April 3, 2013 By Ryan Holeywell
Last month, Los Angeles city officials finalized work on the final stage of a state-of-the-art traffic system that could go a long way in easing the city's seemingly unending gridlock.
Every traffic signal in the city -- all 4,300-plus of them -- is now part of the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control System (ATSAC), an advanced network that allows engineers to communicate with and monitor traffic signals remotely. City officials say it will help reduce congestion and boost travel speeds.
Work on ATSAC began in preparation of the 1984 Olympics. Thirty years later, Los Angeles is the largest city in the country to have complete remote control over every single one of its traffic lights, according to the city's Department of Transportation (LA DOT). Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pitched the system early in his first term as a crucial way to increase travel speeds without having to add lanes. He also said the technology will have a positive environmental impact, since it will reduce idling. With the implementation of ATSAC, the mayor's office says travel times in Los Angeles will be 12 percent less.
The system's completion -- after years of stop-and-go progress -- is credited in large part to Villaraigosa and the $150 million the city received after California voters approved Proposition 1B in 2006. Completing the endeavor required bringing about 1,100 unsynchronized intersections online and retrofitting another 1,200 with new technology. Edward Yu, a senior engineer who's worked for LA DOT nearly 20 years and oversees ATSAC, says its impact can't be understated. Traffic in some Los Angeles corridors, he says, "wouldn't be able to move ... if we didn't have the system online."
Of course, Angelinos won't avoid congestion altogether, especially on freeways. But under the improved system, there's a variety of ways traffic can be controlled to run more efficiently on surface streets. For example, traffic signals are timed along corridors to increase the number of green lights. Sensors at intersections measure the volume of traffic going in each direction, and computer programs can respond by cycling the traffic signals in a way that minimizes gridlock. The entire system can be manually overridden -- from a central command center downtown -- allowing traffic officials to make changes and tweaks at a moment's notice to respond to construction, disasters, accidents and special events.