Developing Alternatives to Level of Service

Preliminary Discussion Draft of CEQA Guidelines Changes Now Available

On August 6, 2014, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research released for public review a preliminary discussion draft of changes to the CEQA Guidelines that will change the way that transportation impacts are analyzed under CEQA. OPR invites your input on this draft. Please submit all written comments to by October 10, 2014.

SB 743 Guidelines Discussion Draft

What is “Level of Service”?

Many jurisdictions use “level of service” standards to measure potential transportation impacts of development projects and long range plans. Commonly known as LOS, level of service measures vehicle delay at intersections and on roadways and is represented as a letter grade A through F. LOS A represents free flowing traffic, while LOS F represents congested conditions. LOS standards are often found in local general plans and congestion management plans. LOS is also used in traffic impact studies prepared under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Exceeding LOS standards can require changes in proposed projects, installation of additional infrastructure, or, in some cases, financial penalties.

Why Consider Alternatives to LOS?

Level of service has been applied in ways that discourage both infill development and construction of infrastructure for transit, cycling, and walking. Urban infill projects, for example, often rate poorly in traffic studies because they increase population and potential traffic in a given area. However, evidence shows that the residents and consumers who live, work, and shop in these areas are less likely to rely on cars for their transportation needs.

Focus on LOS also discourages planning for projects that support alternatives to driving such as public transit, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian safety features. Dedicating road lanes for bicycles or buses might exceed LOS thresholds by removing a lane of auto traffic, potentially leading to delay or congestion.

When employed in isolation, LOS can lead to ad hoc roadway expansions that deteriorate conditions on the network as a whole.

Use of level of service in the CEQA context has been criticized for several reasons. First, it focuses on a social impact (driver delay), not an environmental impact. Second, roadway widening is the typical mitigation for projects that lower LOS. However, wider roads can result in adverse environmental, public health, and fiscal impacts. Wider roads are more expensive to maintain and enable driving at faster speeds, which leads to more pollution, noise, and higher risks to bicyclists and pedestrians. A presentation summarizing these issues is available here.

These concerns, among others, have led some local governments to accept low LOS ratings or to move away from level of service entirely as a measure of transportation impacts.

How Does SB 743 Change the Way We Use Level of Service?

Governor Brown signed Senate Bill (SB) 743 (Steinberg, 2013), which creates a process to change the way that transportation impacts are analyzed under CEQA. Specifically, SB 743 requires the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) to amend the CEQA Guidelines to provide an alternative to LOS for evaluating transportation impacts. Particularly within areas served by transit, those alternative criteria must “promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses.” (New Public Resources Code Section 21099(b)(1).) Measurements of transportation impacts may include “vehicle miles traveled, vehicle miles traveled per capita, automobile trip generation rates, or automobile trips generated.” (Ibid.) OPR also has discretion to develop alternative criteria for areas that are not served by transit, if appropriate. (Id. at subd. (c).)

Once the CEQA Guidelines are amended to include those alternative criteria, auto delay will no longer be considered a significant impact under CEQA. (Id. at subd. (b)(2).) Transportation impacts related to air quality, noise and safety must still be analyzed under CEQA where appropriate. (Id. at subd. (b)(3).)

SB 743 also amended congestion management law to allow cities and counties to opt out of LOS standards within certain infill areas. (See Amended Government Code Sections 65088.1 and 65088.4.)

Aside from changes to transportation analysis, SB 743 also included several important changes to CEQA that apply to transit oriented developments, including aesthetics and parking.

What Was OPR’s Process for Developing the Alternative Transportation Metrics?

OPR published a preliminary evaluation of possible metrics to replace “level of service” in transportation analyses in December 2013, and invited public comment on that evaluation. OPR reviewed all of the comments that it received on the preliminary evaluation to develop the preliminary discussion draft. Those that would like to receive notice of the availability of the draft proposal, as well as other future Guidelines activities, are encouraged to sign up on the CEQA Guidelines listserv.

Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, last updated August 6, 2014.