Portland to Rewrite Car-Centric Street Engineering Standard

“Level of Service,” or LOS, for short, is the rather arcane engineering standard that has turned streets all over America into funnels for car traffic.

LOS ignores how streets function for cyclists and pedestrians. Photo: ##http://media.oregonlive.com/oregonian/photo/2011/08/-3b6d8ac61e931763.JPG##OregonLive##

LOS is essentially a measure of traffic delay. Road projects are given a grade from “A” to “F” based on how smoothly traffic flows. The problem with this, as Jonathan Maus at Network blog Bike Portland points out today, is that LOS only measures automobile throughput. It works against walking and biking by elevating motor vehicle movement over outcomes like pedestrian safety or bike volumes. In Portland, where at any given time as much of 7 percent of traffic is bikes, the drawbacks of the measure are becoming increasingly obvious.

So leave it to Portland to develop an alternative. Maus reports:

According to a request for proposals (RFP) I came across today, the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability is looking for consultants to help them “implement a performance measures policy to replace the existing motor vehicle level of service policy in Portland’s Transportation System Plan.

The RFP says:

The existing LOS standards and measures, which focus only on motor vehicle levels of service, do not reflect the City of Portland’s current practice which emphasizes and promotes a multimodal approach to transportation planning and providing transportation services.

Maus continues:

Recall the considerable heartburn PBOT engineers faced on the N Williams Avenue project as they pondered whether or not they would endorse a one standard lane cross-section for the entire project. PBOT traffic engineer Rob Burchfield wanted to honor the communities’ desires for a cross-section that would tame auto traffic; but he said the City had to “make sure we have adequate capacity for the volume of traffic we expect,” and that, “there are some pass/fail criteria,” — LOS standards — they had to work with. That’s just one example.

Maus said the city hopes to have the new standard-writing process underway by mid-September. Portland is not alone in rethinking LOS standards. San Francisco is also in the process of eliminating its reliance on LOS as a measuring stick for street redesigns.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Human Transit reviews a new Sim City-like game that allows players to design transit systems for real or imagined cities throughout history. Portland unveils a new mural proclaiming itself “America’s bike capital,” reports Hard Drive. And Reinventing Parking shares Matt Yglesias’s observation that parking reform is just as necessary in car-based sprawling areas as in the transit-orientated urban places it is gaining momentum.

  • Bob

    San Francisco has already been working on this for months, if not longer: 
    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2012/02/09/sf-agencies-take-aim-at-bureaucratic-obstacles-to-a-transit-first-city/

  • John

    The newest Highway Capacity Manual has multi-modal LOS measures.

  • Ben Kintisch

    This is big news – on the other side of the country, in Manhattan, DOT will put in a great bike lane project but then water down the safety treatment in areas where there is known to be high car volumes. We need a new LOS measure too.

  • Greg

    While we’re at it, how about some accounting for the LOS to residents; people whose houses and apartments are on those streets. They spend more time there than anyone else.

  • That is a really good point.

  • anonymouse

    I think some kind of LOS measure is still useful, though, because it’s useful to know whether you’re getting as much as you can out of the roads you have. But it needs to be normalized by road area and level of traffic. So instead of asking “how long do cars have to wait in traffic”, with the assumption that they should never have to wait, ever, we’d be asking “how efficiently are cars moving through the area, given the road space we’ve dedicated to cars and the level of traffic flow?”

  • I love the wording in the RFP. “We’re already disregarding the LOS standards. It’s time to replace them with something that reflects what we’re already doing.”

  • Actually, better than “how efficiently are cars moving, given the road space we’ve dedicated”, it should probably be something like “how efficiently are *people* moving”, regardless of whether they’re in cars or buses or bikes.  By measuring movement as a whole, we can determine whether we’ve dedicated too much or too little road space to each category of transportation.

  • Susan

    A metric considered for SF is Vehicle Trips Generated, accounting for anticipated trips by car a new development or business is expected to cause. This way a bike lane generates none, so would not trigger an Enviro Impact Report (EIR)- which Is what held up SFs Bike Plan for years.

  • This is something that needs to happen. Especially if communities want to be more person oriented than car oriented. I bet many major cities will adopt these standards. Hopefully in the next two years, the Council of Mayors will push for these standards for the federal level.

  • That is what it needs to change to. How can we plan our cities to move the most people efficiently. LOS only focused around the car, when you encompass the actual goal which is to move people more efficiently, then we can change how things are done.

  • Station44025

    It would be great to have some kind of carbon impact score included as well…

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