Level of Service: how we still promote car travel in every project

California recently announced that it's finally moving away from emphasizing the car-centric metric known as “level of service” in transportation projects, a positive step that will make transit, bike and pedestrian projects easier to plan and implement. While the situation in California was among the worst planning problems, it still happens all the time here.

 BU Bridge bike lanes are narrow and even disappear at the end, where "there is no room" for safety.

BU Bridge bike lanes are narrow and even disappear at the end, where "there is no room" for safety.

Eric Jaffe has a good in-depth article at Citylab on the history and use of LOS. Put simply, level of service (LOS) is a metric devised by highway engineers that assigns a letter grade to roads and intersections based on how much delay vehicles experience. LOS fails to differentiate between modes – one bus serving hundreds or more people per trip is treated the same as a car carrying one person – and most importantly, places top priority on speeding car travel. This sentiment could not be in greater conflict with the needs of vibrant, sustainable cities.

Unfortunately we continue suffering from the prioritization of vehicles over people. Despite Mayor Menino’s empty promise, cars are very much still king in Boston.  Every time your city or MassDOT engineers tell you “there is no room” for a bike lane, proper sidewalk, bus stop or other need, this is what’s happening. Engineers decide “we need __ lanes” based on the LOS result of computer models, often assuming an arbitrary 1 percent traffic increase to justify their demands and at best they assume current traffic can’t be reduced. Car driving – the least desirable mode – is being prioritized and the rest of us don’t really matter.

For example, when the Charles River Dam (Museum of Science) Bridge was reconstructed, the plan included basic bike lanes. Then we were told we couldn’t have bike lanes until the Longfellow Bridge was done because “temporary” extra capacity was needed for cars. They even put sharrows just to rub it in.  When the MBTA ran a shuttle bus route carrying thousands of people over the bridge, the City of Boston angrily refused to allow bus stops at the Museum of Science during rush hours, and they certainly wouldn’t let those thousands of people to bypass the daily gridlock in bus lanes.

Same thing on the Mass Ave Bridge, with hundreds of buses each day and no safe bike path: we "need" those two lanes for cars and all you bikers get is a dangerous 3 feet with cars whizzing by at deadly speeds. On the BU Bridge, the argument was not about whether cyclists should have the right to a small safe space, but whether the compromise design "could accommodate" the expected traffic. Even though the bridge was a single lane per direction for two years and everyone managed just fine.

There are countless other examples. Don't forget the Longfellow Bridge: we're told we won't see a safe bicycle path because "cars might need that space someday... it's an evacuation route." Seriously?

We need to start pushing back against those who insist upon putting cars first. Share your favorite (or most frustrating) examples of pro-car bias in the comments. And next time you hear “there’s no room” you’ll know what to say.