Life in Southern California Reconsidered : Faster Isn't Always Better When Timing Green Lights


Consider the driving skills needed to master the treacherous streets of Los Angeles:

* You must be able to parallel park with the speed of a hawk diving on its prey, lest some cretin move in from behind to steal your space;

* You must be able to find alternate routes home when a SigAlert rears its ugly head in front of you, lest you get home so late you eat dinner during Jay Leno's monologue;

* And you must be able to anticipate when that metal-head in the 4-by-4 ahead of you is about to swing into your lane, lest his nobby tires become part of your grill.

But Robert Trueman of Woodland Hills wrote to suggest another vital skill: the ability to get mostly green lights on streets with timed traffic signals.

He criticized those drivers who still haven't learned that driving fast doesn't always mean getting there sooner. "What is their problem? Are they trying to prove that their car is faster than mine? Is it a macho complex?" he asked.

More likely, the problem is ignorance. For enlightenment I called Anson Nordby, a senior traffic engineer with the city of Los Angeles and expert on traffic signals. He said the traffic signals on all major city streets have been timed to give mostly green lights to the prevailing stream of traffic.

If you are on a major thoroughfare with signals every quarter of a mile or so, you can hit mostly green lights if you keep just under the speed limit, he said. For example, on a boulevard with at least two

lanes in each direction, you can make your best time if you drive about 30 m.p.h., Nordby said.

It just goes to show, that the story you heard as a child about the tortoise and the hare wasn't just some another dumb fable used to shut you up.

Dear Street Smart:

On metered freeway on-ramps with two lanes, a green light gives simultaneous access to cars on both lanes, causing a mad rush to be first, followed by deceleration to merge into freeway traffic.

Can't we eliminate the problem by staggering the green light for each lane?

Arnold Court


Dear Reader:

Your idea makes lots of sense to me. I once had a meter race with a blue-haired lady in a Rambler. She won.

But Caltrans senior engineer Milton Ikeda said the situation you describe doesn't cause major problems. In other words, meter races have yet to lead to major collisions, shootouts or minor wars.

"Normally, one guy just has a jump on the other guy," he said. I guess he saw my race with the blue-haired lady.

To stagger the lights, he said, Caltrans would have to increase the capacity of the computer that operate the signals, which just isn't worth the trouble. "It complicates things when we don't have to do it," he said.

But I support your idea, Arnold. My car and my ego are not cut out for drag-racing.

Dear Street Smart:

At the intersection with Valley Vista, the street signs on our street, Stoneybrook Drive, have been vandalized and removed, leaving no street identification there.

We have been advised by Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky's office that they cannot be replaced for at least nine months. This appears to be an unreasonable amount of time for such a simple job. Until the city gets around to it, how are fire, police and emergency vehicles supposed to find our street? In the meantime, hand-lettered signs have been placed there by my neighbors.

Roland B. Scott

Sherman Oaks

Dear Reader:

Nine months does sound unreasonable. I called Yaroslavsky's office to get an explanation and talked to Katharine Macdonald, the councilman's top aide.

She said it can take three to nine months to install a new street sign. A request that comes through a council office will be processed faster than a missing sign that is simply noticed by street maintenance crews during routine checks.

If an intersection is completely void of any signs, making it nearly impossible to identify the street, the city will rush an order to put up new signs in three to six weeks, she said.

The reason it takes so long in most cases, Macdonald said, is because there is such a backlog of requests. Even though a subcontractor for the city makes 1,000 signs a month, the city still can't keep up with the daily requests to replace missing signs.

I suggested that the city have a few extra signs made for each street so that when one is stolen we don't have to wait forever to have a new one made. But I guess that is too much to ask, considering the city has hundreds of thousands of streets.

Unfortunately, this doesn't help you any. For awhile, you must continue giving directions to your house by saying: "Get on Valley Vista and look for the street sign that's not there."

Dear Readers:

The latest nomination for strangest car names comes from David Moody of Glendale, who offered the Daihatsu Charade.

"Whether you think of the game of charades or the other meanings, a farce or something unreal, it has to be one of those words whose meaning runs crosswise to its beautiful sound," he said.

Hey, if they are going to name cars after party games, may I suggest they consider the Daihatsu Twister. To drive, simply put your right foot on the green gas pedal, left foot on the blue clutch, right hand on the red gear shift . . .

Speaking of strange car names, what about the name for General Motors' new electric car: the Impact.

I don't know about you, but when I'm driving, I try to avoid impacts.

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