Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 1

A century ago, our streets served many purposes.  They were gathering places, places for commerce, places for play, places for discussion. Where streets were lined with residences, they were places where children played, where people traveled, where neighbours met and where the complex interactions that make urban life worth living played out.  In short, our streets were messy places, where a myriad of uses competed for space, for attention and for visibility.  Just venturing out onto the street required you to interact with your community – you talked to your neighbours, saw other residents of your community, and purchased items at local retailers.

Front Street in Belleville, 1913.  Photo from Library and Archives Canada

Fast forward a hundred years or so, and the relationships on our streets have been dramatically simplified.  Gone are the streets as a market, as a playground, as a meeting space.  The complexity that made urban streets inherently interesting – the interactions with other people, with buildings around you, and with local shops, has been replaced with streets who serve one purpose – moving automobiles from one place to another as quickly as possible.


A simplified street in Hamilton – one purpose, one type of user catered to.

In North America, where our communities are spread out and goods need to travel long distances, there is an important place for roads whose sole objective is to encourage rapid and efficient movement of automobiles.  Our network of highways have played a significant role in advancing our economy, of that there can be no doubt.  But the problem comes when we start treating every single piece of road in the same way that we treat a highway – applying the same engineering standards, quantifying its “success” by the same metrics and ignoring the vital role that our streets play in creating social cohesion in our cities – and that is exactly what we’ve done for the past 40 years, to disastrous effect.

To many readers that are NOT transportation nerds like myself, the term “Level Of Service” might be a new term.  It’s little known outside of the transportation and engineering realm, but its consequences shape the way we use our streets every single day.  Level of Service refers to a road’s capacity to move automobiles.  Level “A” means that the road experiences free-flowing traffic at all hours of the day.  Level “F” means stop and go traffic. Now neither one of these extremes are ideal for urban life, but problems arise when we dig into how the problem is described, because it has tremendous (negative) influence on the solutions put forward.

When it comes to Level of Service, the problem is often defined quite simply – there are too many vehicles for the capacity of the road.  The solutions are to either decrease the number of vehicles or expand the road’s capacity.  Since communities in North America have been loathe to introduce policies like road pricing or congestion charges that would have any impact on the number of vehicles, it leaves you with only one option: expand the road’s capacity.  Of course, this then plays into the iron-clad law of induced demand, where increasing road capacity results in a similar increase in the number of vehicles, leading to debacles like the Katy freeway in Houston, where after nearly $3B was spent to widen the freeway to a ludicrous 23 lanes, travel times actually increased by nearly 30%.

Click through to see stunning aerials of Houston's busiest highways.Traffic on the IH-10 Katy Freeway viewed facing west near Loop 610 on Thursday, April 11, 2013, in Houston. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle ) Photo: Smiley N. Pool, Houston Chronicle

Houston’s Katy Freeway – a multi-billion dollar exercise in futility.

All this to say that Level of Service is a disastrously flawed metric for measuring how well our streets work.  It starts with a flawed premise, and delivers doubly flawed results, especially when applied within an urban context.  When the only metric considered is the number of vehicles traveling at free flowing speeds, you ignore metrics like safety and comfort of people walking and cycling, accessibility for people with exceptionalities and impacts on social cohesion and placemaking. All of these measures, some of which are much less tangible than simply counting cars and recording their speeds, are much more important markers of what makes a great community, not a great highway, which Level of Service arguably quantifies.  And since we live in communities, not highways, I would argue that we should pay much more attention to Quality of Place rather than Level of Service – an idea I’ll turn my attention to in part 2 of this post next week.


One thought on “Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 3 | A Boy, His Bike and His Blog

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