May 30, 2013 at 7:37 AM ET
Los Angeles has become a symbol of America’s traffic congestion – its highways and byways often frozen during the steadily expanding period still know as rush hour.
But city planners believe they can speed things up in the months to come after completing a project that has been in the works for almost three decades.
From the smallest neighborhoods to the biggest downtown intersections, the city has synced all of its stoplights. Covering 469 square miles, Los Angeles is the first major city to achieve that milestone and is already showing a reduction in drive times by about 12 percent in some parts of the city.
“We’re actually seeing traffic flow. That’s such an unusual thing in Los Angeles,” said Michael Rose, a freelance film and documentary producer based near the Los Angeles/Santa Monica border. “It’s such a relief.”
Los Angeles is a city on wheels, and despite ongoing efforts to expand its mass transit system, few expect that to move many motorists off the road.
The density of traffic is so severe that freeways – such as the core I-405 route — move at a crawl much of the day. Knowing commuters often abandon those limited-access routes for surface streets adds to off-highway congestion.
The problem is that a single, poorly-timed light along a major street can create a massive ripple effect, creating tie-ups that extend for blocks, even miles, in every direction.
The goal was to synchronize stop lights so that a car traveling, say, down Wilshire Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest boulevards, could conceivably travel unimpeded for miles if they maintained the posted speed limit.
The challenge has been to coordinate a network of 4,398 street lights, especially when they include complex intersections where three, four, even more roads merge.
The project dates back to the 1984 Olympics, an event that many city officials feared would create regional gridlock. The first effort to synchronize lights focused on the area around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of key Olympic events.
“Because of the success of that system, the City Council mandated that we expand it citywide,” said Verej Janoyan, senior traffic engineer with the city’s Department of Transportation.
Part of the challenge was coming up with the computer capability to analyze the city’s vast stoplight network, calculate posted speed limits and then come up with the proper timing algorithm. Adding the network to control those stoplights increased the price of the project to around $350 million. Considering California’s financial problems, the project was stretched for nearly 30 years.
The programming isn’t inflexible. The project has also resulted in a network of cameras that can give traffic managers a real-time look at what’s happening on Los Angeles streets. They can make rapid changes to reflect shifting daily commute patterns – as well as construction and traffic accidents.
Experts warn that there will still be times when the system is simply overloaded. At rush hour, it’s often impossible for motorists to come close to posted speed limits.
But for the rest of the day, there are signs that travel times are being trimmed up to 12 percent in some areas.
It remains to be seen how many cash-strapped neighboring communities, especially in the densely-populated Orange County, will follow the city’s lead. But studies show that traffic snarls can generate millions of dollars in lost productivity and worsen the region’s endemic smog problems.
“You really see a difference,” says documentary producer Rose. “It’s really amazing. The only question is why they didn’t do this before.”
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