Lights have drivers playing the waiting game

Times Staff Writer

Everyone deals with slow-changing traffic lights in different ways. Some reach deep down to find inner peace, others grind teeth, and a few write haiku.

Keith Sikora, a cameraman who lives in Burbank, is among the latter. His inspiration comes from the traffic lights in his city, where he has found himself sitting at red lights late at night for no discernible reason.

Wait! Wait for the red

at Angeleno and Third;

no other cars for miles.

“The lights just don’t seem to talk to one another,” Sikora said recently. “Each intersection is oblivious to what the next intersection is doing.”


More than 40 miles away, in Irvine, Dennis McGillis has developed an endless fascination with the lights along Irvine Center Drive -- a road that under different names cuts a swath across 10 cities in Orange County.

He has much the same beef. He sits at red lights for cross traffic that doesn’t exist.

“We got out at noon every day to go to lunch and look at it and shrug our shoulders and say ‘Why is it that way?’ ” McGillis said. “We have these signals that are smart and intelligent, but they’re not being used to their full potential.”

He should know. McGillis has been selling electronics for more than 35 years.

On my daily dog-walking route in Pasadena is the intersection of Del Mar Boulevard and Hill Avenue, a junction that I have long suspected is sponsored by OPEC.

Traffic isn’t bad there. But if you are traveling north on Hill Avenue, just as you get a green light at Del Mar Boulevard, the next light -- about 200 feet away -- turns red. It’s been this way for months.

If you believe that traffic signals near you aren’t synchronized as well as they should be, you’re probably right.

Relatively few cities in the region have state-of-the-art technology when it comes to traffic signals, according to several transportation engineers I spoke with recently. Even the city of Los Angeles -- the widely acknowledged leader in advanced traffic signals -- is undergoing a $150-million upgrade to its lights.

Both L.A. and Orange counties are making big pushes to help dozens of cities get their lights in sync, with the emphasis on big arterials that cross cities. The O.C., for example, is syncing up Euclid Street, which in 15 miles crosses six cities and four freeways.

Still, here are some frightening words: “We are in the infancy stage” of traffic-light timing, said Jane White, a senior civil engineer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

Out-of-whack lights are not a problem only in Southern California. The Institute of Traffic Engineers, a group based in Washington, D.C., issued a report last year that overall gave the nation a D grade when it came to synchronizing lights.

That’s an improvement from the D minus the nation earned in 2005.

How can something so simple be overlooked for so long?

Money and manpower have always been problems. James Moore, a professor of engineering at USC, said another problem is that for many decades the dozens of cities in the region had little interest in cooperating, out of fear of encouraging cut-through traffic from big arterial streets.

“Cities don’t want to take anyone else’s traffic,” Moore said. “So they resist.”

I’m not suggesting turning local streets into the backstretch at Indy. Rather, let’s get rid of stop-starts that are there for no good reason. This is not rocket science.

What is state of the art these days? Each signal must have modern hardware and software. Traffic-monitoring sensors in the roads should be working. And signals must be able to be adjusted from a centralized location.

Still, there are challenges. Cities may not bother to replace broken sensors or adjust timing to reflect changing traffic patterns. Rush hour traffic can overwhelm the street grid. Left-hand turn signals and pedestrian crossings mess up timing.

“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” said Sean Skehan, who oversees the design of light timing in Los Angeles. “It’s very hard to come up with a design” that pleases everyone.

You may be wondering what the accompanying map of temperature trends in the United States has to do with traffic light synchronization.

Attentive readers will recall a statistic from last week’s column: In the United States, the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases.

Yes, that sector includes big polluters such as airplanes and ships. But it also includes everyday vehicles (except hybrids), which when idling at unnecessary red lights are getting zero mpg.

There is good news: Some local officials own up to the problem.

In Burbank, city traffic engineer Ken Johnson said Sikora -- the haiku writer -- isn’t imagining things. The city’s traffic lights need work.

“Frankly, our staff is small and sometimes it takes us two to three years to get up to date with timing plans and traffic changes,” Johnson said, adding that the City Council has been helpful recently in providing money for upgrades.

The traffic engineers in Irvine couldn’t be reached, but in Pasadena, the county is adding synchronized lights on several major streets that have long been almost comically un-timed.

Pasadena City Councilman Sid Tyler said he agreed that the streets in his district aren’t very well timed, but he wasn’t sure why it has taken so long to fix the problem.

“I don’t understand it,” Tyler said Friday. “I don’t know what the answer is. I share your frustration. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

Next week: When politicians try to talk about traffic.

If you’ve got an idea, a question or want to rant or rave about your travels in the Southland and the state, e-mail