Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates is not the first official in town to take public notice that traffic congestion is a serious problem. But we admire his sense of urgency about doing something before it gets completely out of control.
In a letter to Mayor Tom Bradley, Gates likened the city's increasing automobile traffic to a "catastrophic flood," and warned that it has led to an increasing lack of discipline by both drivers and pedestrians that in turn has led to an increase in accidents. While traffic deaths statewide have declined 5%, Gates noted, those in Los Angeles were up almost 28% between January and August of this year. At that rate there will be 350 deaths and 2,600 major injuries on city streets by the end of the year.
Gates' insistence that something be done is in refreshing contrast to the low-key attitude that local traffic officials take. It is not that traffic engineers at the state and city departments of transportation don't take their jobs seriously, but they do seem more concerned at times with traffic-flow charts, maps and other theoretical aspects of their work than they are about the mess on the streets. Consider the blase response of Donald R. Howery, general manager of the city's Department of Transportation, to Gates' letter: "We're not in a crisis, but we're approaching one."
Like Gates, we think that the crisis is closer than Howery knows. Starting Monday, for example, the city will make the first of several major changes in the flow of downtown streets to help ease increased traffic congestion caused by the construction of the Metro Rail subway. Hill Street, from Temple to 12th streets, will become a one-way artery heading south. That probably will increase northbound traffic on both Broadway and Main Street at a time when several bus routes along Hill are changing--a sure prescription for more confusion even for regular commuters.
Howery and other traffic officials say that they have planned carefully for these changes and others to follow in the next few months, and we are willing to take them at their word for now. But they must be prepared to react rapidly, and decisively, if their computerized plans go awry. Gates' letter contains several good ideas to ease congestion--some borrowed from plans that helped make traffic flow such a pleasant surprise during the 1984 Olympic Games. They include staggering job hours for downtown office workers, especially civil servants; banning truck deliveries during peak commuter hours, and closing certain portions of downtown to all motor traffic except high-occupancy vehicles.
We would add several proposals of our own to Gates' list:
--Tighter restrictions on non-essential construction projects and other work activities that temporarily block city streets, including film crews and their caravans of parked trucks.
--Stricter enforcement of no-parking rules throughout downtown. On some narrow streets a single compact car parked illegally can slow traffic for several blocks.
--The hiring of more traffic-control officers. The City Council has already authorized Howery to add 10 officers to his force, using funds from the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which is building Metro Rail. Many more of the officers than that probably will be needed during the estimated five years that it will take to finish the subway's first leg. A corps of well-trained traffic officers may be the single best solution to the growing traffic crunch. Stationed at key intersections, they can be the most effective answer to gridlock, providing visible authority and human judgment.
These ideas and others will be needed as construction proceeds on the subway and on the adjacent light rail line to Long Beach. Considering the population projections that indicate continued growth throughout the Los Angeles region, the drastic solutions that Gates proposed for traffic control will someday be considered routine--and sooner than some traffic engineers seem to think.