Mayor O'Neill

Doing More with Less: Reinventing Traffic Engineering Services in a Mature City

"Long Beach’s traffic safety initiative is reflective of our ongoing efforts to streamline internal processes, improve efficiencies and productivity and, most importantly, respond to the needs of our community."
- Mayor O’Neill

Long Beach is a major Southern California city with a population of about 440,000. Its infrastructure is largely built-out, and during the early ‘90s the city experienced significant economic downturns including naval base and aerospace industry closures.

Historically, the city has had a traditional traffic engineering division, whose activities included enforcing engineering standards, warrants, codes, and regulations. A by-the-book approach had become the norm for responding to resident complaints, largely attributable to the more than 1,000 traffic safety and operational complaints the agency received each year. These complaints were in turn handled by a staff which was roughly 30 to 50 percent smaller than comparable agencies, and shrinking.

To respond to the growing constituent calls for action, the City Council in 1993 determined that to address these concerns quickly, and in light of limited staff resources, an aggressive short-term program of consultant assistance would develop traffic management programs for 23 of the most severely impacted neighborhoods. Contracts were issued, and work began with more than 65,000 questionnaires being sent to area residents. Roughly a year later, plans for each neighborhood, developed through resident steering committees, were adopted by the City Council.

Problems with the Action Plan

Then it got difficult. While the consultant studies had identified numerous physical improvements that could in concept address residents’ concerns, numerous implementation issues remained unresolved. These included consultation with other residents, who had not been involved with the steering committees and were opposed to the travel inconveniences associated with "traffic calming" measures; the maintainability of some proposed improvements; the aesthetic impacts of other projects; and requests from other neighborhoods to address traffic safety concerns. Due to the open-ended nature of these concerns, addressing them fell upon city engineering staff, who were unaccustomed to dealing with such non-quantifiable issues.

Reconsidering Traffic Engineering Programs and Priorities

The need to deal with this unfamiliar task required us to step back and reconsider overall traffic engineering programs and priorities. This effort consisted of six basic elements:

  1. Streamline Regulatory Requirements A significant step in responding to traffic safety concerns is the processing and approval of city ordinances. Recognizing this, the City Council reviewed and authorized staff-level processing of two key on-street parking issues: school-area passenger loading zones and disabled-accessible (blue) spaces. By authorizing staff to administratively handle requests related to these areas, the timeliness of responses was significantly improved.
  2. Refocus Staff Resources In 1995, transportation planning staff were combined with traffic engineering. In light of its largely development-related work program during a period of little development activity, transportation planning staff could be more effectively assigned to duties such as improving constituent communications. This included an active program of notification and consultation with interested parties and establishing a call-in comment hotline, as well as development of information materials which could be more widely distributed. Short course and group discussions on constituent communication have also been an important means of improving overall staff skills.
  3. Institutionalize Safety as the Agency’s Top Priority Traffic engineers are sometimes accused of being concerned only with "moving traffic" while being oblivious to its possible negative effects on the community. To break from this stereotype, public and internal communications were revised to recognize safety as a primary objective. This objective was also institutionalized through establishing accident reduction as an annual performance target.
  4. Recast Work Activities around Agency Goals Refocusing work efforts can easily be lost at the staff level, particularly when staff have been doing the same function for years and do not recognize a need to change. To provide a bridge between longstanding functions (a majority of which remained unchanged) and new initiatives, each function was categorized into its basic objectives: improving community safety through responses to constituent requests; protecting neighborhoods and business access through street designs; providing capacity for city growth through capital improvements; increasing the city’s leadership role among cities in the region; and supporting staff productivity and development. Showing staff the relationship between their individual efforts and the agency’s overall objectives increased comfort and improved morale in uncertain times.
  5. Leverage the Participation of Others By working with other city departments, traffic engineering staff has drawn on additional resources to communicate issues and options to residents. This includes police officers who report on issues observed on the street; neighborhood services and business outreach staff working with constituent groups; and community associations and neighborhood watch groups.
  6. Support Staff Initiative Individual staff interest provided excellent opportunities for taking advantage of technology to improve services. For example, staff interest in the Internet provided a volunteer to develop division information and constituent request forms, which could be posted on the city’s Web site, as well as justification for an additional computer. The same applied to software and traffic surveying equipment.


The results of this effort are difficult to quantify, but have been encouraging with citywide accident rates down slightly. While the volume of constituent requests remains high, staff responses have also improved as staff employ other resources available through the agency, such as police officers and neighborhood watch groups. These avenues provide opportunities for increasing community awareness of traffic issues, facts, and options.

Numerous physical changes have also resulted from this program, virtually all at very limited cost through a few relatively simple process changes. For example, proposed traffic modifications were integrated into ongoing street resurfacing projects wherever possible. Second, low-cost materials (such as paint and plastic posts rather than concrete) were used in light of the potential for subsequent changes.

It has been said that the fundamental characteristic of traffic is that it should always be moving. To the extent that this also applies to traffic engineering services, the City of Long Beach is well on its way to providing new and better ways of meeting constituent needs.

Contact: Edward Shikada, City Traffic Engineer, Long Beach, 562/570-6331.

Table of Contents

Return to Previous Page.


Home Search

The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
1620 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352

Copyright ©1996, U.S. Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.