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Oh, and by the way, it doesn't matter how many times you press the pedestrian walkway button. Push it a million times if you want, but it is only "heard" once. When you push the button to cross the street, an input signal is given to the controller and a 1200-baud signal is sent downtown. The "walk" signal appears, giving the pedestrian ample time to cross -- at 3.2 feet per second.
BOB AND I ARE BACK IN THE CAR DRIVING DOWNtown to City Hall. "There's Patriotic Hall," Blackmer says. "My grandfather was the cement contractor on that building in 1925. I put our second camera on top of that building."
While we're driving, I ask Blackmer what he'd do if he caught a crime in progress on any of the 135 citywide cameras monitoring intersections. "If we saw something illegal, we'd call 911," Blackmer responds, clearly uncomfortable with the topic. "But really, we don't want to get involved with that." A few years ago, the LAPD tried to get access to ATSAC cameras. Blackmer denied their requests. The City Council tried to pressure ATSAC politically. Finally, the department convinced the mayor that it is not a good idea for traffic cameras to be used by law enforcement. "Just imagine if the cops were using our cameras for narcotics abatement," Blackmer says. "We'd be in court every day. The bad guys would soon figure it out and start vandalizing ATSAC equipment."
We arrive at City Hall East, where the entire ATSAC system feeds into a minimainframe computer in a traffic-management control center four floors underground. Blackmer swipes his security card through the reader, and we enter a large room with long semicircular consoles with computers. On the wall are 15 large monitors showing busy intersections, overseen by Azzam Jabsheh, a clean-cut veteran of 14 years with the department. Jabsheh, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, was appointed to control-room supervisor two years ago. Along with his five team members, Jabsheh manages the control room and fields citizen complaints over the phone. Seven to 10 calls per week come in, mostly from pedestrians who say the timing is off at their intersection. "Serving the peds" is department shorthand for ensuring proper signal timing.
Jabsheh is watching camera 102, which is set high above the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. "Those people are standing in line to buy Star Wars tickets at Mann's Chinese Theater," he says, pointing to the crowd gathered there. A master calendar of events from venues that draw crowds -- Dodger Stadium, Hollywood Bowl, the Coliseum and the Greek Theater -- has been programmed into the system, as have various municipal projects. Jabsheh pans the camera to the nearby MTA subway station under construction. Enormous earth-moving trucks queue up to exit the site. "The normal cycle gives the trucks 10 seconds to clear the intersection," Jabsheh explains. "If they look like they need it, I'll make it 20."
Finally, Jabsheh hands me a tiny joystick and allows me to control the camera of my choice. I zoom into my neighborhood location, Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards. There are people strolling. Cars passing. I feel like a spy in the House of Traffic.
"Tell your readers about this room of people downtown," Blackmer instructs as I continue to pan and tilt, "all these people watching their matchbox cars. It just might make life on the streets a little easier to know we're here." It will at least discourage drivers from backing up in intersections to make the light change. As with the pedestrian walk button, persistence is futile.