Will Synched Lights Clear A Path Through The City Of Angels?

The city of Los Angeles recently finished a massive project to synchronize all of its 4,500 traffic lights in the hopes of reducing congestion. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon checks in with Kajon Cermak, traffic reporter for member station KCRW in Santa Monica to see how the plan is panning out.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Traffic isn't just a fact of life in Los Angeles. For some, it's the overwhelming fact of life, governing where people live, how they plan their time and work, even personal relationships. West Covina man, Santa Monica woman, it won't work. Too far to drive. Los Angeles has now undertaken an ambitious plan to try to reduce their famed traffic congestion. It's not another freeway or a bike lane on a freeway, but the plan to synchronize every single one of their traffic lights, all 4500 traffic lights. And they say it's the first time for any city in the world.

We're joined now by Kajon Cermak. She reports on traffic from member station KCRW in Santa Monica. Kajon, thanks for being back with us.

KAJON CERMAK, BYLINE: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: How's it working so far?

CERMAK: Well, that depends on who you talk to. The city's transportation department, now they say that you're saving about two minutes of drive time in about a five-mile stretch, you're driving about two miles per hour faster in that same stretch, you're cutting time down at the intersections. But if you talk to the people who are actually driving on the streets, it's a little bit different.

SIMON: So in other words, the government has the statistics to prove things are getting better but the people who are actually driving in the streets don't think it's getting better?

CERMAK: Well, you know, I did an informal poll. I went through Facebook and Twitter and my blog, Short Cuts, and I'm going to say there is a few categories here, about 50 percent of the people that I've talked to see no difference at all. Then the other half, about five categories evenly distributed between people that see a difference, those that don't and think it's even worse, actually, then we have the ones that say they can't really tell because they're sitting in construction.

And, you know, if you are on a road - yeah. If you're on a road that's three lanes and it's down to one lane, well, you're going to be sitting there for a long time watching that light go from green to red to green to red, and you haven't moved one bit. And theoretically, the new system is supposed to take that into consideration. But for sure the people on construction haven't noticed it, felt it, or who knows, maybe they'd be there even longer, but it just feels so bad. It's kind of like, you know, traffic's like dog years, right. For every one minute that you're sitting in traffic it feels like seven years. So we've got the construction people, then we also have the more holistic group of people, and they think it's a little too early...

SIMON: I knew you'd use the word holistic, even in a traffic piece. I do admire you so much. Go ahead, please. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CERMAK: Well, yes, while they're eating really great food, they are saying it's going to take a little more time and that it's a whole picture kind of a thing, more of the through-put; that if you sat down over, you know, and averaged your driving over the last year, you would see a difference in the timing. And then there are the bicyclists.

SIMON: Well, tell us about the bicyclists, 'cause I find that in comprehensible in Los Angeles, you know, except for maybe a little slice along the streets of Santa Monica or something, but...

CERMAK: Well, it's funny. I've talked to a couple of people in the last few days, the cyclists, and they're the only ones that are really telling me that what's going on with the lights? As they're riding their bikes, they're saying that they're hitting every green light, and as they ride by, they're looking at all those poor people sitting in their cars not moving.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Oh, so they're sort of happy with it then, aren't they, come to think of it?

CERMAK: They're very happy. And the bus riders. They have seen a difference on the way the buses are moving.

SIMON: Now is it possible, Kajon, because, you know, traffic planners, city engineers and the like, point out that, you know, they build a new freeway or they make some kind of improvement at the traffic system, and that winds up being counterproductive because more people say, ah-ha, the streets won't be so crowded now; I'm going to drive. Is it possible that in announcing this new plan to synchronize the lights, all officials have done is succeed in inducing more people to drive their cars, putting more of them on the street, creating more congestion?

CERMAK: I think you're absolutely right. I mean, it kind of goes under that theory that if you build it, they will come. I mean, if you add an extra lane, more people get on the freeways. I think that's definitely true.

SIMON: Kajon, let me just put it this way. I suspect, no matter how things improve, they're still going to need a traffic reporter at KCRW, and I'm glad it's you.

(LAUGHTER)

CERMAK: Thank you very much, Scott. That was pretty funny. Thanks.

SIMON: Kajon Cermak, traffic reporter for member station KCRW in Santa Monica. Thanks for being with us again.

CERMAK: My pleasure. Have a good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singeing) Well, wait, my friend, until the light says go. You waited this long, so won't you wait some more? I never see because it's hard to stop, but if you do you (unintelligible) to me a cop...

SIMON: Angelinos, we want to hear from you. Have the city synchronized traffic lights made a difference or has the traffic been just as problematic as ever? We're on Twitter @nprweekend. You can reach me directly @nprscottsimon. I'm all one word, but look, no tweeting, no texting while you're driving. And you're almost always driving. You're in Los Angeles. Let us here from you when you're parked and have a chance.

By the way, you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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