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City of Portland looks to go beyond auto-centric ‘level of service’ standards


The existing LOS standards and measures, which focus only on motor vehicle levels of service, do not reflect the City of Portland’s current practice which emphasizes and promotes a multimodal approach to transportation planning and providing transportation services.
— From the City of Portland RFP

If you or any of your friends are transportation wonks, then you already know how powerful “level of service” (LOS) standards are. For the uninitiated, LOS is a measurement tool used by traffic engineers and planners to grade how a road or intersection “performs” in terms of traffic flow. If vehicles roll through without delay, the road performs well and gets an “A” LOS grade, if vehicles screech to a standstill and traffic backs up, the section of roadway gets an “F”. (I’m sure someone in the comments can give a more accurate/nuanced definition.)

The issue comes up in nearly every transportation project that includes bicycle access — because as cities make room for better bicycling, they are bound by these LOS standards to make sure a new design doesn’t lower the LOS of a particular street. Recall the considerable heartburn PBOT engineers faced on the N Williams Avenue project as they pondered whether or not they would endorse a one standard lane cross-section for the entire project. PBOT traffic engineer Rob Burchfield wanted to honor the communities desires for a cross-section that would tame auto traffic; but he said the City had to “make sure we have adequate capacity for the volume of traffic we expect,” and that, “there are some pass/fail criteria,” — LOS standards — they had to work with. That’s just one example.

The big problem with LOS is that it only takes automobile and truck trips into account. There is no official “bicycle level of service” nor do existing LOS standards include any consideration of bicycle traffic. For cities like Portland that want to design a transportation system that doesn’t put cars up on a pedestal, this gap in LOS policy is a significant barrier. It’s preventing us from making decisions today that will allow us to reach our goals tomorrow.

I’ve heard grumblings from insiders for years now that Metro was working on a new system, but I’ve yet to see official details. Now it appears that the City of Portland has taken a big step forward. According to a request for proposals (RFP) I came across today, the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability is looking for consultants to help them “implement a performance measures policy to replace the existing motor vehicle level of service policy in Portland’s Transportation System Plan.”

Here’s more from the RFP (emphasis mine):

…The City of Portland has existing performance standards in its Transportation System Plan (TSP) that are based on level of service (LOS) measures for motor vehicles. These include intersection based LOS measures that are used as a basis for determining the adequacy of transportation services in development review applications and volume-to- capacity (v/c) measures that are used in project and system planning. The existing LOS standards and measures, which focus only on motor vehicle levels of service, do not reflect the City of Portland’s current practice which emphasizes and promotes a multimodal approach to transportation planning and providing transportation services.

Portland’s current policy uses motor vehicle performance measures to determine the adequacy of transportation services. At the same time, the City has goals to increase the proportion of total trips using modes that are alternatives to the automobile, including pedestrian, bicycle, and transit (bus, streetcar, light rail), and has made a significant investment in facilities benefitting these other modes. The performance standards are used by the City to determine the impacts different land uses will have on the transportation system. The performance standards only measure vehicle performance and there is a concern that they do not give credit to the benefits of facilities and land use patterns that encourage the use of other modes.

The City of Portland has been wanting to do away with the old-school LOS guidelines for many years. The RFP mentions a 2005 effort that resulted in a draft memo a few years later they say should be the “stepping off point for this project.”

The reason this is coming now is because the City is beginning the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan and the Transportation System Plan (TSP) which lives within it.

You can read the RFP and the 2007 draft memo of the City’s “level of service policy prototype” via this PDF. The RFP deadline is August 17th and work on the $100,000 project is expected to proceed by mid-September.

— For more on level of service, read this excellent series from Streetsblog SF.

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