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Inside L.A.'s Quest to Fix the Nation’s Most Congested City



LA traffic engineer and traffic light
Edward Yu, a senior traffic engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, oversees the operations of ATSAC.

August 6, 2013 By

In the 2003 remake of the film The Italian Job, a gang of crooks decides to steal a safe full of gold while it’s being transported by armored truck through the streets of Los Angeles. But they face a hurdle: How can they plan the heist when they don’t know which route their target will take?

“You gridlock every route except the one we choose,” Mark Wahlberg’s character tells his team. “Force the truck to go exactly where we want it to go.”

The plan goes off without a hitch. The team hacks into the Los Angeles Department of Transportation computer system and intentionally sets all the traffic lights to green in order to jam up the intersections, while simultaneously creating an opening that steers their target toward the spot where they want to strike. All the while, the city’s traffic engineers look on, hopelessly befuddled.

The real-life system featured in the movie is L.A.’s Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system, or ATSAC. Edward Yu, the senior traffic engineer who oversees ATSAC, says he gets asked about The Italian Job constantly, and he always has the same reply. No way, he says, could Wahlberg and his team manipulate the city’s traffic lights the way they did in the movie. “It has a logic,” Yu says of the system, which is programmed to prevent conflicting green lights. “It wouldn’t allow you to do that.”

In reality, ATSAC is a much more sophisticated system than The Italian Job let on. This spring, after years of development, Los Angeles reached a milestone that few other, if any, major cities can claim: Every single traffic light -- all 4,398 of them -- can be monitored and controlled remotely. Today, ATSAC is quite possibly L.A.’s most powerful weapon in its ongoing war on traffic jams.


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