$400 Million Later and L.A. Is the First Major City With Synchronized Red Lights

Los Angeles is a great city for a lot of reasons. Traffic is not one of them.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
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Los Angeles is a great city for a lot of reasons. Traffic is not one of them. So, over the past three decades, the city's spent nearly half a billion dollars creating the "the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system." In brief, the city just synched up its 4,500 red lights. Traffic-measuring magnets, cameras and many many computers are involved in what The New York Times calls "one of the world's most comprehensive systems for mitigating traffic." Sounds pretty awesome, right? The only problem: It might not work that well.

This isn't necessarily the city leaders' fault if the expensive new system doesn't solve all of its traffic problems. The system does a lot of things really well. Those magnetic sensors, for instance, work kind of alike a million virtual crossing guards, taking advantage of breaks and redirecting traffic when the road gets congested. "When buses are running behind schedule, the network automatically extends green lights in bus-only lanes," explains Ian Lovett at The Times. "When roads are closed for special events, like the Oscars or a presidential visit, light patterns direct cars to other streets, though that does not always solve the problem."

However, Los Angeles needs to keep its eyes on bigger solutions for the future. Since the new system, which started moving towards full scale functionality recently, was designed before the 1984 Olympics, parts of the plan are obviously outdated — though it worked miraculously at the time. Furthermore, as Los Angeles continues to grow, more cars will flood the roadways, at least until the city comes up with a suitable alternative in public transportation which has never been the city's strong suit. The city says that traffic should move 16 percent faster thanks to the new synchronized light system, but as traffic experts point out, less congestion only encourages more people to drive rather than seek alternatives.

It seems like every city planner's got her own theory on how to stop urban congestion. Our favorite is the Minority Report-style "virtual traffic light" system. Eric Jaffe explains over at The Atlantic Cities:

The basic world of Virtual Traffic Lights operates like this: as you approach an intersection, your car transmits data, such as location and speed, to other nearby cars. The virtual system processes this information for all the cars in the area, with the help of a lead car that changes every cycle, and determines your individual traffic signal. Instead of seeing a red or green light hanging in the intersection, you see it on your windshield and stop or go accordingly.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, if it takes Los Angeles 30 years to synchronize existing traffic lights, it'll probably take a hundred to equip every car on the road with a wireless beacon and windshield projector. Which is kind of hilarious since The Los Angeles Times thought we would have similar "smart cars" that eradicated the city's traffic problem by 2013. Keep dreaming, California. That's why we love you.

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