Creating complete streets: It starts with a measure of equity

Pedestrians, bikes, buses and cars, all getting along on a complete street.

Urban planners, transportation experts and public health officials convened last Friday for a daylong event focusing on complete streets – that is, streets that meet the needs not just of motorists, but also of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders.

The panelists at UCLA-hosted event covered a lot of bases including:

  • How to create great public spaces along our streets — places you’d want to hang out at, chat with a friend, grab a coffee or wait for a bus;
  • The political hurdles to implementing complete streets;
  • And the public health benefits of creating safe places for people to walk and bike to their destinations, among other topics.

L.A. Streetsblog’s Lindsey Miller provides a good overview of the excellent keynote talks, but I was drawn to a panel discussion on one issue in particular: how we measure traffic and the performance of our streets in general. It’s an issue that doesn’t generate a lot of ink, but one that has a profound impact our streets.

Some background: American cities typically measure how bad traffic is in a given area using a metric called Vehicle Level of Service (LOS). The standard LOS metric measures the amount of delay vehicles encounter at a given intersection during the busiest time of rush-our, and then assigns an A-through-F letter grade, where A represents no delay and F represents name-your-least-favorite-intersection.

The system allows public agencies to systematically assess whether a given public or private project will increase delays for vehicles. For instance, if a new medical center or apartment building is designed in a way that encourages people to drive to an area, then that project could worsen the level of service of nearby intersections. It’s useful to be able to measure that increasing congestion so public agencies can implement appropriate transportation fixes — and get the private sector to kick in funds for fixes where their projects make traffic considerably worse.

It seems like a reasonable enough approach on the face of it. But there have been a slew of unintended consequences, and using this standard of traffic measurement has come under increasing scrutiny by complete streets advocates for a number of reasons.

Foremost, all vehicles are treated equally, whether it’s a crowded 60-foot Metro Rapid bus or a car with a sole occupant. As you can imagine, this has some serious implications for transit projects that would help make buses run faster and more reliably, but perhaps at the expense of other cars.

Street changes, like bus-only lanes, are often put at a disadvantage – or required to do expensive and time-consuming environmental impact reports – because it would cause delays for vehicles, even though those very bus lanes might move more people, faster than the typical free-for-all of cars and buses in all lanes.

For instance on Wilshire Boulevard, more Angelenos already travel by bus than car during rush hour. But the city of L.A. and Metro had to conduct a three year environmental impact report to study, in part, the impacts to drivers from turning over just one-sixth of the road to the majority traveling in buses.

And in a number of other profound ways, using the traditional level of service metric can undermine a city’s goals to make streets safer and more convenient for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

Take this example relayed to San Francisco Streetsblog by an official working to create a new traffic metric that gives more equitable weight to all modes of travel:

“If what we’re concerned about is how quickly automobiles are moving through a particular intersection or roadway segment, a logical mitigation might be to expand roadway capacity, to add a lane of traffic,” said [SF Planning Department Assistant Director Alicia] John-Bauptiste. “That is, first of all, often infeasible in a built-out, urban, dense environment such as San Francisco. It, secondly, can often be in contradiction to our policies supporting the bike network or pedestrian safety.”


Ron Milam of transportation firm Fehr and Peers discusses ways to make our streets work not just for cars, but all road users. Photo by Juan Matute.

At the Complete Streets Conference panelists raised similar points during the session titled “Redefining Street Performance Metrics.” Ron Milam, a principal at transportation analysis firm Fehr and Peers, noted that using the vehicle level of service metric makes it difficult to have our streets serve as more than just conduits for cars. For instance, cities may be tempted to widen a road or remove a cross-walk to improve an intersection from, say, level of service D to C, but the consequence would be increased crossing times for pedestrians and more exposure to vehicles.

Milam suggested that cities need to balance environmental, social and economic concerns when thinking about how to deal with traffic. After all, streets aren’t just for transportation, they’re our most abundant public space.

Panelist Tilly Chang of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority added that the new metric being developed in San Francisco will replace vehicle level of service with one that considers the performance of the public transit system in terms of crowding and delay. Such a metric would profoundly shape transportation policy; for instance, it would give a leg up to street interventions that speed up transit — like bus-only lanes and curb extensions — and real estate developments that are more explicitly transit-oriented.

It’s nice to hear that San Francisco is on the right track, but I’m sure you’re wondering what’s afoot in So Cal. There’s promising news: L.A. Streetsblog’s Damien Newton reports that city of Los Angeles is working to develop a new plan for L.A.’s streets, one “based on new performance measures…that decide whether a street is working based on the number of people, not cars, that are moved.”

