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Walking in L.A.: The Data Driven City

Part seven in Walking in L.A., a GOOD miniseries by Ryan Bradley on transportation in Los Angeles and what it's like to get across the entire city on foot.

I'm four stories below ground, across the street from City Hall, in a room with immense steel doors leading to it. There are 16 screens splayed across the semi-circular wall in front of me. Some of the screens are subdivided into smaller screens, and men at desks stare into still more screens surrounded by blinking lights and important-looking buttons. I don't touch anything, except for my pen and notepad and even this happens rarely because, as I stare at all the screens and buttons and listen to the low hum of billions of bytes of data getting processed every second, I find myself falling into a trance.

If Los Angeles does, in fact, have a center for transportation, then I'm standing right in it. And if you happen to be walking, driving, or riding the bus through one of 3,268 intersections throughout the city at approximately 11:15 on this Wednesday morning in late April, then maybe, on one of these 16-plus screens, I'm looking at you. I'm in the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control center, a place straight out of War Games or Enemy of the State or Live Free or Die Hard or any number of movies featuring a really futuristic-looking command center. The place even has a Hollywood-ready acronym: ATSAC.

ATSAC was created for two reasons. First, to adjust traffic signals in real time to respond to events that may cause congestion, like a car accident or a Lakers championship. Before ATSAC, the Department of Transportation had to send someone out into the field to adjust traffic signals. Now, these adjustments can be made throughout the city from this underground bunker next to City Hall, by those men watching those 16 screens, as thousands of cameras trained on thousands of intersections record the goings-on on the streets above. ATSAC was created right before the 1984 Olympics, and the year of ATSAC's creation and the title of George Orwell's famous dystopian novel about Big Brother is one of those neat correlations that writers live to point out.

The second reason ATSAC was created is more prescient and, for our purposes, more important: data. ATSAC collects data about how people move through Los Angeles using street sensors and bus sensors and those thousands of video cameras trained on thousands of city intersections. The engineers working at ATSAC (and it's only engineers working at ATSAC) then calculate travel times, travel speed, air emissions, fuel consumption, and the number of stops from here to there and back again. The super-nerds at ATSAC then spit out algorithms that determine the very rhythm of the city—controlling traffic lights, slowing or speeding up city buses, even plotting new roads.

They're pretty good at what they do, too. In its first 10 years, ATSAC improved travel time and travel speed by 12 percent, reduced traffic delay by 30 percent, and dramatically reduced air emissions. (These figures, and even the word "dramatically," come from ATSAC's own study of itself, so however good it may be at number-crunching, these successes should be taken with a sizable lump of salt—bureaucrats are especially good at making a case for their continued existence.) If ATSAC's engineers could strap a sensor to every car, cyclist, and pedestrian in Los Angeles and record their every movement, they would. In fact, they aren't far from doing just that.

We are not efficient movers. We are bad at driving, terrible in traffic, and worse still if there's a roadside accident. In his fascinating book on traffic (titled, appropriately, Traffic) Tom Vanderbilt writes that "many of us may spend more time in traffic than we do eating meals with our family, going on vacation, or having sex.... We spend more on driving than on food or health care." ATSAC wants to fix this. Somewhere in all that data is, if not the answer, certainly some improvements. I'm here this morning to hobnob with a group of engineers and see the latest, greatest innovation in people-moving in action. It's called a scramble crosswalk, and it comes from Kansas City by way of Tokyo's Shibuya Square, the scramble-y-est of all the scramble crosswalks.

The scramble crosswalk embraces one efficient truth: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It shuts down an intersection in all four directions and allows pedestrians to walk across it any way they want (including diagonally). Benjamin Chan, a transportation engineer at ATSAC, pulls up on screen one of eight scramble crosswalks currently in Los Angeles, right next to USC. There is a lull as the lights change and the intersection empties itself of automobiles. "And..." Chan pauses dramatically, "Go!" he says, and a biker and a few groups of backpacked pedestrians (almost certainly students) pass each other in the middle of the street. There's another scramble crosswalk by UCLA, one on Rodeo Boulevard, and another in Old Town Pasadena. There were, originally, 10 scramble crosswalks throughout the city, but a few in the Garment District were shut down because they were deemed inefficient ("Boxes of clothing were falling down in the middle of the intersection," Chan explains). What this has to do with traffic congestion in Los Angeles is simple: More people walking means fewer cars are on the road. The more efficient walking is, the more desirable it might be. But there is no algorithm for desire.

There are people on the third floor of the CalTrans building with their feet in the air, legs churning upward towards the fluorescent ceiling. It's a familiar motion—they're walking, more or less, but upside down and for exercise only. It looks pretty inefficient and no fun. And it's part of a larger problem, the problem of perception. Specifically, the perception that nobody walks in Los Angeles, and that you, or an employee of the California Department of Transportation, would have to get in exercise by looking like a fool as you upside-down walk in front of a glass window-wall. The truth of it is that walking is good for you and good for the environment and Los Angeles is a great city to walk in—the weather is perfect year-round, there are plenty of sidewalks, and there's a very good chance that, if you live here, you're living about a mile from basic amenities like a grocery store. That's less than a 20-minute walk. But do you walk for your errands? I doubt it. This is why Bruce Gillman is frustrated.

Bruce Gillman is the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's Public Information Officer, which means a lot of people are mad at him and his department a lot of the time. He's trying, but for the most part he's given up on you and moved on to a group of people the DOT actually has a chance of changing. He's focused on school-kids. "People are too stubborn," he says, "If we can get teachers to get their kids walking, to lead by example, we can combat child obesity and reduce traffic all at once." Gillman, like a lot of new arrivals to Los Angeles (he's been here just three years) is fascinated and horrified by the entrenched car culture, which runs so deep Joan Didion once described "the freeway experience" as "the only secular communion Los Angeles has." Gillman is battling this culture war with a campaign for school kids.

But back at ATSAC, they need more data.

Last year, it was announced that ATSAC would receive $150 million to enhance its system. There is talk of using in-car GPS to trace the movements of individual cars throughout the city. They want to add sensors to more city buses. Chan, wide-eyed, recalls a demonstration of London's extensive camera system, where engineers actually zoomed in on individual drivers. "The image was so clear," he says "you could see the driver's face."

And then Chan turns back to his console and the room continues to hum and I walk out the big steel doors and up into the bright, late-morning. I haven't gone half a block before I notice my first video camera, drab and stationary in its white metal box. It's an impersonal thing and yet intensely personal—I am being watched, being added to their data. I don't quite know how to take it, so I quickly continue on, heading north toward Hollywood.

Next up: The relationship between transportation and happiness is... complicated.

Photos by Ryan Bradley.

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