Consider how sweet the rush hour would be if cars and trucks only moved in two directions. Motorist could zip along without being slowed by those pesky lights that allow the cross traffic to get by.
Trouble is, L.A. streets are not two-way affairs. At major intersections, traffic flows in four and even more directions and that's why Mayor James Hahn's plan to synchronize lights along 35 of the city's major arterial streets is only getting mixed reviews from merchants and traffic engineers.
The good news: Drivers are already saving time and gasoline on two of the designated streets where the system is already in place. But what's the impact on the side streets, some of them major thoroughfares, to Olympic, Wilshire, Lankershim and Victory boulevards?
"It is a great improvement more than it is a detriment," Lew Gluesing, vice president and division manager of traffic and transportation services at municipal consulting firm Willdan, said of the program. "That doesn't mean that (motorists on) individual streets might not suffer more."
Those longer waits, Gluesing said, could create a snowball effect where traffic backs up on large feeder streets, such as Fairfax Avenue near the intersections of both Olympic and Wilshire boulevards. That, in turn, will create delays for motorists turning from smaller side streets onto the feeder street, where they will pull into greater congestion.
The result is that a single-lane feeder street that might otherwise have three to five vehicles waiting at the red light will now have as many as 10 to 12 vehicles, Gluesing said.
"(The program) could change the traffic patterns a bit," said Gluesing. "Traffic wants to be like water. It wants to travel the path of least resistance."
Sahar Moridani, a Hahn spokeswoman, said that contrary to what traffic consultants say, the stringent enforcement of rush hour parking bans along the arterials will help free up traffic on side streets.
"If people are free to use the right lane as a travel lane during rush hour, instead of having to constantly stop and drive around a car that's parked illegally, then rush hour commutes will be much smoother," she said.
There is also a question whether the Street Smart program, as Hahn has dubbed his plan, will become a victim of its own success by attracting more commuters to the arteries with synchronized lights and generating more volume than the boulevards can handle.
Speed picks up
"It's not clear yet if there will be any significant amount of diversions," said John Fisher, assistant general manager at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. "After each implementation, we conduct an after-study to make sure that traffic is still flowing better than before. If we see a significant diversion and a slower time in traffic, then we will retime the signals even more."
Initial traffic studies of streets where the program already has been put in place are positive.
Commuters' average speeds on the 16-mile stretch of Victory Boulevard between Topanga Canyon and Cahuenga boulevards improved by nearly 2.7 miles per hour in the morning and 5.5 mph in the evening, according to the DOT.
On Olympic Boulevard, from Santa Monica through to downtown L.A., speeds increased by 6.3 mph during the morning rush and by 3.4 mph in the evening rush, according to the agency.
The L.A. system is not coordinated with those of other cities, and as a result the flow on Olympic, Wilshire, Santa Monica, Sunset and La Cienega boulevards, all part of the program, will be disrupted when traffic hits Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.
And while the Transportation Department tracked the impact on the arterial streets, no traffic studies were conducted on the feeder streets, which are now less of a concern to traffic officials.
"The reason why we are giving more priority to these (arterial) streets is because they carry more traffic," said Fisher. "Those are the streets that motorists throughout the Los Angeles area depend most on for cross-town traffic."
Tell that to David Saul, vice president of Junior's Restaurant on the west side of Westwood Boulevard, between Olympic and Pico boulevards.
Saul said southbound traffic from Olympic has gotten so bad that he is losing customers because northbound drivers can't make a left turn into his eatery. "I see more southbound traffic now than I ever have," he said. "We
need to mitigate our traffic, not increase it."
Higher traffic volume on feeder streets does not necessarily translate into better sales for businesses located there, but in some cases frustration among regular customers, according to Brendon Huffman, director of public policy for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
"It impacts productivity, adds to the cost of doing business and it's also a quality of life factor," he said. "We see a lot of businesses moving outside of this region to get away from the traffic."
Olympic and Ventura boulevards are the first two roadways to have the program implemented, and the city plans to have it in place on another seven by June 30, 2005.
Lights along Venice Boulevard are now being resynchronized, and the remaining roads to be made "smart" through next June are Colorado Boulevard, Western and La Brea avenues, Balboa Boulevard, Devonshire Street and Sepulveda Boulevard.
Each workday, the 35 streets in the program handle 30,000 to 80,000 vehicles, according to Hahn's office.
The planned timeline already has some community groups concerned the backups on crossroads will spill into their neighborhoods. The concern is heightened in Century City, which is sandwiched in between Santa Monica and Olympic boulevards, both on the Street Smart list.
The area is already living with the overhaul of a 2.5-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that is seven months behind schedule and $10 million over its original $67.5 million budget.
"This community has already endured unimaginable congestion of people trying to get in and out of Century City," said Robyn Ritter Simon, president and chief executive of the Century City Chamber of Commerce. "The thought that they will still be here in the spring of 2006 when it is only October 2004 is appalling."
Fisher said traffic lights on Santa Monica Boulevard will not be retimed until the expansion work is complete.
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