Random thoughts on Level of Service

Can you be “pro-bike” and not also be “anti-car”?

I’ve never really thought of myself as anti-car — I just like to ride my bike. But some thoughts about encouraging bike use have been swimming around my head. These thoughts are still trying to gel, but the gist is that it doesn’t really matter how many millions we spend to encourage cycling if we as a society continue to spend several orders of magnitudes more to make solo driving easier.

The paradigm is slowly changing in a few urban centers, but almost all traffic engineering in the United States is tied to “Level of Service” or LOS. The success or failure of a road transportation system and justification for future projects is tied to how many cars you can push along the road or through an intersection per day.

The most successful freeways are those with free flowing traffic, which you only get when the lanes are empty. When people see empty buses or empty bike lanes, though, the public decry these as a waste of money. Go figure.

Bike lane placement

Transportation planners now know to throw a bone to the bike advocates to get “buy in” for their projects, which are still tied dominantly to improving single car transportation. Colby in Tucson reports on transportation planning in his city, for example. He’s a little surprised to learn the traffic engineers there know about the little engineering tricks to make cycling a little more pleasant, even as they plan for more roads for more traffic for more cars to go faster farther.

I work in Santa Clara, California, which is a Bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community. They have bike lanes striped everywhere, which is kind of nice, I suppose. There’s even a nice bike path to the office from the light rail station, but the crosswalk button I push to get from a bike path into my work campus takes several minutes to turn green, while a left turn light at that intersection immediately changes as soon as a car (or a bike) stops at the intersection. It’s Level of Service “A” (less than a 10 second wait) for cars, while pedestrians get a LOS “F” (greater than 80 second wait).

Steve in Northeast Tarrant County Texas, in the meantime, wonders if cyclists should oppose road building.

The Bike League sends out a lot of stuff wanting more spending on bike infrastructure. Have they considered that part of the answer is to stop trying to spend our way to a perfect automotive heaven on earth? Might cyclists really be better off if we instead agitated against spending ever more of our property taxes on roads that make it harder to get around other than in a 6000 lb SUV rather than trying to suck off “our fair share” from the motoring majority?

And then Streetfilms introduces us to Mark Groton of Rethinking the Auto, who talks in this video about how auto-dominated planning and engineering over the past century has transformed livable spaces into traffic sewers.

More on this at streetfilms: Rethinking the Automobile with Mark Gorton.

Just some random thinking for the weekend on a rainy Friday afternoon. I’ll file this one under Musings.


  1. I guess in some ways, it’s thoughts like this that leave me feeling uneasy about Bike Belong’s big partnership with Volkswagen.

  2. This is a good thought.  By taking crumbs, each constituency gets something and it all adds up to a lot of pork.  I think a smart way to make roads bike friendly is to have certain minimum standards built into new road construction.  It would be much too costly to re engineer existing roads but as roads get resurfaced and redesigned and an area improves its infrastructure this can be done with minimal cost.  You can be pro bike and pro car.  I love both and each has its place in my life.  This isn’t a zero sum gain, there can be multiple winners.

  3. I don’t know that I’d go so far as I did in my youth when I collected signatures to stop building of the West Seattle Freeway. Still, even with the benefit of decades of hindsight, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that those billions merely rearranged things – in favor of faster transportation vehicles. Mostly, government picking transportation winners and losers over the last 50 years has not worked to the advantage of any non motorized road users. Perhaps the best thing cycling advocates can do is to simply cut off that anti-cycling tap entirely. Certainly the new, “compromise” transportation bill that came out of the Senate supports the notion that we’d be better off with nothing than with with less rights in exchange for a token payment. Ask the Indians on any reservation if you think otherwise. They were sold out as well.

    Roads are for people. Period. And there were more than enough roads for people before Eisenhower finished his Presidency. The rest has been – pandering to motoring convenience. If traffic is bad, people will move to minimize the effect on them and NOT support new developments that are half way to Hades. Building the extra roads probably brings a grin to the faces of Saudi princes. And debt to our children. Carving off a pittance of that debt for cyclists is not a compromise in my book. I could easily and safely ride down the I-5 at rush hour if the traffic engineers were not given ever greater sums to “fix” it.

  4. I concur with Steve. The easiest thing for Government to do is pander to those who want more and more bread and circus–and in the case of transportation we continue to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into auto dependency and oil dependency. The Left wants to fight this by forcibly engineering our cities to Smart Growth. Others want more cars and roads. I find myself increasingly wanting to close the tap on spending, simply in order to avoid the constant back and forth fighting over ideology while writing checks. To wit, if we don’t build roads to Hades, people will not be able to move there but will have to fix what we have and start thinking seriously about the limits to growth on a small planet.

    150 years ago, there was a lot of land we could steal from the Indians and flee the oppressive conditions elsewhere.  We have run out of places to flee to, people to rob from (except each other) and we better start fixing what we got.

    I suppose there is a natural synergy between the VW and BB if one wants to see conspiracy theory at work. Both motorists and bicyclists like to belly up to the Federal trough for their own pet projects. I’ve been riding bike and motorbike and driving cars for longer than some on this list have been here. One set of roads works quite fine, if we stop finding ways to argue otherwise on political grounds. Given what just happened in the Senate, we better beware of further arguments on how unsafe roads are. People are starting to believe us. A better collaboration would be for the VW and BB people to start telling their clients to just get along.

  5. • Groups spun as “anti-car” generally aren’t; the characterization has more to do with the defensiveness of oil addiction than reality.  We as a society desperately need to sober up and take a hard look at our transportation infrastructure, and change it while there’s still time.

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