Completing a major transit project is never a quick and easy process, but if any place should be able to move one swiftly through to completion, it’s San Francisco. In 1973 the city adopted a “transit first” policy that gave planning priority to modes of transportation other than the automobile. As the policy expressly states, decisions related to streets and sidewalks “shall encourage the use of public rights-of-way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit.”
That’s strong support for livability on paper, but in recent years the policy has felt much more like “transit worst” in practice. A 2005 lawsuit postponed implementation of the city’s master bike plan for years on the grounds that it failed to consider potential harm to the flow of automobile traffic — an injunction that wasn’t lifted until August 2010. The city has considered a bus-rapid transit line along Van Ness Avenue since 2004, but an environmental review on the project wasn’t completed until early last month — delayed, in part, by an intense study of the same traffic consideration — and now service isn’t expected to begin until at least 2016.
The source of the disconnect between San Francisco’s transit-first heart and its car-centric hand is an arcane engineering measure called “level of service,” or LOS. In brief, LOS suggests that whenever the city wants to change some element of a street — say by adding a bike lane or even just painting a crosswalk — it should calculate the effect that change will have on car traffic. If the change produces too much congestion, then a great deal of time, money, and additional analysis must go toward the project’s consideration.
The weight of this hidden hand doesn’t fall on San Francisco alone. “Intersection LOS is one of the most widely-used traffic analysis tools in the U.S. and has a profound impact on how street space is allocated in U.S. cities,” writes Jason Henderson, geography professor at San Francisco State University, in the November issue of the Journal of Transport Geography. As Henderson argues, it’s about time cities addressed the problem, and San Francisco is doing just that. It’s currently in the process of drafting a new sustainable transportation metric that will replace LOS and promote livability. Still, the fight is far from over.
“Every city I’ve ever come across has some use of [LOS],” says Henderson, who has conducted an extensive review of LOS and is writing a book on the politics of mobility in San Francisco. “LOS and the privilege of the car is the incumbent. The way the political process is set up is you have to disprove the incumbent.”
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