By Mariel Garza, December 3, 2013
Like many, perhaps too many, other Angelenos, I drive a lot for work.
Not only is my office 22 miles from my home, but on any given day I may
have to head to one of the Los Angeles New Groups’ other eight offices.
It could be Woodland Hills (25 miles from home) or Long Beach (27
miles) or San Bernardino (68 miles) or even Redlands, which is so far
from L.A. it seems like it must be in another state.
Because of this I rely heavily on what has in the past been a pretty helpful tool: the Sigalert iPhone app.
This app, which I probably have used more than any other single
function on my smartphone, including the phone function, has saved me
countless hours in traffic, identifying trouble spots before I ended up
in the middle of them. I use the past tense here, because in recent
months that Sigalert app has been increasingly less helpful, which is a
nice way of saying it has an accuracy issue.
Not only has it not
sigalerted me to terrible traffic snarls, but in some cases it leads me
right into them with promises of traffic flowing like a Sierra stream in
Here’s an example from Sunday: Everyone who escaped to the desert
for the holiday weekend, it seemed, tried to get through the
Interstate 10 Whitewater-Cabazon pass at the same time. This is not
unusual, and not wholly unexpected. And it was an epic traffic jam
visible to anyone in it.
But it simply didn’t exist to my app, no
matter how many times I refreshed it. In fact, it indicated that heavy
traffic on the westbound 10 loosened up — going from red to green — at
the Highway 62 junction, where I was getting on. But that’s where the
worst jam actually started, as the cars, trucks and RVs from Joshua Tree
and other high-desert vacation spots emptied into the heavy flow of the
10. Stop and go — mostly stop — all the way west to Banning. Not that I
could have avoided this particular snarl without getting off the
freeway and trying to find out how to get across to the frontage road.
But I was still surprised my Sigalert app couldn’t pick it up. Also, it
would have been helpful to know where it ended. I had dinner plans in
Now, I’m not blaming the Sigalert folks for the gaps in information. The Sigalert app is a iPhone version of sigalert.com, the fine website that bases its freeway speeds on data collected from Caltrans scans. And therein lies the problem, at least in part.
An Associated Press story last week
reported that, of the 27,000 Caltrans traffic sensors embedded in
California’s freeways, a full third don’t work. Caltrans officials told
the AP that they have gone dark for a number of reasons including
getting old and conking out, getting damaged by road crews and, most
disturbing, being removed by thieves, an idea that brings to mind
terrifying images of people dodging vehicles doing 75 at night.
L.A. is missing a lot of sensors, but the AP story indicates the
outage is even worse in San Bernardino and Riverside counties (the
latter in which the Sunday jam occurred).
Caltrans should figure
out how to fix these dark sensors. Thousands of people rely on accurate
data to make smart choices about driving — or not driving. Consider how
2012’s Carmageddon played out. It could have been a mess of historic
proportions. But with good information from transportation officials
(and not a little pleading), it was one of the best driving days around
the greater Los Angeles area.
Traffic data is not just a luxury for heavy commuters like me, it’s vital to keeping the economy humming and motorists sane.
officials responded that they are working on replacing the sensors, but
clearly not fast enough as the number of dark sensors grows. Perhaps
they agency should ask for local help, such as from Los Angeles County’s
half-cent sales tax Measure R.
Having up-to-date and reliable, real-time traffic data seems to be an
acceptable expenditure of Measure R’s billion. Or even help from the
private sector. I know I’d shell out some cash for a traffic app that
had its eyes wide open.