While Los Angeles is only one of many cities in L.A. County served by Metro, it’s by far the biggest and most populous. So transit friendly policies there should be welcome news for those of us plying the streets on buses and trains.

We’ll keep you posted on any updates regarding Los Angeles’ new transportation scheme. In the mean time, you can weigh in on how you’d like to see L.A. streets used at the city’s interactive online forum, LA/2B.

4 replies

  1. Of course, LOS doesn’t even solve our problems when deployed as intended. But it’s even worse when even LOS suggests we’re building our way into a congestion corner.

    Here in Beverly Hills, where Better Bike is pressing the city to lay down our first foot of bike lane on Santa Monica Boulevard, we have an intersection at Wilshire that already fails (LOS grade F). And coming on line in the next several years is a skyscraper two blocks west; a new hotel condo development on the Hilton site to the North; and four stories of new commercial development right at that intersection. And you know, LOS or no LOS, we say that we can’t mitigate it. (Widening Wilshire for 1.5 blocks is coming but is acknowledged to not actually mitigate anything.)

    The need for new modes of transportation is crystal clear, yet we’ll permit new development on the SM Blvd corridor with such narrow setbacks that we would likely preclude future bike lanes there simply. As it is, policymakers gave the Hilton development on the north side 5-foot (!) setbacks. With only 10-foot min. setbacks ready for the south side (at/near Wilshire) it looks like there simply won’t be room for lanes at all. Sidewalks? Five feet wide! SM will offer a freeway aesthetic without the throughput.

    LOS or no LOS, when impact is too much without alternate modes of transport, we’ll say, “Oh, forget it. That significant impact can’t be mitigated.” And we won’t even try other means. That’s how we roll!

  2. LOS that looks at moving people and not vehicles is really critical. While general guidelines that set other priorities beyond just fast movement are also important, down at the street level, engineers need to make design decisions based on the specific criteria they are given to work with. If you tell them that one car = one bus with 60 passengers, it is no surprise that you get roads designed to optimize single occupant vehicles. When you tell them that only a motor vehicle counts as transportation, it is no surprise that roads are only designed to serve that.

    We all love to write broad mission statements about what streets “do” and who they are “for”. But the nitty gritty of road design is often neglected and forgotten. This could be a critical long term change that has huge impacts.

  3. What I did not hear when the public went before the Metro board concerning implementing bus only lanes at peak hours on Wilshire Blvd, was an argument put forth by Jarrett Walker, author of the website Human Transit. That is, if you leave the situation as is, you are allowing the street to be turned into a parking lot, with cars backed up onto the street waiting to get onto a freeway. If bus only lanes were created for peak hours, then emergency vehicles, such as police cars, ambulances and fire trucks could use it also. The line for the parked cars waiting to get onto the freeway would simply be longer.

    Cycling is put at the lowest level rung, getting the chaulk dust or cookie crumbs. Unprotected bike lanes on busy arterial streets? We’ll see if we have room to put them in. Paths with barriers protecting the cyclists from motorized traffic on primary streets like pedestrians are given? Or, signals at the intersections specifically for cyclists like pedestrians are afforded? Or even, how about intersection treatments like pedestrians get with crosswalks? The easy solution and first choice seems to be that we can simply put a picture of a bicycle on the street to remind drivers to not run over cyclists. Whatever we come up with, it will probably just involve paint or some thermoplastic on the street with motorized traffic having access across it. Is it any wonder why cycling has a very low modal share in this city?

    Los Angeles times the traffic signals so that motorists are not delayed and yet the police department states that they cannot control the average speed of motorists to the posted speed limit without putting someone there 24/7. This city is worried about inconveniencing the two fastest modes of travel on the street, the car and motorcycle. It’s not uncommon for a car made today to have 200+ horsepower. Imagine a Budweiser wagon being pulled by 200 Clydesdale horses. Yet, a person on a bicycle is probably producing about a tenth of a horsepower.

    Many of the intersections for the Orange Line BRT have red lights specifically because the city did not want to delay the cross traffic. Imagine siting on the bus with eighty people are seeing that the bus has to stop to let perhaps twenty 150+ horsepower cars go by. Then, the bus slowly proceeds through the intersection from lack of enough power to weight ratio that a car has. That BRT line simply cannot compete with the favortism shown towards the automobile traffic.