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New Signals to Light Way for L.A. Left Turners

Mayor adds more traffic officers too, trying to ease the commute at scores of intersections in the city where drivers can only sit and fume.

April 26, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

At 4:25 on a recent weekday afternoon, the traffic on Highland Avenue at Sunset Boulevard stretches north and south as far as the weary eye can see.

Some of the motorists, being human and therefore given to hopefulness, are intending to turn left onto Sunset. Because no left-turn arrows exist for them, they could be facing a long, long wait as only two of their number complete turns each time the light changes to red. Or, worse, an impatient left turner could force himself into the intersection, get hung up and block all traffic.

Fortunately, Los Angeles traffic control officers Tony Yancey and Albert Fua are on the case, striding in rotation around the intersection, waving and pumping their arms at the interminable parade of cars. Whenever the line of left turners grows to six or eight or 10 or 12, the officers stop the straight-ahead traffic, despite its having the green light, and direct as many of the turners on their way as possible without provoking the straight-aheads into open revolt.

"Nobody's going to be completely satisfied," Yancey says as vehicles move all around him.

The same herky-jerky rush-hour drama is played out at scores of major intersections in car-dependent Los Angeles. Even at intersections with left-turn arrows, drivers often sit and stew as they count the number of vehicles that manage to make the turn in one signal cycle. Some motorists resort to a roundabout series of right turns to ease their frustration.

In Los Angeles, the left turn is a signature preoccupation, and it was a significant issue in last year's mayoral campaign.

The city's Department of Transportation has accelerated a campaign to install 450 more left-turn signals at major intersections, including on Highland at Sunset, but that will take four years. Traffic on L.A. streets, meanwhile, grows heavier by the year.

People condemned to drive every day on the city's surface streets can recite names of intersections where making a left turn is more a matter of prayer than of rational traffic management.

"The other day, we were going west on Adams and trying to make a left on Figueroa, and we stood there for a good eight minutes," said George Burkhardt. As district manager of both the downtown and Crenshaw offices of the Automobile Club of Southern California, he often must entrust his fate to the gods of left turning.

"Jefferson east to McClintock, down by USC: That one's horrendous. It's the same thing at Hoover a block down from there," he said. "Going west on Vernon and trying to make a left on Crenshaw is a problem too. Going east on Jefferson and then trying to go left on Vermont -- you can't do it. I mean, you can, but you're there for a long time."

Last fall, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa initiated a congestion relief plan that deploys 50 traffic officers, including Yancey and Fua, at 38 arrow-less intersections during peak driving times.

In addition, the City Council has goosed the Transportation Department to speed up the installation of more left-turn arrows.

"Our vision is to have them at all approaches where two major roads intersect," said John E. Fisher, assistant general manager of the department's transportation operations. "It's probably going to take four years -- and probably five more after that -- to reach our goal."

About 1,700 left-turn signals serve about 1,200 L.A. intersections. After the 450 new arrows are installed, the city hopes to add 500 more.

Motorists might take scant comfort in the fact, but Los Angeles already has more left-turn arrows than some other large cities. In the five boroughs of New York, for example, 7% of signaled intersections, major and minor, have left-turn arrows. In L.A., the equivalent figure is 28%.

Despite the recent increase in arrows, accidents involving left turns in Los Angeles have held more or less steady: in the low 6,000s, about 16% of all traffic mishaps in the city. Congestion at intersections, moreover, has not abated.

The reason is that a lot more cars are navigating city streets now than even a few years ago. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, more than 7.5 million vehicles are registered in L.A. County, about a million more than in 2000.

Installing a green arrow is not as simple as hanging another signal. Fisher said it typically takes two months and costs about $18,000. A new arrow usually involves installing a bigger, heavier pole that requires a deeper foundation. It also requires a longer mast arm so that the left-turn signal reaches nearer the left-turn lane.

Workers often must also dig trenches in the roadway to install new electrical conduits and detectors that sense when several cars are waiting to turn left. These detectors trigger today's "smart" signals to flash a green arrow when four or five cars are queued up.

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