After 30 Years, LA Synchs Its Traffic Lights: Too Little, Too Late?

April 3, 2013

Is it just us, or does roadway construction seem like an exercise in futility?

How many times have you seen crews pack up after adding an extra lane of highway, leaving the road just as clogged as it was before? Couldn't the team have added two lanes (or three), just to save time down the line? It's as if construction projects are done to resolve current problems without giving much thought to problems that might arise in the future.

According to an article in the New York Times, a recently completed traffic abatement project in Los Angeles may suffer from the same shortcomings.


In the early 1980s, the Los Angeles Transportation Department began working on something called the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system. Its goal? To synchronize every last one of LA's 4,500 traffic signals, giving hope that commuters might be able to travel the length of the city without stopping for a light.

Now, some 30 years and $400 million later, the city has finally completed the project. And the results...well, they're not entirely impressive. The Transportation Department says that traffic now moves 16% faster, and the pace at intersections is up 12%. That's boosted the average Angeleno's travel speed to 17.3 mph (up from 15 mph), and reduced the time it takes to drive five miles to about 17.2 minutes (down from 20).

Why haven't the results been better? Because despite the vast number of roadway sensors, cameras, and other high-tech gadgetry that's been deployed to keep LA traffic moving smoothly, the number of cars on the road has continued to increase. 

The dilemma is a bit like the issue of saving time in our daily work. Over the past century, "time-saving" devices have reduced the number of hours we once spent on tasks like washing clothes, cooking meals, and writing books. But human beings never use that "saved" time to relax; we've just found other ways to keep ourselves busy, meaning that we're always trying to create more "time-saving" devices, which allow us to occupy our time in other ways, and so on, and so on.

To engineering professor James E. Moore II, traffic faces similar troubles. Moore says that when traffic is diminished, it simply encourages more people to get out on the roads. "[P]art of the benefit is not speed, but throughput".

The tide could turn, of course. Young people aren't as interested in owning cars: they're taking mass transit, riding bikes, and walking where they need to go (even in LA). For many employees, there are increasing options to work from home. Over time, factors like those could reduce the number of folks on the road.

But for now, it's just as crowded as ever. 

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