9/30/2014

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LA stoplights synchronized but road war endures

LA stoplights synchronized but road war endures
In this extended time exposure photo, stoplights shine like stars at top right, and traffic, seen as streaks, flows along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — It seems that the impossible has occurred: The nation's most congested city has become a model for traffic control.

Yes, gridlock still prevails and drivers' blood pressure still spikes as LA's traffic arteries seize up during every morning and afternoon rush hour.

Yet, with the flip of a switch earlier this year, Los Angeles became a worldwide leader by synchronizing all of its nearly 4,400 stoplights, making it the world's first major city to do so.

The result? Well, it can still be hell to cross the City of the Angels by car. Synchronization has allowed LA to boast of real improvements on paper, however, the average driver won't always be able to discern the difference of a project that took nearly 30 years to complete.

"To be honest with you, I haven't felt it, yet," said Jack Abramyam, who has been driving a cab across LA's mean streets for 20 years.

"Late at night, maybe, yes," Abramyam said as he sat outside his cab on a street in Chinatown recently, waiting for a fare. "But it was never really bad then anyway. During the day it was bad. And it's still bad."

The way synchronization works is simple enough: With all the signals synchronized, if you drive down a street at the posted speed limit you should be able to make every green light — from one end of this sprawling city of 469 square miles to the other.

Of course there are any number of obstacles that can prevent that.

On a recent mid-afternoon test drive down eight miles of Wilshire Boulevard, for example, I was cut off by a bus, stuck behind more than one right-turner waiting for pedestrians to cross the intersecting street and at one point had my lane blocked by a delivery truck.

Approaching the world famous La Brea Tar Pits — where prehistoric dinosaurs once got stuck in muck, not traffic — so many people were waiting to turn left into a parking lot that the street became gridlocked for more than two blocks. The numerous synchronized green lights didn't wait for me. But why would they? With the posted speed limit 35 mph, I was only averaging 15.

Still, once the LA County Museum of Art, the high-rise apartments, the headquarters of porn publisher Larry Flynt and the various other Wilshire Boulevard landmarks were in the rear-view mirror, the pace did pick up. So much so that 11 green lights in a row suddenly materialized. That string ended on the edge of downtown, however, when Wilshire simply became clogged with too many cars. It was a non-rush hour jam that demonstrated that, good as synchronization may be, it isn't a magic, traffic-breaking bullet.

Los Angeles Department of Transportation officials agree.

As they stated in a recent report praising the benefits of synchronized signals, "No traffic signal system is capable of 'fixing traffic.'"

If more motor vehicles show up in the years ahead (and there are already more than 7.1 million of them registered in Los Angeles County, a number greater than that of most states), then officials say LA traffic jams will probably get worse.

That's why, said Clinton Quan, an engineering associate with the Department of Transportation, planners are continuing to push people to ride bicycles, take commuter rail lines and other public transportation and move close enough to work that they can walk there.

The city has added three light rail lines in the last seven years and has more planned. Officials also recently approved plans to allow high-rise apartment and condominium buildings along a corridor in Hollywood where a subway connecting the city's West Side to downtown is supposed to go.

In the meantime, Quan says, the synchronized signal program is putting up some pretty impressive numbers, even if the average driver isn't noticing them. It has reduced the drive time on several major LA corridors, for example, by about 12 percent.

In driver-speak, that means the trip across town that used to take you an hour has been reduced to about 53 minutes.

And that's nothing to shrug at, says Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's metropolitan policy program, which studies among other things the impact of traffic on the quality of life in metropolitan areas.

Several other traffic-clogged cities are looking into instituting similar programs and New York already synchronizes some of its stoplights, said Puentes, who works in Washington, D.C., the ninth-worst traffic-clogged city in the country.

"If you can get a 12 percent reduction on, say, the Washington Beltway, that would be phenomenal," he said.
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