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.

43 thoughts on “Debunking the LOS Extortion Argument

  1. Thomas Mercier

    I love when meeting ADA standards is touted as an “improvement”. Ah yes, meeting the legally mandated minimums is such an improvement that you probably deserve an award for your forward thinking innovation. And of course push buttons and curb cuts are only possible if the entire road is reconstructed/widened so that is definitely a justification to bulldoze in the name of progress.
    Please pardon my cynicism.

  2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    This is deeply disturbing. Even though this is St. Paul, it sounds like a job for Forward Minneapolis.

  3. Bryce R

    I live on Lexington a block and a half north of Randolph. This is the first mention I’ve heard about ‘accommodating more lanes” on Lexington and I’m extremely concerned. We used to live on Snelling and moved to Lexington because it was quieter (it’s by no means a quiet street, but compared to a 4-lane truck route it’s loads better). Do I need to quick sell my house now? I walk to Trader Joes all the time and the only time I feel like I’m going to die is when I’m in the crosswalk. The sidewalks are fine.

        1. Jennifer Wustmann


          The Mac-Grove Community Council Transportation Committee meets the fourth Wednesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at the Edgcumbe Recreation Center. We’d love to have you drop by.

          However, in lieu of our regular January meeting, we’ll be hosting an A Line (Snelling BRT) info session with Metro Transit staff at Macalester College on January 26 – more info here:

          I highly encourage you to attend our February 23 meeting (6:30 p.m. at Edgcumbe). The Ramsey County public works engineer working on project will be present, and we’ll be discussing the intersection then. I highly encourage you to attend and share your perspective.

  4. Monte Castleman

    Looks like left turn lanes already exist, isn’t it more correct to say that the want to remove buildings to add bicycle lanes (assuming that’s what they’re doing?)

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        This is actually to add a (new and unnecessary) right turn lane across the street, correct?

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            AFAIK there’s no rendering of the eastern section of this project (second phase, incl Lexington). The only rendering I’ve seen of Ran/Lex is the famed Bloomingtonize plan.

            1. Nathanael

              Good god. Whatever can possibly be done to prevent this should be done to prevent this. What an awful, terrible design.

              I’d suggest heading directly to the Ramsey County board of commissioners. This seems to have been going on beneath their attention level. People who live on these streets, in particular, should explain to their elected officials how dangerous the proposed design is.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      They want to add right turn lanes. Here’s what CM Tolbert’s newsletter has to say:

      As anyone who has driven through the Randolph and Lexington intersection at rush hour knows, the intersection is not working for drivers or pedestrians. Wait times at the light are well above average and pedestrians risk their lives standing at the narrow northeast corner when crossing to Trader Joe’s. In this budget I secured $1.5 million to improve this intersection to coincide with Ramsey County’s reconstruction of that portion of Randolph in 2016. The County will be taking the lead on designing and reconstructing that intersection and will hold a public meeting in February to get community input on different reconstruction scenarios. They will also be meeting with both the MacGroveland and Highland District Councils. I hope you can join us at one of the following meetings to share your vision for the intersection.

      1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

        After re-reading his email, maybe we are going to get the most amazing safe traffic-calmed intersection the western world has ever known!

  5. Jeff Peltola

    I don’t care about intersection vehicle LOS (just like the typical’er), but I don’t immediately react negatively to any situation-specific proposal to add turn lanes, change signal timing, install a modern roundabout, what have you. I only fuzzily recall the subject intersection as being awkward. If the advent of a TJ’s there poses difficulties, it might be similar to the predicament in St Louis Park at Excelsior & Grand. That TJ’s should be in the middle by the ramp, not at the corner of 36th St. It’s a mess that can only be bandaided by traffic engineering/street geometric design. The root of the problem was the economic development and planning decision-making that led to its location.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Jeff, the point of putting a business up against the street is that it activates the sidewalk. And the root of this problem is auto-dependent land uses, automobility subsidies, and an auto-oriented transportation planning mindset.

