Sue LADOT to stop ATSAC book burning

What follows is a justification for suing the City of Los Angeles to free up the real-time traffic data that is generated (and then deleted) by the LADOT’s ATSAC system. Anyone with a stake in development, civil engineering, transportation planning, public policy research, the practice of transportation engineering, environmental justice, transit route planning, planning optimal delivery routes in the city, or simply curious about the effects on traffic of a blown fire hydrant last month deserves access to this data.

If you’re a lawyer who’d like to file a law suit to free up the largest trove of transportation data the world has ever known, and which would revolutionize the study and debate around urban mobility and traffic, please email me at info@flyingpigeon-la.com and let’s talk.

If you’d like to work on hiring the above mentioned lawyer and working with a coalition to free this data, email me at info@flyingpigeon-la.com and let’s talk.


ATSAC: Behind the scenes at L.A. Traffic Control from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Los Angeles has spent hundreds of millions since the 1984 Olympics to track car trips, down to the second, using its Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) system. The system has grown, one $150,000 intersection integration at a time, to a network of 4,114 (as of January 2012) signalized intersections feeding up-to-the-second car trip data into a bank of computers in a sub-sub-sub-basement under city hall in Downtown Los Angeles.

Including the 400+ intersection cameras associated with the system, ATSAC is quite literally the Rosetta Stone to unlocking the mysteries of modern automobile transportation. No city in the world comes close to our level of fine-grained, digitized, trip data for automobiles.

This system has cost us over $650,000,000 to build out, and has a Proposition C funded maintenance budget of $500,000 each year. In the 2014-2015 budget year it is set to be expanded to the tune of an additional $13,000,000+ from Measure R funds and a few other grant sources.

With this insane amount of investment in data collection, and a panopticon of traffic surveillance footage, you would think that understanding how many car trips are actually generated or destroyed because of land use decisions, parades, street closures, disasters, and other changes in road use would be old hat in city hall discussions.

If you thought that this ATSAC data was being used to fuel fundamental research into how car traffic actually works, or to bring facts into public planning decisions currently dominated by out-dated hypotheses and anecdotes, or to test traffic engineering models from a time before such a system was even considered possible, you would be gravely mistaken.

For fear of unspecified lawsuits, the LADOT’s ATSAC division deletes all their traffic data after 30 days and never stores footage from their 400+ traffic cameras. These cameras are positioned at most of LA’s most congested intersections (good luck with that insurance claim or criminal prosecution after a car crash).

The incredible outlay of public money that has funded this system alone would seem to mandate that the data generated by ATSAC would serve the public interest beyond the narrow interests of those who monitor the computer banks under city hall. Further, the data collected is of a fundamental value to public discourse and debate, to planning decisions, and strikes at the heart of nearly every public discussion in Los Angeles about the state of the city. That this data is deleted is beyond an oversight – it is a civil offense.

We can beg and plead in city hall to an unconcerned city council. The last time the politicians attacked the boys in the ATSAC bunker, two of them went rogue and sabotaged the system (like bank robbers in some crime caper movie) to win concessions for their union. The wayward engineers were dealt with, but the message was clear, “We can break this city if you mess with us.” A council stacked with former state legislators, who’re basically just pay-check collectors uninterested in governing, are not going to mess with these guys.

No, this is a matter for the courts. This ATSAC data counts as public records, and if we have to take the city to court every 30 days to obtain copies of it we darn well should. I can think of a dozen private developers, civil engineering firms, researchers, planning agencies, and plain old neighborhood advocates who would love to have an open-source treasure trove of real-time traffic data to combat the psuedo-science and anecdotes that throw out perfectly good projects or justify terrible projects in this City. This data belongs to us, the people, and it must be freed.

The question is: who is willing to lawyer up enough to help us free it?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    “For fear of unspecified lawsuits, the LADOT’s ATSAC division deletes all their traffic data after 30 days and never stores footage from their 400+ traffic cameras. These cameras are positioned at most of LA’s most congested intersections (good luck with that insurance claim or criminal prosecution after a car crash).”

    To be fair, storing the data (especially the camera footage) could be potentially prohibitively expensive. Especially if you need/want real-time retrieval of data. Just from my experience with data centers for online VOD, you could see anywhere from $10 million to $100 million dollar buildout for the data center with monthly operational costs from $100,000 to $2 million dollars a month depending on how much storage you need and what sort of usage requirements you have…

  2. Rob
    Posted January 18, 2015 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    Good luck, I hope you get support with this… I’m in Australia and I know that our laws require government agencies to archive all data – no matter how obscure – for thirty years; and that means right down to emails, memos and so on.
    Try telling the Tax Dept (or IRS if you like) that you deliberately burned all your tax records ‘in fear of unspecified lawsuits’, and see where you end up living for the next few years…