Archive for March 3rd, 2009

Komanoff on Broadway

Charles Komanoff (he of the Balanced Transportation Analyzer; Excel file here) runs the numbers on the Broadway pedestrianization project for John Tierney:

I figure that the proposal will slow motor vehicle traffic by an average of one-tenth of one percent (1 part per thousand), averaged throughout the Central Business District, i.e., a minuscule average impact. The current average speed of 10.350 miles per hour (on weekdays, averaged over 24 hours) will slow to 10.336 mph.

Pursuant to a few posts ago, that one-per-thousand decrease shouldn’t even warrant a loss in the Level of Service!

Posted on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 at 12:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Google Earthing the Cost of Cheap Parking

This post uses aerial imagery to graphically illustrate one man’s epic quest to find a parking spot in Toronto — stranded between overpriced off-street parking and underpriced on-street parking. A great way to illustrate the Schelling-esque example of how of how seemingly irrelevant individual actions can incrementally add up to negative collective outcomes. Shoupism in action!

(Horn honk to Reinventing Urban Transport)

Posted on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 at 9:27 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Level of Service” is a staple of traffic engineering. Its definition, according to the Highway Capacity Manual, is as such: “Level of service (LOS) is a quality measure describing operational conditions within a traffic stream, generally in terms of such service measures as speed and travel time, freedom to maneuver, traffic interruptions, and comfort and convenience.” It sounds clinical, inoffensive, and with its A through F letter grades, it fixes itself easily in the public mind. Says the parent: What, little Johnny’s getting an F? Well, we need to make improvements! Says the engineer: This facility has a Level of Service F. Well, we need to make improvements!

The “level of service” designation is a descendant of the strand of efficiency-minded engineering that came out of the Progressive age, a time which, as Peter Norton notes in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City an important transformation took place: “Once a public space for mixed uses, and ruled by informal customs, the street was then becoming a motor thoroughfare for the nearly exclusive use of fast vehicles—especially automobiles.” Engineers went from counting people on streets to vehicles; and the key, seminal traffic engineer Miller McClintock went from arguing that “street capacity can be increased effectively by regulating traffic” to, once he had accepted funding from Studebaker, arguing for the “greater provision of street area [for automobiles].”

LOS is a classic case by which a bland bit of technical jargon conceals an entire ideology: Namely, that the purpose of a street is to move as many vehicles as possible, as quickly as possible. There are any number of problems that have been identified with that thinking. For one, how are we to judge the highway in the photo above? An economist might view it favorably as a piece of public infrastructure being used almost to its full capacity. But to a traffic engineer, that highway earns an “F”: “Operation with very high delays and congestion. Volumes vary widely depending on downstream queue conditions.” But another problem is that LOS designations are often issued during the peak morning and afternoon periods, meaning that a highway that looks like a failing “F” facility may be underutilized much of the rest of the day. Of course, this “building a church for Easter Sunday” is a staple of highway and parking demand modeling; we hear plenty about the economic losses due to congestion but never seem to hear about the economic losses of overbuilt, under-funded highways that are well under capacity most of the day. Another problem with LOS, particularly for urban environments, is that its view of the supposed “service” is entirely monocultural. The aforementioned “comfort and convenience” refers to drivers’ ability to whisk unimpeded from point A to point B, but says nothing about how pedestrians or cyclists or people living along that street may find it.

As an example, look at the photo below, which comes from an excellent paper by Ronald Milam, of Fehr & peers.

The existing intersection shown has a LOS of “E.” (even though, you’ll notice, it looks hardly filled here). The new sections being added represent “improvements” that will bring it up to Level E. But now imagine you’re a pedestrian. Suddenly the width of the intersection has doubled, and a more or less iron law of traffic engineering is that pedestrian safety declines as streets get wider. A study I cite in Traffic has also shown that adding lanes at an intersection is a process of diminishing returns, with increasingly less bang for one’s buck — but this too is something that gets swept under the rug in that unimpeachable move from “E” (bad) to “C” (good).

The LOS, with its seemingly quantifiable (if hollow) authority, washes over any other number of considerations. As Milam writes, “Widening a roadway to maintain ‘acceptable’ traffic flow may involve removing homes, trees, or open space in some cases; things on which a community may place a higher value than travel time. However, formal mechanisms don’t generally exist in local policies or procedures to weigh these factors against each other, so the LOS threshold usually takes precedence.”

What set me off on this LOS tangent was a post at Fehr and Peers’ blog about how the state of California is considering doing away with LOS. The Governor’s Office for Planning and Research, which is currently updating California’s Environmental Quality Act, has long relied on LOS to measure transportation impacts. But things could be changing, the post noted:

Which brings us to January 2009. OPR has released proposed changes to the CEQA checklist which eliminate the above language, replacing it with language relating to the number of automobile trips or vehicle miles traveled (VMT) a particular “project” would generate…

…This proposal comes on the heels of the City of San Francisco’s proposal in the Fall of 2008 to do just the same thing. It also follows an LOS Forum on this topic that was held at OPR in December. If adopted, it would mean that automobile LOS, which describes the level of congestion and delay on a road, would be abandoned in favor of impacts being based on the amount of automobile travel generated, irrespective of roadway capacity.

What do you think? Is LOS itself getting an “F”? Are other states moving to overhaul this obsolete tool?

Posted on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009 at 8:50 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
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July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
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September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
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October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
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October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
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January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

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International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
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Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

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Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

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Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
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Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



March 2009

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