Angelenos Get Aid With Daily Commute - Street by Street

Continuous radio broadcast about traffic individualizes road conditions for drivers

THE nation's most congested city has a new weapon against traffic.

Unveiled here last week - and due in 30 United States cities over the next five years - were both the nation's first all-traffic radio channel, and an inexpensive accessory to let drivers hear free, continuous, and regionally specific traffic reports.

Consolidating information gathered by helicopter, airplane, and mobile units as well as street sensors of Caltrans Traffic Operations Center and the California Highway Patrol, reports are broadcast using special region codes. The codes are received by commuters tuning to the reports on in-car audio devices. Since the reports are region-specific and updated continuously over a 20-hour period, the new channel and device (known as "Autotalk") are being heralded by several independent experts as a significan t national milestone in traffic abatement.

"Localizing and customizing information to the individual commuter without making him wait for [a] news break, is a significant and major innovation," says C. Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corporation, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

The unveiling comes at a crucial moment for local officials here struggling with controversial air pollution proposals and estimates that traffic delays will jump 200 percent by 2005. Nine of the nation's 10 busiest freeways are in the Los Angeles basin and an estimated 84,000 vehicle hours per day are wasted. San Francisco, where the channel and device will be unveiled in June, is California's second most congested city.

Nationwide, according to the US General Accounting Office, more than $100 billion a year is lost in productivity and fuel costs, and stalled traffic creates three times the toxic emissions of traffic moving at 55 m.p.h. According to a Transportation 2020 Program Survey, 80 percent of Americans claim traffic congestion is a major problem in their community.

By 1997, 24-hour traffic networks are expected in New York, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and about 24 other US cities. The Santa Clara based Autotalk Inc. is a local affiliate of a $200 million Hong Kong company (WKK International Holdings Ltd.). The firm is negotiating agreements with local radio stations and traffic authorities across the country.

At the unveiling here, officials from the Automobile Association of America (AAA) and Caltrans welcomed the development.

"This is a significant new means to get information to commuters in time for them to use it," said Goro Endo, senior transportation engineer for traffic operations at Caltrans. He notes that experts have long lamented intermittent reports that try to cover too much area and are often broadcast too late to do any good. The new channel's reports will be more comprehensive, and will include alternative route information, and construction and lane closure announcements.

In Los Angeles, KVEA-TV Channel 52 is the affiliate which will broadcast the signals. Broadcast on special audio programming (SAP) wavelengths, the signals can also be heard on television sets with SAP capacity before leaving homes or businesses. "By letting commuters make intelligent driving decisions even before they get in their cars, Autotalk could change the way people think about commuting," says Orski.

Once inside the car, commuters punch code information into a three-by-three-inch pad installed on the dashboard. A second device, about the size of a small portable radio is inserted between the existing car radio and antenna. When not in use for traffic reports, the device - which sells for about $129 - works as a radio tuned to television frequencies. Traffic reports run in approximately three-minute bands, which repeat until new information is added. The service currently runs from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a .m. Twenty-four hour service is planned.

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