      1. Jeff Peltola

        I LOVE activating sidewalks. LOOK at SLP TJs, and what do you actually SEE (vs what you WISH you saw)? It’s an auto-dependent use WASTING an excellent TOD/ped-friendly spot. That whole development sometimes is celebrated as a TOD/ped success story, but it’s NOT. The west/middle part is just ok, but the rest is a pig with the proverbial lipstick. What’s the lipstick? — Fake fenestration — make-believe windows and doors. The SLP TJs is a poster child for fake fenestration, bested only by SLP’s West End Rainbow Foods. If St Paulites want to take away decisionmaking from the Ramsey County Engineer for that TJ’s spot, they most definitely should. That means lobbying the City to ask to take over responsibility for the relevant county roads (including paying for the costs). If they want a walkable grocery store there that doesn’t depend on customers driving in, the neighborhood groups need to proactively advocate FOR (rather than reactively fight AGAINST) denser/taller development in the immediate vicinity (certainly > 2 stories, and even taller than the way-too-common, cookie-cutter 6-story timber-frame boxes).

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          I guess I’ll take this over or or This isn’t to say Excelsior on Grand and all its components are perfect urbanism, but it’s a huge improvement and “good enough” for now.

          Side note, the windows all seem to be “real” to me? Sure, the circular corner windows are just for the exist stairwell, but all the second story windows seem to be for actual residential units. The ground-level windows unfortunately have food shelves behind them, but that door along Excelsior is very real – I’ve used it!

          1. Jeff Peltola

            I use that door too. It’s a tunnel that takes you to the door that opens to the parking lot. The corner is a fancy fire escape. The 2nd story windows are for real residences, but most of all that street frontage is nothingness. If that’s ‘good enough’ we’re nowhere.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              How is the TJs not an improvement over the other places I linked that have similar ground-level uses?

              Either way, this distracts from the overall conversation. The Trader Joes at Randolph isn’t really the problem (though the parking lot fronting Lexington doesn’t help). 35E and its draw for vehicles and engineers’ inability to calm traffic or say no to allowing more via design is the major problem. Using outdated VMT predictions supports the assumption for needing more capacity, and blindness to providing modal choice by re-allocating existing space exacerbates the issue.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      The Trader Joes at Excelsior & Grand has its own parking with access on a back side street (basically an over-built alleyway, which has a left turn lane from Monterey). It’s a shame the frontage along Monterey is poor as a result, but Excelsior and the corner is well activated which is nice. People complain about it being a cluster, but it really is not that bad. As a driver, you have the option of 1) parking behind TJ’s and entering in a dedicated sliding door, 2) parking in an on-street space along the N/W side of Excelsior, or 3) parking in the ramp you note, which is a measly 520′ walk from the corner entrance to TJ’s. If anything, the intersection in question could have been calmed more with better pedestrian facilities, Excelsior could have been outfitted with quality cycle tracks, etc to make getting to TJ’s without a car even easier.

      Circling back to Randolph/Lexington: that’s what needs to be done here. Tearing down a couple buildings to accommodate turning traffic while only marginally widening the sidewalk will do nothing to make this area more walkable/bikeable. It will only signal to people from outside the neighborhood that you can save an extra few seconds after getting off the freeway while telling area residents driving to 35E to drive faster earlier since the area will be more freeway-scaled than not. The 70′ right of way here gives a whole lot of options that aren’t being explored, and since the county is reconstructing the whole street (sewers, pipes, roadway, etc) they can be creative. This is an opportunity to make a whole mile of Randolph better for bikers and walkers – a rare opportunity.

  6. Jack Fei

    Research proves adding road capacity to reduce congestion *DOESN’T WORK*. It encourages more drivers to use the road.

    Obtaining property at Randolph and Lexington for the purpose of reducing congestion will not work. It will only encourage more drivers to use our communities as drive-thru neighborhoods, and result in less safety for all.

    A better use for the property is to incorporate multi-modal safety enhancements (pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders) for Trader Joe’s patrons.

    Traffic engineers, trained to optimize the flow of vehicles from point A to point B, are not accustomed to considering multi-modal design concepts nor complete streets.

    We must to educate the planners and traffic engineers and be prepared with a viable alternative in time to accomodate existing construction timelines.

