has shown to be negatively correlated to upward mobility, and income growth, which is positively correlated. The direct effect of sprawl itself, the authors found, was stronger than these indirect effects. They attribute the connection between compactness and upward mobility to “better job accessibility in more compact commuting zones.”

Read more…

Via Streetsblog California
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#DamienTalks 30 – SCAG’s Hasan Ikharta and the Pilot Program That Could Slay the Gas Tax

Today, #DamienTalks with Hasan Ikharta, the executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments about the pilot program that could be the second step in replacing the state’s gas tax with a vehicle miles traveled tax.

Ikhrata-2008Last week, the state announced it was looking for 5,000 drivers to participate in a pilot program to analyze different methods for replacing the state’s gas tax. Tax receipts have fallen in recent years as cars become more fuel efficient. While cleaner cars are a good thing, the state can’t keep up with the backlog of road repair projects that are needed to keep the state’s transportation network functioning.

So, they’re looking to do something different.

If you prefer your information in written form, and missed last week’s story on Streetsblog California, click here. If you’d like to sign up for the pilot program, click here.

At the end of the interview, we discuss SCAG’s long-term transportation planning and the opportunities to participate in that project. We are watching the LRTP closely at Streetsblog Los Angeles, and if you’re an interested Southern Californian, we urge you to follow that website for updates.

We’re always looking for sponsors, show ideas, and feedback. You can contact me at, at twitter @damientypes, online at Streetsblog California or on Facebook at StreetsblogCA.


Today’s Headlines

  • Power Trouble Delays BART Fremont Line this Morning (SFGate, CBSLocal)
  • $500 Million for New Bay Area Trains Buses and Ferries (InsideBayArea)
  • Officials say Transit Ready for Super Bowl Party (SFGate)
  • More on Cost of Super Bowl Party to Transit and other SF Services (SFWeekly)
  • And a Little More Snark About Super Bowl Party Costs (SFWeekly)
  • DMV Holds Self Driving Car Hearing (CBSLocal)
  • Visualizing San Francisco Commuter Pattern (KQED)
  • Millbrae Edges Closer to Approving Development Near Rail Stations (SMDailyJournal)
  • Sonoma Marin Rail to Start Train Operations Testing in June (MarinIJ)
  • Novato Approves Phased Construction of Downtown Train Station (MarinIJ)
  • Renovated Dolores Park Includes a New Loo (SFist)

Get national headlines at Streetsblog USA
Get state headlines at Streetsblog CA


Is BART Getting the Density Equation Wrong with Coliseum Station Project?

Are townhouses the right density for  station area development in Oakland? Image: BART.

Are townhouses the right density for station-area development in Oakland? Image: BART.

Tomorrow, Thursday, January 28, the BART Board of Directors will review environmental documents for Phase I of the proposed Coliseum Transit Village, which will bring 110 housing units to a parcel that’s in walking distance of the Coliseum station. The hope is construction will start in November of this year, with completion two years later.

Right now, this BART-owned parcel, bound by Snell Street and 71st Avenue, is surface parking. Oakland has pushed for development in the area for over a decade—and encountered quite a few problems. But this stage of the project could be close to breaking ground, depending on the BART Board’s decision.

That said, not everyone thinks it’s going in the right direction—at least not yet. “It’s zoned for five stories, but only about one-third of it will be that high,” said Nick Josefowitz, a BART Board member and long-time environmental and transportation advocate who is critical of the project. “It’s townhouses for the rest. Let’s build as far up as the zoning allows.”

Isn’t it better to have new development around the station? Josefowitz doesn’t think so, because once those town houses are built, it’ll be nearly impossible to add density later. “Taking a step in the right direction doesn’t help if you’re trying to run a marathon—which is the scale of our housing problems—and that step prevents you from running the rest of the marathon,” he said.

And, he argues, it’s not just the lack of density: there aren’t provisions for enough grocery stores, banks, nurseries and other neighborhood retail needed to make people less dependent on automobiles. “I applaud the developer for making it 50 percent affordable and 50 percent workforce housing,” he said. “Even though that’s affordable from a monthly rent perspective, it should also be affordable for getting to work, shopping and family events.”

But just five-story buildings are enough to provide remarkably pedestrian friendly, accessible neighborhoods. Think of the height limits in Paris (although those show signs of loosening up). Advocates for sustainability say it’s not about getting too bogged down in height limits and density overall, but instead about finding the right kind of density for the site, as Kaid Benfield writes about in the Switchboard Blog for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has 10 Principles for Livable, High-Density Cities: they include prioritizing green transportation and building options to reduce energy consumption; clustering the highest density housing close to a transit station falls under that category. As does fostering affordable housing, which the BART transit village aims to achieve.

On a related point, it’s disappointing to see that even in the transit village project renderings, there’s an image of a cyclist slapped on, but no apparent bicycle infrastructure. Josefowitz hopes there will be plenty of bicycle parking and pedestrian features, such as greenways and good lighting. On-street bike lanes, he hopes, will follow. Parking that’s lost for the development, meanwhile, will be shifted to other parcels around the station.

For now, Josefowitz wants the project scaled back, so only the highest density portion of the housing is built, leaving the rest of the parcel available until funds allow a project that can maximize the space. “The land around a BART station is so precious,” said Josefowitz. “It’s a real shame not to make the absolute best use of it.”

The BART board meeting, which takes public comment, is held in the Kaiser Center 20th Street Mall, Third Floor, 344 20th St., Oakland, CA. It starts at 9 am.

Via Streetsblog California
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OPR to Host Webinars on Transportation Impacts Under Environmental Law

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) recently issued long-anticipated changes to a provision in California law that currently ranks traffic congestion as an environmental impact. For more details, see recent Streetsblog coverage here. The new guidelines are under a 45-day review period, with public comment being accepted until February 29.

OPR logoTo help educate and inform people about the upcoming changes, OPR will host two webinars in February. The webinars will give background information, go over the proposed changes, give examples of how the changes would affect various types of projects, and provide time for questions and answers.

Registration for each webinar is limited to 500 participants, but a recording will be available after the presentations on the OPR website.

OPR requests that people register for only one webinar to leave space for others, and you can always gather your colleagues and watch it together.

The webinars will be held on the following days. Click on the links below to register.

Streetsblog USA
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SF One of 10 Cities Chosen to Help Model Vision Zero Policy in the U.S.

The 10 cities chosen will help lead the movement toward Vision Zero in American cities.

Ten “focus cities” will lead the way in developing effective Vision Zero policies.

What is Vision Zero? Simply put, it’s a recognition that traffic fatalities are preventable, and a commitment to ensure that no one is killed in traffic. Cities that adopt Vision Zero set out to end traffic deaths within a specific time frame.

In America, a few cities have publicly committed to Vision Zero. So how should policy makers go about achieving this goal? What works and what doesn’t? Which places are making real progress, and how are they doing it?

The Vision Zero Network was founded with support from Kaiser Permanente to help ensure that “Vision Zero” promises result in meaningful and effective change.

Yesterday, the network announced 10 “focus cities” that will model Vision Zero strategy in the United States. These cities were chosen for having demonstrated a significant commitment to Vision Zero:

  • Austin
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Los Angeles
  • New York City
  • Portland, Oregon
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Washington

The “focus cities” initiative will bring together transportation, police, and public health officials from those 10 cities, as well as representatives from mayors’ offices. This network of public officials will share best practices and develop common strategies for eliminating traffic deaths.

Read more…