By Dom Nozzi
April 3, 2010
The conventional car level of service standard nearly all communities have used for several decades is almost entirely designed to measure the ease of car travel.
But 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 a car level of service (LOS) standard as our measure of transportation “success” implicitly assumes that congestion is an accurate assessment of quality of life (and quality transportation).
However, using a conventional car LOS standard, which nearly all communities have done for decades, perpetuates a 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 (and transportation): How healthy is the retail? The downtown? Are large numbers of tourists interested in visiting? Are there lots of bicyclists? Transit users? Pedestrians? How expensive is downtown 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 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, for example, we didn’t reduce the cholera epidemic by measuring how many prayers were said.
We asked how we could reduce contamination by bacteria.