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Decoding the mysteries of Bay Area traffic


If you added up all of the time that all of us spend stuck in Bay Area traffic, it would average out to about 40 million hours a year. It doesn’t take much to slow down traffic – accidents and construction and weather conditions all have an impact. And, there’s more than cars in the road.

Last year, a truck full of chickens overturned on 80 near Fairfield. And then there was the herd of cattle that wandered through the toll plaza on the Benicia Bridge. Not to mention all the falling ladders – that’s one of the most common pieces of debris.

But there’s a more basic problem behind your slow commute. The Bay Area’s population just keeps growing: we’re at 7 million people and counting. Expanding existing freeways is a long, complex process, which means that for now, we’ve got pretty much all the road we’re going to get.

So, what do we do? What are the best strategies for getting around, and whose job is it to figure it all out? I went out on the road to learn about the art and science of traffic management.

You probably wouldn’t recognize him if you saw him. But Ted Posey, also known as the “Super Commuter,” does traffic reports for KGO Radio in San Francisco. He’s a kind of superhero.

But the Super Commuter is not your typical man of steel. For one thing, he doesn’t really have any special powers. He’s much slower than a speeding bullet. And he definitely can’t reach the Bay Bridge in a single bound. But, he says, he can definitely feel your pain.

“Traffic coverage is almost like a security blanket,” says Posey. “It's kind of like a personal level. Like you talk to people and it's like, 'Hey man I was in that traffic the other day that you were talking about. That was terrible!' and I'm like, yeah, I know, so was I. That was not fun. They know that I'm at least sitting there with them.”

KGO has two reporters watching the commute from airplanes, and a reporter back at the station who monitors reports from the CHP. But for gritty details of what the commute is really like, they rely on the view from the ground.

So, Monday through Friday, Posey gets in his car and drives the morning and afternoon rush hours, giving live on-air traffic reports every ten minutes. He drives 250 miles a day, and spends about $200 on gas every week. Getting stuck in traffic doesn’t bother him, though. After all, his commute is his job.

On a recent Monday, I went out with Posey for the afternoon commute. Around 4:45pm we got stuck on 101-North, close to the Vermont Street exit.  We ended up sitting completely still on the freeway, watching drivers all around us check smartphones, fix their makeup, and sing. Some just stare blankly ahead.

Traffic reporters can tell you what’s happening on the road--but they can’t always tell you why. Sorting that out, and finding ways to keep traffic moving, is someone else’s job. Actually, a lot of people’s jobs: Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission all play a role. They’re all based in a building in downtown Oakland called the Traffic Management Center, or TMC.

Sean Nozzari, the Caltrans Deputy District Director for Traffic Operations says the TMC sometimes gets referred to as the “Pentagon of California.”

The TMC looks like NASA’s Mission Control. A two-story high wall shows live video of Bay Area traffic on 22 separate screens. Operators can switch views to any one of 300 different Caltrans cameras on 500 miles of freeways. And right In the middle of wall is a glowing map of all the Bay Area roadways. Around 3:30 on a recent Tuesday, they’re turning red before our eyes.

Hunched over banks of computer screens are workers from the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and 511.org traffic and information. They’re all working together to keep traffic in the Bay Area moving – now, and in the future.

Nozzari says the TMC is a “big part of our vision for mobility in California. We monitor the highways, and at the same time, we try to figure out what all could be done in terms of future improvements.”

Everyone here is constantly watching Bay Area traffic – on the video screens, from speed detectors buried in the pavement, and from reports from highway patrol officers. They dispatch tow trucks and ambulances, update 511 information, and generally try to control the flow of vehicles using elements like changeable message signs, detection stations, and ramp metering.

But, says Nozzari, there are only so many little tricks like that – and they can’t prevent every back up.

“In California, especially in the Bay Area, we have kind of reached our limits of highway expansion,” says Nozzari. “So we have to do everything we can to maximize usage of the existing system.”

Right now, 511.org is integrating real-time data from the TMC, so you can use your computer or cell phone to figure out the best way to get where you’re going – whether that’s driving a car, taking public transit, picking up a rideshare, or riding a bike. In a couple months, they’re even going to be able to tell you where to park. But without a much more fundamental change in how we get around, that’s about all they can do.

In the meantime, checking in with the KGO Super Commuter isn’t a bad idea.

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