The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was grappling with massive debt and traffic gridlock in the 1990s when Martha Welborne, an architect and planner, suggested looking south — way south — for a partial solution.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba had implemented an innovative network of express buses that whisked passengers along dedicated lanes. Such a system might work in L.A., Welborne suggested, at well below the lofty cost of building rail.

In 1999, she visited Curitiba with a group of officials that included Richard J. Riordan, then mayor of Los Angeles, and Zev Yaroslavsky ’71, M.A. ’72, then a Los Angeles County supervisor. They came away impressed.

But what really won Yaroslavsky over was a video prepared by the Urban Simulation Team, a group in UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design that had successfully married military flight simulation and virtual reality technology to create a groundbreaking, interactive urban planning tool.

Using both bird’s-eye and pedestrian vantage points, the video showed how a “Metro Rapid” bus system would look on Wilshire Boulevard, the heavily traveled east-west arterial that runs about 16 miles from downtown Los Angeles through the city of Santa Monica.

Yaroslavsky and other Metro board members watched as simulated express buses barreled along the route, with realistic depictions of buildings, sidewalks, medians, motorists and pedestrians.

For Yaroslavsky, seeing was believing.

“It changed the conversation,” recalls Yaroslavsky, now director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “It was the difference between an intellectual understanding of an issue and a visceral understanding of an issue.”

In June 2000, Metro launched two Rapid lines, one on Wilshire and the other along Ventura Boulevard. They succeeded in reducing travel times and improving passengers’ overall perception of bus service. Metro now has more than 20 such lines and plans to take the program to the next level by creating dedicated bus lanes, according to Martha Butler, Metro’s director of regional transit planning.

Oddly enough, satisfied Rapid bus riders on the ground in L.A. owe a debt of gratitude to the Apollo space program. It was lunar simulation technology, used to train astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for their 1969 moon landing, that helped give rise to UCLA’s Urban Simulation Team.

In the late 1960s, Peter Kamnitzer, a UCLA professor and practicing architect, got a grant from NASA to adapt its moon-landing simulator as an interactive tool for drive-through navigation through a fabricated town.

In 1974, UCLA’s graduate program in architecture and urban planning hired William H. Jepson ’71, M.B.A. ’86 to support technology research and teaching. One of his tasks was to move Kamnitzer’s work in-house. At the time, Jepson recalls, the architecture and planning school was just getting its first computer terminal.

“The hardware itself was totally rudimentary, if you compare it to today,” he says. “We were having to do a lot of stuff with mathematics and tight coding to get the most out of what we had.”

Jepson was no stranger to that sort of mental toil. Before UCLA hired him, he worked in the satellite control division of a Santa Monica company doing “orbit determination” calculations for the U.S. Air Force.

Jepson and students under his direction began applying computer modeling to large-scale urban environments.

To create simulations, Jepson’s team combined three-dimensional computer-aided design models with aerial photographs and street-level videos. The aim, Jepson says, was to develop photorealistic models that were accurate “down to the graffiti on walls and the addresses on houses.”

“When we first started off, it was hard to fit that much information into a computer,” he says. “There wasn’t that much memory. It wasn’t fast. We had to develop a lot of techniques to allow it to sufficiently manage the amount of geometry that was trying to be rendered.”

At some point, the group branded itself as the Urban Simulation Team. Foundations, public agencies and private developers saw the new technology’s promise. The team received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, among others.

Maneuvering the computer mouse as a video game player would, students under Jepson’s direction designed civic centers and museums. Over time, the team modeled large portions of the city of Los Angeles.

After the 1992 Rodney King riots, city agencies used the urban simulator to help with reconstruction of hard-hit areas such as Pico-Union.

A 1993 effort looked at how landscaping regulations affected property sales.

“We modeled the Pico-Union area and created an interface that allowed you to plant trees of any species,” Jepson says. “We could switch species with the click of a mouse.”

