UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Urban space and the engineers of time : assembling an intelligent transportation system in Los Angeles, California Forrest, Jacob Anthony


Research on the “smart city” within critical urban studies is evolving into a maturing subfield. The smart city, these studies find, is becoming a globally dominant way of representing urban space through idealized high-tech interventions such as data dashboards, control rooms, sensor networks, and platforms. This dissertation contends that a more comprehensive account of the smart city’s materiality is needed to better understand the historical influence of smart-city discourse in local context. As such, this dissertation traces historically how a specific instance of smart-city discourse --- real-time “intelligent” transportation --- was shaped by, through, within, beneath, and above the bureaucratic and street-level landscapes of Los Angeles, California. It does so through an examination of the Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) center within the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). ATSAC was launched during the 1984 Summer Olympics to reduce congestion through the computerized governance of traffic signals. It began as a demonstration project that evolved into a “citywide” system that continues to be promoted and upgraded. Archival and secondary-source research, thirty-eight individual and group interviews, and two day-long ethnographic observations were conducted to understand the co-evolution of the concepts and materialities underpinning ATSAC’s pre-history and development. The dissertation draws on governmentality studies and actor-network theory in order to conceptualize and analyze the “assembling” of ATSAC. The main argument is that the turn to real-time traffic governmentality in Los Angeles was both enabled and complicated by three material processes. These included the protracted embedding of real-time control into Los Angeles’s streetscape and municipal bureaucracy; the successful and unsuccessful enrollments of people, organizations and artifacts into ATSAC’s post-Olympics network of control; and the surprisingly complex labor of maintaining real-time traffic governmentality inside and outside the ATSAC control room. This framework and the case study of ATSAC contribute a material approach to the discursive aspects of smart-city development. They open up opportunities to debate the durable and fragile aspects of actually-existing smart-city projects that are often overlooked.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International