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If cars are the cornerstone of American life, Los Angeles is the king of the car universe. Once again, L.A. is the dubious winner of the U.S. city with the heaviest traffic. We sent our inquisitive Traveler at Large, Tony Kahn, up in a news chopper, to brave the skies above LA's madding rush hour. Tony, per usual, stretched his mission. He wanted to apply chaos theory to the morning commute. Instead he got an up-close experience on how those chopper reporters hunt down their information. And in just a couple of hours, Tony saw plenty of action.

Traffic Copter Tony

By Tony Kahn, 9/7/2001

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Jennifer: "Good morning, everybody, great to be with you on this Thursday, hey, we're almost to the weekend, which is fa-a-a-a-aabulous. . ."
It's 5:30 am and dawn streaks the haze over downtown LA like a big orange June bug streaks a speeding windshield.
Jennifer: "Let me show you what we're zipping by right now. It's downtown, and isn't that neat? Look at that, rrrr-aa-a-a-auh!"
We fly between the skyscrapers and head toward the freeways of Greater Los Angeles District Seven - a 5000 square mile grid of 10 million cars, driving a collective 100 million miles a day.
Jennifer: "On the Southbound side, the car pool and the number one lane are blocked, on the northbound side the carpool lane is blocked . . ."
I'm in the Channel 5 Newscam helicopter with Jennifer York, one of the area's top morning traffic reporters. Everyday at dawn she lifts off from Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley and comes back three hours later with only one break to refuel. This morning is especially tough, her jazz trio was performing at Disneyland till 2 am and she's barely slept.
Jennifer: "Sky Five to the desk, you copy?"
She's a thirteen year veteran of this kind of work, and I've never been in a chopper, but Jennifer and I have a lot in common. We both make a living from traffic. Most of the people who hear me on public radio are in cars, and if they're traveling an LA freeway right now, they're probably also in a jam. Covering those tie-ups is such big business here, Jennifer's got her own flying broadcast studio and plenty of competition.
Jennifer: "There's your chanel 11. Oh, my God, look at her shirt! Holy Toledo! Whooo! Okay . . ."
Like a heart patient wired to an EKG, LA's freeways are monitored by 20,000 embedded copper loops in every lane and the data - along with the video from 140 cameras - are scrutinized by District 7's Transportation Engineers for patterns. The biggest discovery they've made is that the designers of this inconceivably complex system back in the 50s totally underestimated its capacity.
Jennifer: "And look at the delays, holy cow. It's backed up all the way to the East LA interchange."
In defiance of everything people thought they knew about cars and the human nervous system, the average top driving speed of cars when not in a jam here has inched up from 45 to 65 mph. That means a volume of about 2400 cars per hour per lane. Or twice the number of cars they ever thought it could handle. And sooner or later, this much volume - like water rushing off a cliff - is bound to crash.
Jennifer: "There was a 100 car accident that was three miles long, of bumper-to-bumper. That was just about two or three months ago it happened. And that was just - people were not getting home until 9 or 10 o'clock at night."
The big frustration for anyone attempting to get a handle on complex and turbulent systems is their unpredictabilty. The factors that can tip them into chaos can spring from virtually anywhere and blossom fast.
Jennifer: "Say a container splits in two and it spills out - could be something as silly as a load of frozen orange juice. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of orange juice or something. That can shut down a whole freeway for the whole morning."
Forget the accidents or bottlenecks of freeway exits and on-ramps. Over half the area's traffic jams are caused by obstructions that, strictly speaking, don't even exist. Physicists call them floating bottlenecks. Say a driver gets distracted and swerves. Happens all the time. The driver behind her breaks. There's no collision, not even a stop, just a crimp in the flow, like a twang to a spring. But that twang reverberates down the road to the next floating bottleneck, caused, say, by another innocent slowdown, amplifying and disrupting taffic flow for miles. By the time the thousandth stuck driver finally gets to the point where the highway clears, of course, there is nothing there. These floating bottlenecks arrive without notice, like mosquitos at dusk. Having bitten, they linger like malaria.
Jennifer: "The ramifications of one little event can be really huge. Something minute having this huge rippling effect. That's the case. And that's bnecause there's just too many people in too small of a space."