At a community meeting, the team showed what the neighborhood would look like with big, leafy street trees. Jepson says he sensed an undercurrent in the audience. Finally, a resident stood up to note that leafy canopies would provide shelter where hoodlums could hide “and jump down and mug you.” With the click of a mouse, the simulation team switched the images to palm trees. The audience applauded.

As part of a long-term effort to map out the L.A. region, city leaders commissioned dozens of models to provide audiences with previews of new construction and redevelopment projects. Jepson estimates that it took the team 70 to 80 hours to complete one city block from scratch.

The team’s work began getting national attention. In 1994, the program won the prestigious Computerworld Smithsonian award in education and academia.

Jepson and his team produced simulations to help plan safety precautions for at-grade crossings for the Expo Line, including the Farmdale Avenue crossing at Dorsey High School. The team worked on plans for Exposition Park and L.A. Live, the downtown entertainment zone that includes Staples Center. It modeled a subway station at Pershing Square. Not all of the schemes came to fruition, but enough did to put the team on the map.

Jepson had grand plans to model the entire city of Los Angeles.

David Sartoris M.A. ’00, who joined the team while an architecture student at UCLA, says colleagues would tease him about building “my own SimCity,” a reference to the computer game.

Before those plans could be realized, however, the economy tumbled into recession and the state of California eliminated redevelopment agencies. “The funding went away,” Jepson says. He retired in 2013, and the team disbanded.

Today, Sartoris and another of Jepson’s protégés carry on. Lisa Snyder Ph.D. ’03, a modeling and visualization expert with UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education, continues to develop her eye-poppingly detailed simulation of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the legendary world’s fair in Chicago.

Sartoris, a senior architectural associate with UCLA’s Capital Programs design and construction team, uses the program to show how proposed construction projects would fit into the overall campus context.

Yaroslavsky, the former county supervisor, recalls the program as a selling point for express bus lines.

“It [was] a very innovative technique that has limitless value,” Yaroslavsky says. “It may be the most significant way I’ve ever seen to evaluate the visual impacts and some aspects of environment impacts.”


An Ever-Changing Campus

With a population of around 60,000, the UCLA campus is as big as a mid-size city. And the ever-changing 419-acre area grows denser by the year. The demolition and construction schedule is more ambitious than that of many municipalities.

Consider the significant projects now under way: the $120-million Geffen Hall at the David Geffen School of Medicine, the Wasserman Football Center, the Mo Ostin Basketball Center, the Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center and a 95,000-square-foot research laboratory for the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Helping to guide the designs is David Sartoris, a senior architectural associate with UCLA’s Capital Programs design and construction team.

Sartoris, who has a master’s degree in architecture from UCLA, is the sole proprietor and manager of decades’ worth of interactive 3-D content developed by UCLA’s Urban Simulation Team.

The team disbanded in 2013 after director William H. Jepson ’71, M.B.A. ’86 retired and funding dried up. But during its years with the Department of Architecture and Urban Design, the group developed intricate simulations of much of Los Angeles, including large portions of the UCLA campus.

After the team broke up, Sartoris moved the UCLA database to Capital Programs, which oversees the campus’s long-range development. He began collaborating with Jeffrey B. Averill, campus architect.

“He knew the database was something that could not be lost,” Sartoris says. “It creates visuals that are very true to the real world.”

Campus planners use the bird’s-eye and ground-level simulations to help project architects fit buildings into available spaces, Averill says. “It gives us extra breadth as a design and visualization tool.”

Much UCLA development is happening next to or even atop existing buildings. One particularly complex job, completed in 2013, entailed construction of new residential halls and recreational facilities in four new buildings in an already densely packed corner of campus.

For companies partnering with UCLA, the simulations can be a godsend. Years ago, the Urban Simulation Team took officials from Karl Storz Endoscopy-America Inc. of El Segundo on a digital spin through the planned Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The experience helped steer their construction of operating rooms and installation of endoscopic video systems.

“It’s one thing to see a piece of paper that states an institution’s vision,” says Connie Padden, the company’s director of technology integration. “It’s another to have an institution show you visually what they plan to do. It helps companies make faster, better decisions.” — M.G.