“Level of Service” Planning Is Not Dead Yet

To see a higher-res version of the image, click ##http://www.ci.santa-ana.ca.us/pwa/WarnerAveImprovements.asp##here.##
To see a higher-res version of the image, click ##http://www.ci.santa-ana.ca.us/pwa/WarnerAveImprovements.asp##here.##

This is what happens when transportation planning focuses on moving cars instead of creating spaces for people.

At the same time that California is aggressively moving to ditch the Level of Service standard that has forced transportation and planning projects to measure and mitigate their impact on car traffic, some projects evaluated under that car-centric system still lumber on at the city and municipality level.

This explains how the City of Santa Ana in Orange County is one step away from approving a massive road widening project on one mile of Warner Avenue through the heart of the city. The plan would widen the already four-lane surface street to six lanes, add planted medians and bicycle lanes, and add ADA accessible street crossings.

The project is being completed to “improve traffic flow and improve safety,” according to the city. Worst of all, it is presented as a solution  based on complete streets principles. Again, this is what happens when even well-intentioned cities make transportation decisions based first on how it will impact car traffic.

While it is encouraging that the city is committed to increasing its downtown bike network, there is an inherent contradiction between improving traffic flow, i.e. increasing the speed of traffic, and making the street safer for people who walk or bicycle. Speed is a contributing factor in one-third of fatal traffic crashes nationwide. Fast-moving cars on a six-lane street make a daunting obstacle for pedestrians to cross, no matter how nice the planted median is.

The cost of the project is a cool $55 million, 20 percent of which the city already has in hand. Some of that money comes from Orange County’s transportation bond, Measure M, which handcuffs how municipalities can spend the money.

For the 37 families that will be displaced by the widening, the cost is much higher. Danny Cortes’ family lives at one of the homes Santa Ana plans to purchase for the project. When Cortes learned about the project at community meetings in 2012, his house wasn’t on the list of properties that would be purchased for the project. Only after checking the city’s website in January did he learn that his family would likely be evicted from the place they have called home for over a decade, when the homeowner cashes out.

“It is hard to just leave the place because you have to, when there’s no other option,” Cortes said.

Cortes has been working with Santa Ana Active Streets (SAAS)**, a nonprofit coalition of advocacy groups who push for complete street and smart growth solutions for regional transportation problems. In a document submitted to the city as public testimony, SAAS notes that despite the addition of a bike lane and ADA-compliant street crossings, this plan is not one that will make life safer for street users.

We should note, Santa Ana is not a city led by car centric politicians and a 20th century planning staff. Mayor Miguel Pulido’s recent has signed on to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets.” The city just won an award from the Urban Land Institute for its Downtown Transit Zone: Complete Streets Plan to address first mile-last mile connectivity.

But that doesn’t mean every project is well thought out. In this case, the city needs to study more options than just the two in their Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Build (the road widening) or No Build (do nothing.)

SAAS is concerned that although the city completed the environmental process, including public meetings, the public neither understands nor supports the project as proposed.

“We’d like to see the city explore other options besides demolishing homes,” said Alex Green, the president of SAAS. “Some of these people have lived in these home for thirty or forty years. To make them move at this stage of their life…it’s not going to be an easy transition.”

Instead of just scrapping the existing plan completely, SAAS wants the city to study a true complete streets option that looks at what can be done inside of the existing roadways. A delay to consider more options could cost the city some of the $11 million it has on hand for the project, but the savings from moving to a true complete streets design instead of the proposed widening could well exceed that amount.

However, the top concern shouldn’t be funding, but whether Santa Ana’s city planners want to build a city that is a great place to live, work, and play or a city that one can quickly travel through. The latter is the type of transportation planning that has been done for decades in California and is supported by LOS studies in environmental documents. The latter is what Santa Ana is proposing for a downtown that is winning accolades from local advocates and regional planning organizations.

The City Council of Santa Ana is tentatively scheduled to vote on certifying the environmental documents, the last step before seeking the rest of the funding, on May 5.

** Disclosure: We were first alerted to this story by former Streetsblog Los Angeles writer Kris Fortin, who works with SAAS.

11 thoughts on “Level of Service” Planning Is Not Dead Yet

  1. This discussion is happening everywhere, and it is completely ignorant of the changes that vehicle technology can and must bring that will increase the passenger carrying capacity of each lane by multiples of 2 (real ridesharing) and 4 (bus roadtrains) or 2-4 (electronically and physically connected roadtrains) giving passenger throughput increases of between 2 and 8 times the lane capacity today of about 800-1200 passengers per hour on surface streets with traffic lights. There are already enough lanes. When ridesharing and the new vehicles arrive, we will be able to turn the right hand lanes into low speed lanes only for turns and bikes. THERE ARE ALREADY ENOUGH LANES.

    I encourage anyone experienced at working with transit and road operating authorities to discuss this further with me. I am seeking partners to work on these solutions. Contact bru@media.mit.edu, bmchenry@alum.mit.edu.

    For examples of the work in progress see mchenry.mobi. The updates were suspended two years ago and have now superseded by my CAD guy and his cousin at next-future-mobility.com. This work is of utmost importance. Santa Ana’s congestion problems are happening everywhere, and the money being spent on them needs to be spent on technology and people, not asphalt and eminent domain.

  2. Living in the Madison Park Neighborhood just about 3 blocks north, this street needs this widening ASAP. You can’t even walk on the sidewalk because the power poles push you onto the street. Biking on the existing road means reserving a spot at the cemetery.

    Remember, traffic going down this road isn’t just SNA residents, it’s going to be impacted by those new homes in the Tustin Airbase.

    It’s easy to criticize the city, but you have to take a closer look from others than just the ones losing their homes. People will actually be able to walk and bike down this road.

  3. Measure M is why O.C. doesn’t have traffic jams 24/7 like L.A. That said, it would have been nice to have CenterLine and frequent Metrolink service for when we have to go to L.A.

  4. Damien,

    Thank you for shedding light on this. Orange County is still very backwards when it comes to sustainable transportation. This county still is the epitome of the old transport planning of the past, today. Measure M2, the local sales tax measure, that was passed greatly allocates towards freeways and street projects. I wonder how many people realize the cost of the upcoming I-405 project is $1.3 Billion. Not too long ago, LA County completed their I-405 project at the Sepulveda Pass for $1.1 Billion and the results were a fail at reducing traffic congestion, most likely due to induced demand. This should be foretelling with regard to the upcoming OC’s I-405 project. Meanwhile, ridership at the OCTA buses are decreasing and needs help! The status quo of keep widening freeways and streets in this county is unacceptable!

  5. This is why comprehensive, volume/speed-based standards for protected bike lanes are necessary. However, since parking is almost certainly not allowed on a six-lane stroad and they already are taking out houses anyway, they might as well do it right and just build the bike lanes as cycletracks instead.

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