Debunking the LOS Extortion Argument

randolph-lexingtonThere are lots of ways to make arguments about road design. People argue about safety, economic impact, efficient use of resources, or even creating construction jobs. Each has some merit… But there’s one argument that, when I hear it, I find disingenuous at best: I call it LOS extortion.

(Explainer: LOS = Level Of Service, a grading system that measures traffic flow. F = lots of congestion, A = never any congestion at all.)

The Randolph Lexington Intersection

I heard the LOS extortion argument again the other day when a friend of mine was describing a meeting with a county engineer about a street reconstruction in Saint Paul. Over the next two years, Ramsey County is going to be completely reconstructing Randolph Avenue, an East-West arterial street running through Saint Paul. Currently the street has 2-lanes with parking on either side, but current county plans call for the street to be widened at a key intersection by a Trader Joe’s store and the freeway onramp.*

The problem is that the right-of-way isn’t wide enough for a road expansion that would add dedicated turn lanes. In order to expand the street the County will have to tear down a few apartments and houses on the corner. This is exactly the kind of road expansion (tearing down older buildings at intersections to build turn lanes) that I’ve seen repeatedly on the 4-lane “death roads” throughout the city. This project is unusual because both the roads in question are 2- or 3-lanes wide.

In this case, to justify the demolition and road expansion, the county is using a textbook case of the LOS extortion argument. The logic goes like this: “If we don’t improve the intersection, drivers will get frustrated and start to drive their cars in dangerous ways.” (In other words, if we can’t solve traffic backups, people will drive like maniacs. Or we need good traffic flow in order to ensure safety. If we don’t do this, people will drive dangerously and cause accidents.) I call this “LOS extortion,” and I’m tired of hearing this argument.

Rethinking Safety


Reconstruction plans for Randolph and Hamline, without new turn lanes.

In a way, the LOS extortion argument seems like a step in the right direction. Unlike many designs and plans, arguments like this point out that there’s a difference between ideal and actual behavior. For example, instead of pretending that everyone is going to read all the signs and obey all the laws, here we are admitting that people might act in unexpected and illegal ways.

This kind of argument points to the need to think beyond individual responsibility and start examining how a city’s infrastructures and designs might be cultivating behavior in the first place. Here we’re admitting that if people aren’t complying with the law or design, maybe we should change the design.

The problem is that arguments like this mistake compliance for safety. The key is that there’s a big difference between cars and other types of mobility. You hear similar arguments all the time; for example, I could say that “If we don’t improve the rules and street designs for bicycles, bicyclists will run stop signs, stop lights, and ignore the law.” Or I might say that “If we don’t make decent sidewalks and street designs in our neighborhoods, people on foot will walk on the shoulder, on the median, and jaywalk constantly.” (Indeed, both of these things are very true!)

Safety isn’t just the number of accidents that occur, but needs to also include the larger urban landscape. If we “improve” an intersection by allowing cars to travel fast or turn more easily, we are also making the intersection more dangerous for anyone on foot or bicycle. In an urban area like this, that’s a big mistake! Safety isn’t just about compliance with rules. Neither is safety about decreasing the total number of accidents, though that is part of the picture.  In an urban area, safety is about reducing car speeds and creating a comfortable and welcoming environment for people on foot.

Ramsey County’s insistence that they are going to widen the road at Lexington and Randolph is an example of backward thinking. Tearing down two-story dense apartments and single family houses to make a turn lane is a bad idea, but doing it in the name of safety is particularly ironic.** Hopefully, as neighbors and the city weigh in more clearly, the conversation will come to its senses.   


To widen Lexington, this textbook urbanist building will have to go…

* This is what the engineer wrote in an email:

In 2016 we will reconstruct Randolph Ave from Syndicate to I-35E and this includes the Lexington intersection.  Lexington will be widen to accommodate more lanes.  Where the widening is to occur has yet to be decided.  Options will be presented at a public meeting after the holidays.  Pedestrian upgrades are a big part of the project.  Sidewalks that meet ADA standards and new push buttons will be installed to aid crossing at the stop lights.  If you have any other questions let me know.

** Even more ironic is that some of the money for this road expansion might come from the city’s “8-80” fund, as Anne White has explained already.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.