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Flow, Baby, Flow

Photos courtesy of CLUI

It is growing. Silently and swiftly beneath our feet, it is coming into being. The neurons of its brain are reaching out, branching and making connections with one another. Soon they will be interlinked to form one of the largest and most complex “minds” on earth. Gaining awareness with each new node, the system itself is coming alive.

No, I am not talking about the Internet, but the Los Angeles–area traffic-control system. Already the most highly developed and computerized traffic system in the world, it is on the cusp of a major evolutionary leap. “Loop Feedback Loop,” a new exhibition at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Culver City, both celebrates and illuminates the hidden organism of L.A. traffic control.

Contrary to Descartes’ famous epigram, the key to being lies not in thinking but in sensing. As neuroscience increasingly makes clear, it is awareness rather than ratiocination that constitutes the essence of mind. The raw sensory input for the traffic-control organism is provided by inductive loops buried in the asphalt. Every time we drive over a loop, it clicks and relays information to a central node in the basement of City Hall known as Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC). “These clicks build up a picture of the system,” CLUI director Matt Coolidge explains, “so that cars become digits or pixels in this overall picture of the traffic flow.”

The statistics of Los Angeles traffic are truly monstrous: Collectively, 11 million residents make 30 million vehicle trips per day, totaling 100 million miles of driving. The most congested intersection in the nation is the meeting of the 405 and the 101 in Sherman Oaks. The busiest stretch of highway is on the 60 in Diamond Bar, at the intersection of the 57, through which more than 350,000 vehicles pass each day. All those cars, all that information — much of which comes pouring through the wires to ATSAC.

At present there are 12,000 traffic monitoring loops connected into ATSAC’s system, which covers the city of L.A. Thousands more are buried in the freeways; Beverly Hills, Pasadena and other incorporated cities have similar systems, as does the state — Caltrans also operates a Traffic Monitoring Center downtown. But it’s ATSAC’s engineers who are developing the tools to make the system “conscious.”

At ATSAC headquarters one recent morning, I get to watch the beast in action. Dimly lit and filled with computers, the control room is dominated by a wall of video projections, each a live camera feed from one of L.A.’s major intersections. Top left is the corner of Barham and Cahuenga. To the right of that is the intersection of the Hollywood Freeway and Vermont; further along the wall is the crossing of Exposition and Figueroa. That’s just a temporary lineup; ATSAC engineers can call up any one of their 250 cameras to check out the action. It’s reality television for trainspotters.

“We all spend thousands of hours driving each year,” CLUI co-curator Steve Rowell later tells me. “There are hundreds of cameras watching us, and nobody even notices.” The real heart of ATSAC, however, is not the cameras but the digital monitoring technology. Along with the inductive loops, ATSAC has also wired some 3,000 intersections — each one sends a signal to the control room every second. That information is fed into a suite of specially developed software programs known as “the traffic client” that enable ATSAC engineers such as Kartik Patel to observe and control our roads with unprecedented precision. All this comes at a cost: $250 million over the past 20 years.

Like many engineers, Patel speaks with passionate engagement about his work. Unfortunately, post-9/11, I am not allowed to quote him directly — all press quotes must come from ATSAC’s engineer in charge of the ATSAC Center. Dan Mitchell, I am told. But Patel is allowed to take me through the system and introduce me to one of the coolest computer games anywhere. “The traffic client,” at its broadest view, provides a graphic map of the entire region, from which engineers can zoom in to a detailed display of any given area, right down to the level of a single intersection. As Coolidge notes, “It’s a panopticon of sorts.”

At my request, Patel zooms in to the junction of Fairfax Avenue with Olympic and San Vicente boulevards, an intersection I navigate constantly. The image on the screen is like a children’s-book illustration, with blocky graphics delineating the curbs, the traffic lanes and the zebra crossings. Little rectangles of red and green and yellow indicate the status of traffic lights. As a CGI effect it harks back to the Paleolithic era, yet there is something innately fascinating about watching from afar real things happening in real time. Before you know it, you’re rooting for that light on Fairfax to go green.

 

So much for surveillance — what about control? In fact, ATSAC can reconfigure the system at will, changing the timing of lights to optimize traffic flow according to the immediate need. During the recent Academy Awards, Patel was at the controls to speed the glide of the limos and to ensure that the world’s glitziest evening wasn’t derailed by a Sig Alert. With more regular problem areas, such as the streets surrounding Dodger Stadium, “the traffic client” can automatically recognize the buildup of congestion before or after a game and trigger a specialized program to manage the intensified flow.

ATSAC has a way to go. Some 1,300 signalized intersections are still not wired into “the traffic client” system; the goal is to have almost all of them incorporated within the next few years. Right now, Coolidge notes, the system is evolving rapidly. Just in the past week, a further 100 intersections have been added from the San Diego Freeway corridor in the Valley. The L.A. County Department of Public Works is currently building its own ATSAC-like control center in Alhambra, while Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol are joining forces in a new freeway control center under construction in Glendale. These individual systems are also being integrated and will soon be able to read one another’s data. Once they’re hooked up, a supersystem will be born, and the organism will have taken a giant step up the evolutionary ladder.

 

A typical CLUI exhibition — documentary photographs, deadpan explanatory texts and live video feed from a couple of ATSAC cameras — “Loop Feedback Loop” is straightforward, straight shooting and immensely informative. This is the institution’s great strength — public information as public art form.

The traffic exhibition follows on from last year’s “Ground Up,” a show about the scintillating subject of dirt and rock. One of the major uses for ground-up rock is, of course, asphalt, and Rowell notes that “the traffic-control show seems to be a natural progression from there. It’s about the technology mounted on the asphalt.” In May, the Center will host the third installment in what Rowell calls “this informal series to do with the street,” this one on emergency training, focusing on the LAPD, the CHP and the Sheriff’s office.

Stuck on the 405 southbound at 5:15, you might find it hard to believe that all this technology is doing anything, but Patel tells a story of an incident 15 years ago when a disgruntled councilman questioned the system’s efficacy. ATSAC simply turned off all its monitoring and control apparatus and left the lights on their default settings. In a matter of hours, the councilman was begging them to turn the system back on.

And that’s how it goes: The more complex our lives become the more technological assistance we need just to maintain order. If you think it’s bad with computers, imagine the hell without them.

“Loop Feedback Loop” continues at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City, through April 4; call (310) 839-5722. On Friday, March 19, at 7 p.m., CLUI will host a lecture by traffic-control engineer Steve Rostam from Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control. First come, first served; admission is free.

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