For car-crazy L.A., 77 white-gloved saviors

The mayor's 'Holiday Shopper Traffic Relief Initiative' aims to relieve congested intersections near popular shopping centers.

'Tis the season of community, bonding, and togetherness. 'Tis the season of those unexpected opportunities to spend quality time with loved ones as well as strangers.

'Tis the season of being stuck in holiday traffic outside your favorite mall.

Many Americans use those extra few minutes jammed in the left-turn lane to ruminate – often aloud – why a higher percentage of nincompoops seem to end up behind the wheel of the car just ahead. Now, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is receiving kudos for tackling one of America's thorniest traffic problems with a practical solution.

The mayor's "Holiday Shopper Traffic Relief Initiative," which launched Monday, dispatches a 77-member team of holiday traffic control officers to 55 of the most congested shopping centers in Los Angeles. Every day until Christmas Eve, trained traffic officers from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) will be working between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. to "make holiday shopping a little faster, safer, and less frustrating as we rush from place to place snapping up those last-minute gifts," said Mr. Villaraigosa.

Expected words, perhaps, from one of the state's savviest politicos.

But beyond city hall, the initiative is drawing accolades from many along Main Street. In addition to the convenience for shoppers and the cleaner air for nearby residents, it paves the way for a higher bottom line for merchants. After all, retailers in the US rake in a quarter of their revenues between Thanksgiving and New Year's, and nearly half of that comes in the week before Christmas.

"The more people that come in, the more we sell, it's as simple as that," says a clerk in the potware section of Macys at the Fashion Square mall in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "If there is a snarl of cars outside, many say fugeddaboudit and drive on by."

Transportation experts, too, are lauding the initiative. "Christmas shopping that creates enormous traffic jams around malls is a universal problem that has been getting worse from Washington to New York to Baltimore to every other place," says C. Kenneth Orski, president of the Urban Mobility Corporation, a transportation consulting firm in Washington.

"Dispatching designated officers in a systematic way to the toughest areas can do a lot because very often drivers ignore the intersections and traffic lights and end up snarling traffic in all directions," he adds.

In L.A., officials are going so far as to promise a trip from home to the mall and back again that is 30 percent faster than without the officers. That figure is calculated from experimental models showing the number of cars that will go by given geographic points when a person is directing traffic compared with when a light is guiding traffic flow, according to Darryl Ryan, a spokesman for Villaraigosa.

"A human being can see the traffic in all directions, including pedestrians, and can't be ignored like a traffic light," says Rudy Carrasco, deputy chief of LADOT.

Wearing white gloves, LADOT's Lt. Tom Villarreal is doing tag-team duty with fellow officer Manuel Garcia on Riverside Drive outside Fashion Square. Both show off a choreography of arm windmills, finger-pointing, high-fives, pirouettes, and facial expressions that might make a circus clown envious.

"You can't rest for a moment. Otherwise a car comes up, and doesn't know what's going on and all is lost," says Mr. Garcia. "We can see what's stuck, and tell pedestrians to stop or keep moving. A traffic light can't do that, especially when you have a bunch of stressed out shoppers all competing to see who can get into the parking lot fastest."

With its skein of freeways and little public transportation, Los Angeles is a prime location to take the lead on how to alleviate neighborhood traffic jams. The average commuter here spends 93 hours each year – nearly four days – longer in traffic than the same commute calculated without congestion, state transportation planners say.

"The mayor has shown vision but also the resources to do this," says Mr. Villarreal. He notes other traffic-easing measures that include synchronized traffic signals on key freeway corridors, construction bans during rush hours, and the expansion of smart-street sensor technology.

The request for traffic officers has increased about 65 percent since 2004 as city officials have learned that people, rather than signs or lights, are better able to manage congestion on the roadways.

"The political folks, the city council, mayor, police, and fire departments are all seeing what they didn't before ... that the human element in the traffic equation can seriously enhance mobility in L.A.," says Mr. Carrasco.

Another perk, say nearby residents, is civility. "This really helps crazy drivers from being even more crazy," says M.J. Daniels, who has lived across from Fashion Square for 18 years. "Without these officers, there are a lot more accidents, and everyone is in a rush like they own the road. This really helps keep things calm."

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