In a former emergency bunker four floors under the City Hall annex, traffic engineer Cynthia Leong sat at a “Star Trek"-esque console, peering into her computer.
Above her, closed-circuit TV screens flashed video of silhouetted figures driving and walking through intersections: Alpine and Broadway, Flower and Jefferson, Figueroa and Marmion. To her right, another engineer studied a red and green colored graph showing congestion building up and then dissipating again.
Leong was in charge of the command post for a $410-million project to remotely control the city’s stoplights — all 4,398 of them.
Every second electronic sensors in the ground record traffic speeds and congestion at each of the city’s intersections, then alert a computer, which adjusts how long the green lights should last to drain the streets of traffic with maximum efficiency.
As Leong sat in her chair, occasionally picking up the phone, a digital leader board flashed the names of crossings with unusually tough traffic. Leong could have tinkered with the stoplight timing, but there was no need. The software was too good; it self-corrected, and the congestion numbers started to come down.
So Leong sat around, quietly observing in the hushed chamber.
The signal synchronization project began in anticipation of the 1984 Olympics. Last month, Los Angeles became the first big city in the nation to bring its entire signal network under central control.
Now you might ask why it took 30 years, which makes sense only if you recall that Angels Flight, the tiny Bunker Hill railway, closed for 27 years before someone managed to get it running again in 1996. Or that the Green Line got within 2.5 miles of LAX before taking a hard left turn, and 16 years later, we still can’t take the train to the airport.
The city says it had to cobble together grants slowly over time to get the work done. Let’s face it, L.A. is great at starting transportation projects, but has a lousy track record on finishing them.
So what have we gotten for our $410 million? Traffic studies have repeatedly shown that driving speeds, on average, have risen 16%, and travel times have dropped by 12%, because of the system, transportation officials say.
What they mean is that traffic is better than it would have been without the project. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that traffic today is better than it was in 1984.
I drove out to the Westside during afternoon rush hour. It was the usual ghastly mess of long buildups at stoplights, drivers cutting you off to move one car-length ahead and people whizzing around on side streets trying to punch a hole in the congestion.
The traffic “is exactly the same as it’s been all along,” said motorist Cristiana Armstrong, who was stopped on a cross street, trying to get through Olympic.
“In fact it’s worse than it was five or six years ago,” Armstrong said, leaning over to talk through the passenger window. “The 405 is just a wall.”
Graphic designer Nancy Chen, who drives an hour each way from her home in Monterey Park to work in West Los Angeles, said it’s only bad during peak periods. But those last two to three hours, twice a day.
Our conversation was interrupted by a woman in a silver Jaguar with her silver hair pulled back in a tight ponytail laying on her horn. When the light changed to green, the Jag was unable to move at all because cross traffic was still stuck in the intersection.
“That’s how it is here,” Chen said, laughing. “People are tired. They want to get home.”
On the other hand, once I cleared the Westside, I sailed along Pico Boulevard into downtown, the lights opening a green carpet before me. Senior traffic engineer Verej Janoyan said things could be a lot worse.
The city is a very different place than it was in 1984, he pointed out. Then, freeway traffic into downtown was the big nightmare. Traffic on L.A. freeways is still among the nation’s worst. But the focus has switched to congestion on the city’s 6,500 miles of surface streets. One of the busiest crossings, Sunset Boulevard at Barrington Avenue, carries 72,000 cars a day, the same as many freeways.
There are more people — 800,000 since 1980 — and even more vehicles, since the single-car family went the way of the Chevy Vega. Many once-moribund neighborhoods are full of night life and new residents — downtown L.A., Hollywood and Silver Lake among them.
Motorists now also have to share the streets with commuter rail cars and buses and 270 miles of bike lanes that weren’t around in the 1980s.
Pedestrians increasingly venture forth with their ear buds in place, at the end of a leash or pushing a stroller, stalling cars in the right-turn lanes.
On the closed-circuit TV at the signal project’s command post last week, I even spotted skateboarders in the roadway, legs pumping furiously to keep up with the traffic.
“We are becoming more than a city of vehicles,” said Janoyan. “The fact is the city is going toward a path to serve all modes of transportation.”
We’re also a much more cosmopolitan city, in a good way. City engineers override signals for special events, including the Oscars or Lakers games, lest the limos begin to pile up outside Staples Center or the Dolby Theatre.
In some neighborhoods, signals are changed so highly observant Jews don’t have to push a button to get a walk sign on the Sabbath.
A concert in Los Angeles State Historic Park, marathons, demonstrations, fireworks displays, art walks and street fairs all qualify for signal overrides.
Hardly a day goes by without rejiggering to accommodate some new occasion for municipal frivolity.
In fact, whoever you are, you can bet someone else has first dibs to the streets. Firetrucks in 2008 were mounted with transponders so the signal software could clear their paths. Certain Metro Rapid buses are given an early or extended green light if they fall behind schedule.
We’re a big, vibrant ball of competing interests, so don’t expect too much from synchronization. Janoyan said as soon as the signal timing was set to encourage east-west movement, north-south street traffic picked up.
“It’s all supply and demand,” Janoyan said. “It’s not something a signal system can resolve.”
We’ll take all the improvement we can get. In the latest traffic study, the city found driving speeds on Sunset Boulevard west of the 405 up 23%. Travel times had dipped 18%. That sounds like progress.
“Is it going to get better?” Janoyan asked. “It’s not going to get worse. We’re trying to not let it get worse.”