Floating bottlenecks are also the freeway's final irony. For many of them take shape from our most decent human qualities. Anticipation, curiosity, even the desire to slow down and help. They are our virtues magnified into a disaster. It is why I have come here today - to try to catch a floating bottle neck the moment it forms and see what I can learn.
Pilot: "Something's going on . . ."
Jennifer: "Go ahead!"
No such luck. 7 am and we have to interrupt the search. A news story has just broken on the ground.
Jennifer: "We're hearing about some police activity, but I can't figure out where that is. What is it? Oh, okay, La Brea and Third. You're saying he's got what going on?"
Desk: "Wilshire Division Police are now confirming they believe there's a gun - "
Someone has called 911 to say there was a man parked in the lot of a Ralph's 24 hour grocery store at...La Brea and Third...sitting in the front seat with a gun in his lap. Police are at the scene, but he's not responding to their orders to come out.
Jennifer: "Yeah, but how long has he been parked there, do you know?"
Desk: "They don't know, they don't know."
SkyCam 5 banks sharply and, putting the freeways behind it, heads downtown. Three other news copters have beat us to the scene. All of them zooming their cameras into Ralph's parking lot at a little red car, a guy passed out behind the wheel in a white shirt, and the silver pistol in his lap.
Pilot: "He's got it."
Jennifer: "Go right and then go right and tilt up and there's a red car, go right a little bit, it's to your right, a teeny bit right, ooop! Tilt up, a little bit more, tilt up a little bit more - there! There's the red car! Go to the right, no, no, tilt up a teeny bit, tilt up, go to your right now, it'll be right in your shot. Right there, that red car there! That's what Channel 7 was showing, that guy!"
Desk: "So, Sky Five I guess we've locked in America's attention. I don't think we're going to be going anywhere anytime soon."
The developing story, vague as it is, makes the top of the next news hour.
Jennifer: "Good morning, everybody, we are over the intersection of La Brea and Third and as we zoom in on this red car, you'll see a driver there with a white shirt on and apparently at around five o'clock this morning Police received a 911 call saying this individual has a gun. Now, they're not quite sure if he's unconscious or if he's sleeping or if he's intoxicated. . . "
Things at Ralph's are getting crowded.
Jennifer: "Now we've got police here you can see with their guns drawn behind the van, we've got snipers on the roof, so this man is really well covered, but he just hasn't really moved."
Meanwhile, inner city traffic in the area, cut off from one more route to the Freeways, piles up.
Jennifer: "They've closed obviously the Ralph's parking lot and also the Eastbound side of Third Street at La Brea."
Traffic has been mounting in the parking lot, too. Another police vehicle pulls in, looking like a cross between a hospital bed and a lawn mower. Apparently, it's what the police use to disarm a bomb.
Jennifer: "We've got the Wilshire Division police department on the scene and they've brought in a robot and we're trying to find out exactly what they're going to do with the robot. Possibly pass along a cell phone to the man? Possibly just take closer pictures? And again, the man is passed out, so he's not responding to anyt of the officers and hopefully maybe he'll respond to this robot. And they're just kinda waiting for the guy to kind of . . . wake up!"
The police have also moved in a small tank. Aside from taking up more parking space, it's not clear what it's doing there either.
Jennifer: "What are these guys doing now? Why is this taking so . . . How could this take so long? What is he doing?"
Time flies in a situation like this, even if our chopper and the other five copters now hovering around us have barely moved. We're running out of gas . . .
Jennifer: "Why is this taking so . . . How could this take so long? What is he doing? I think the guy's in heavy duty sleep now, he's in like REM mode . . ."
But it's been almost three hours since this whole business began, we're running out of gas, and unless we want to thicken the mess below by crashing into it, we've got to go.
Jennifer: "I have not seen him move - at all!"
The morning news cast and the morning commute are almost over. And I realize I'll probably never see a floating bottleneck. But it doesn't matter. Outside my window there's something far more bizarre. Six helicopters glued to the same spot in the sky, draining their last drop of gas, and staring at the same point on the ground 1400 feet below. Not a floating bottleneck, but a flying bottleneck, created from the congestion below and adding to the chaos by the sheer act of observing it, complicating an already senseless collective mess with perfectly sensible individual actions. From Skycam five, this is Tony Kahn, with millions of othe jammed angelinos, and television viewers across America, watching a man sleep it off.
Jennifer: "What are they gonna do with the robot?. . .Go knock on the door? . . . Uh, jeeze Louise...*sigh*..."

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