    Will there be time?

    1. Wayne

      We need to take city road planning out of the hands of traffic engineers, since they only know how to do one thing and that thing is not compatible with urban streets.

      It seems like most of their job consists of plugging numbers into a computer program which provides them with wrong estimates of magical future traffic which will never actually happen and then plopping down a bunch of one-size-fits-all road geometry they got from their manual and calling it a day. We could probably replace them with a computer program if that’s all they do. Then throw that computer program in the trash and hire a human being with some critical thinking abilities. It seems like modern traffic engineering is more like slavish religious devotion than a job requiring any thought.

    2. Nathanael

      Don’t just educate the planners. Educate the elected officials… and provide the names of alternate people to appoint as planners. 🙂

      Yeah, call me radical.

  7. Wayne

    “Sidewalks that meet ADA standards and new push buttons will be installed to aid crossing at the stop lights. ”

    Did they really list a beg button as an improvement? Because you know it’s going to be a beg button and not just a button to give audio alerts for the blind.

  8. Cindy

    This is a frightening intersection in which to navigate by bike or foot and a widened Lexington will only make it worse. Move the auto access to TJs to behind the small “accessory units” of retail, and install well designed (ped and bike friendly) roundabouts at Lex-Rand and 35 on and offs. Or perhaps even consider removing the freeway and restoring the grid…but that is another discussion for another day. Great article, Bill.

  9. joan pasiuk

    Thanks, Bill. Incisive as always. One of my issues is the traffic projection model. Ramsey Co PW estimates that in 20 yrs there will be a 15% increase of motorized traffic at this location, a figure they use to justify intersection expansion and significant cost. I want to know all the assumptions used to construct the projection. Is there a projection of nonmotorized traffic, of changing demographics and transportation preferences, of growing trends worldwide to make investments that encourage sustainable transportation, and maybe even of climate change? Indeed, if the intersection is built to accommodate motor traffic more efficiently, that’s exactly what we will get. Let’s make this a demonstration project of the SP 8-80 commitment. We should settle for nothing less.

    1. Nathanael

      The projection is obviously wrong. You’ll have to ask them to find out what the projection is based on (DO ask). I’m going to tell you right now that it’s probably based on an incorrect state DOT model.

      The *federal* DOT has told state governments that their models are overestimating VMT, but basically no state has updated their model. So if it *is* based on the state model, you can tell the county that the federal government has told them not to use the state model…

  10. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

    see also:

    “Maybe it’s time to drop the projected VMT counts. Taking this step would liberate our cities from the regime of increasing traffic. Getting rid of the assumption of increase could free our vision, and make room for more ideas about street design or mode choice. Instead of fatalistically designing roads for gridlock, we could begin designing roads that meet our shared goals, things like walkability, encouraging local businesses, and encouraging sustainable energy use. In other words, we could plan for what we want to happen, not what we know is going to happen whether we like it or not.”

    1. Jack Fei

      The Project Leader for the reconstruction of Randolph Avenue is Nick Fisher from Ramsey County. Planning to date has focused on Randolph Avenue 2015 Constrution between Snelling and Hamline. The next Public Meeting will be updating 2015 Construction plans.

      Randolph Public Meeting- February 4, 6PM, Highland Community Center.

      No plan has been presented for 2016 Randolph construction describing how the NE Corner Lexington & Randolph would be change if the land was used. The first public meetings concerning this topic are:

      Highland Transportation Meeting- February 10, 7PM, Highland Community Center

      Macalester Groveland Transportation Meeting- February 23, 6:30 PM, Edgcumbe Rec Center

      Those who concerned should prepare to attend these meetings with creative and practical ideas covering ‘how to improve safety and enhance pedestrian, cycling, public transit access to Trader Joes’.

  11. Pingback: Designing Roads for Higher “Level of Service” Isn’t About Safety |

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      For the record, the city did a 4-3 conversion on Lexington years ago that was supposed to be connected to the Ayd Mill Road handling a bunch of the traffic that had tied up the street. I think it’s quite successful, AMR aside.

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