By Tony Kahn, 4/19/2002 (Originally aired 4/7/2001)
It's 5:30 am and dawn streaks the haze over downtown L.A. like a big orange June bug streaks a speeding windshield.
We fly between the skyscrapers and head toward the freeways of Greater Los Angeles District 7 -- a 5,000-square-mile grid of 10 million cars, driving a collective 100 million miles a day.
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 3 hours later with only one break to refuel. This morning is especially tough -- her jazz trio was performing at Disneyland till 2 a.m., and she's barely slept.
She's a 13-year veteran of this kind of work, and, while I've never been in a chopper, 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 L.A. 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.
Like a heart patient wired to an EKG, L.A.'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.
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 2,400 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.
The big frustration for anyone attempting to get a handle on complex and turbulent systems is their unpredictability. The factors that can tip them into chaos can spring from virtually anywhere, and blossom fast.
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 traffic 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.
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.
No such luck. Nearly 7:00 am and we have to interrupt the search. A news story has just broken on the ground.
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.
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.
The developing story, vague as it is, makes the top of the next news hour.
Things at Ralph's are getting crowded.
Meanwhile, inner city traffic in the area, cut off from one more route to the freeways, piles up.
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.
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.
Time flies in a situation like this, even if our chopper and the other 5 'copters now hovering around us have barely moved. We're running out of gas.
But it ha been almost 3 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.
The morning newscast 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 1,400 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 other jammed Angelenos, and television viewers across America, watching a man sleep it off.
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