Designing Roads for Higher “Level of Service” Isn’t About Safety

Officials in greater St. Paul want to knock over this building and replace it with a turn lane. All in the name of "level of service." Photo: Streets.mn
Officials in greater St. Paul want to knock over this building in the name of “Level of Service.” Photo: Streets.mn

Traffic engineers have an maddening tendency to hold out “Level of Service” — a measure of motorist delay — like a trump card. We need to widen this road, they’ll say, because otherwise drivers will angrily stew in traffic, and then there might be “accidents,” or some other dire consequence.

That’s what’s happening right now in greater St. Paul, on Randolph Avenue, Bill Lindeke reports at Streets.mn. Ramsey County officials are planning to knock down an apartment building to widen an intersection and add a turn lane by a Trader Joe’s.

They say they must do this, or else motorists will get frustrated by delays and start driving like psychopaths. This is not a very smart way to make street design decisions, Lindeke says:

Safety isn’t just the number of accidents that occur, but needs to also include the larger urban landscape. If we “improve” an intersection by allowing cars to travel fast or turn more easily, we are also making the intersection more dangerous for anyone on foot or bicycle. In an urban area like this, that’s a big mistake! Safety isn’t just about compliance with rules. Neither is safety about decreasing the total number of accidents, though that is part of the picture. In an urban area, safety is about reducing car speeds and creating a comfortable and welcoming environment for people on foot.

Ramsey County’s insistence that they are going to widen the road at Lexington and Randolph is an example of backward thinking. Tearing down two-story dense apartments and single family houses to make a turn lane is a bad idea, but doing it in the name of safety is particularly ironic. Hopefully, as neighbors and the city weigh in more clearly, the conversation will come to its senses.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Better Cities & Towns! says more transportation engineers need to step up and bring the profession into the 21st century. Street Smart takes on Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ claim that only small cities have torn down urban freeways. And Transportation for America reports that U.S. DOT has adopted an important new performance measure, promoted by advocates, that will track the condition of roads and bridges.

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