By Dom Nozzi
When we take actions to ease car travel, there is no win-win. Providing for cars is a zero-sum game. That is, each time we make car travel easier, we make travel more difficult for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. Providing for cars is also a recipe for downwardly spiraling quality of life for the community. Using “level of service” (LOS) as our measure (a measure of how congested a road is with cars) implicitly assumes that congestion is an accurate assessment of quality of life.
But using LOS perpetuates this ruinous assumption that free-flowing traffic and quality of life are one in the same.
In fact, when one observes which cities have the worst congestion, it would seem that the reverse is the case. That higher congestion levels commonly means a more impressive, attractive community.
We need to ask other, more appropriate questions to measure quality of life: How healthy is the retail? The town center? Are large numbers of tourists interested in visiting? Are there lots of bicyclists? Transit users? Pedestrians? How expensive is town center housing compared to similarly-sized cities? Are residents proud and protective of their city?
In my view, asking about LOS is nearly irrelevant to the question of healthy transportation and quality of life. Indeed, a good argument can be made that there is a negative correlation between using LOS as a measure and the quality of the transportation and community.
An unintended consequence of using LOS as a measure is, as I mention above, perpetuating the asking of the wrong question. Asking about LOS distracts us from asking better questions along the lines of those questions I suggest above.
Asking the right question is often the crucial first step in taking beneficial actions (or, in science, solving puzzles in the field of research). Long ago, we didn’t reduce the cholera epidemic by measuring how many prayers were said. We asked how we could reduce contamination by bacteria.