An amendment to the House transportation bill highlights the failures of “level of service”

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Most transportation funding serves one goal: make vehicle traffic as free-flowing as possible. Yet this has created a transportation system where the only way to participate in the economy is by driving, and where states spend billions seeking this objective in a way that makes traffic worse and increases their future maintenance costs. An amendment to the House’s new transportation bill would shed some light on this perpetual wild goose chase and force a conversation on the Hill about this little known, but incredibly influential, measurement.

If there are any existing priorities for the over $40 billion the federal government spends annually on surface transportation today, it’s that cars should move fast, at all times, on all types of roads. These priorities are paramount with little thought to how pursuing them impacts how many people die or how much congestion (and emissions) result. Those issues are addressed later with a much smaller pot of money than the funds used to create the problems—rather than anticipating them upstream. 

Cars moving quickly has been the way engineers are asked to measure current transportation problems and the expected “success” of transportation investments, through something called level of service (LOS). LOS made sense in the 1950s when we were creating an Interstate system for cars and didn’t have technology that could help us evaluate the success of the transportation system for everyone. But today the measure is applied to every roadway, including local roadways, as if we are still starting out. We have better ways to understand how our investments connect people to destinations  by all modes of travel from their homes. It’s 2020: we’re overdue for something better.

What is level of service? 

Level of service (LOS) is a measure road engineers use to determine how well a road is performing based on the number of cars and the delay that vehicles experience on that roadway. Letters designate each level, from A to F. Just like in school, A is great, and F is terrible; and roads earn an F for stop-and-go traffic, even if it only occurs for a few minutes each day. 

To be clear, a street that is nearly empty 23.5 hours of the day can get an F if it gets congested for a short time during rush hour. But it gets worse: because engineers are expected to guess what will happen in 10-20 years, if they think there might be a short time of congestion each day in a decade, that will require a project to be built to avoid a possible future LOS-F. This incentivizes states and metro area planners to build wider and longer roads that they often don’t actually need. 

In addition, grading streets based on how fast cars can drive during peak travel hours completely ignores the needs of anyone traveling outside of a car. It doesn’t consider whether it is possible at all to travel by transit, bike or foot nor does it consider how seeking more convenience for drivers might take away “level of service” for other users of the system. Striving to earn a good grade in LOS makes roads dangerous and inconvenient for people biking, walking, and riding transit. 

Despite the fact that the federal government has repeatedly told states that there are zero federal requirements that they use LOS, state and local transportation agencies persist in using it to evaluate the success or failure of their transportation network. If states insist on using this outdated, inaccurate, measure, federal transportation policy can at least shed some light on its lack of usefulness. 

Highlighting the limitations of level of service

An amendment to the INVEST Act, offered by Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García during the committee’s INVEST Act markup, would require that all new capital projects using federal funds analyze current and projected traffic volumes using a traffic demand model that has a past history of accuracy and require a report describing how the project will reduce travel times and traffic volumes. 

This is some clever wordsmithing because traffic models do not have a history of accuracy. In fairness, projecting traffic is a hard thing to do. For one, you have to know what the economy will look like in your projections, which are expected to be accurate 20 years out. We didn’t know what traffic projections today would look like in January, so a 20-year projection is setting engineers up to fail.  But by requiring agencies to consider the accuracy of traffic demand models, this amendment holds project sponsors accountable for using better information and setting achievable outcomes, such as reduced vehicle congestion. When you are forced to guess at things that are unknowable, you can also show any outcome you want.

Further, by requiring a report describing how the project will reduce travel times and traffic volumes, project sponsors will have to explain how the project will address these issues. With LOS, they only try to answer the question about travel times assuming they have no power to affect traffic volumes. Rep. Garcia’s approach will require a different conversation where transportation agencies will have to consider the fact that they do have some power here: they can make travel outside a car convenient and safe and they can unintentionally induce demand for more auto travel. 

Whether this amendment is incorporated into the INVEST Act or not, Congress and the public needs to become familiar with this issue and start talking about how the focus on level of service has justified projects that hardly ever return the promised benefit and often create new problems. We appreciate Rep. Garcia’s leadership in kickstarting this long overdue conversation.

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