Whose Level of Service is the City Protecting? by Greg Hayes

Sometimes walking in San Francisco doesn't feel right. The urge to jaywalk and the quick analysis: when is the light going to change? Can I make it alive across these four lanes of speeding cars? The light finally changes, but it is not that easy. It is not uncommon that, thanks to the standard traffic engineering, pedestrians and bicyclists are forced to wait through two signal cycles in order to pass through one intersection. You start to suspect that pedestrian and bicycle movements are considered second class

Your suspicion is probably correct. The vast majority of the city's surface street space is judged by its ability to move motor vehicles, through the use of a rating system known as the Level of Service (LOS). This national standard measures the amount of automobile traffic a roadway can accommodate "without undue delay, hazard or restriction to the driver's freedom to maneuver."

The idea can be seen as something of a motor vehicle user's bill of rights, in which the driver's "freedom to maneuver" is the central concern. Basically, one type of citizen - a person driving a car - has more access to the public-right-of-way than any of its other users.

The LOS works like this: a roadway has a certain capacity of automobiles it can sustain before delay, hazard, and maneuvering ability are compromised to an unacceptable level. The successive stages of traffic dysfunction are assigned a letter rating which is set upon average delay time for cars. The best-case scenario is LOS A, with minimal delay times, etc. The worst is LOS F which indicates "forced flow" - basically the stage before total gridlock occurs. When roadways drop below failing level to LOS E, they fail the standard's appraisal, perhaps prompting a road widening, cutting the sidewalk back, or rejecting a proposed bike lane.

2 views of "forced flow" at the Panhandle to Golden Gate Park bike/pedestrian path.
Consider the double-crosswalk design of Stanyan and the Panhandle bikeway where ped/bike traffic seeking to enter the park is forced to wait through two separate light cycles just to maneuver though one intersection. The Golden Gate Park Master Plan and the San Francisco Bicycle Plan both call for a dedicated signal phase specifically designed to carry ped/bike traffic through the intersection in one movement. But the DPT hasn't allowed this for many years. Ask them why and they say because adding a new signal phase for the ped/bike traffic will make the intersection drop below failing LOS levels.

Here's where things really start to get twisted: what the traffic engineers are basically telling the people of San Francisco is that they cannot allow adequate pedestrian and bicycle facilities to be built because they will "cause congestion" and disturb the motor vehicle traffic flow that we are barely maintaining right now. The problem is one of abject, overt discrimination. Vast amounts of public time and space are appropriated and reserved for one mode of movement at the expense of all others. The LOS standard creates and perpetuates this situation and is constantly cited and invoked as means of denying pedestrian and bicycle facility improvements.

The SFBC will continue to advocate for an LOS-type measurement which actually takes other road users into account. After all, don't we all have the right to move down the street "without undue delay, hazard or restriction?" According to those in charge of our city's streets, apparently not.