In Kearny Mesa, on a road called Opportunity, people in the Transportation Management Center watch over us. The operations room looks like a set from a film on NASA space travel. Designed like a theater, the room curves around a high bank of multiple screens displaying local freeway traffic. Facing the video wall, on dozens of desks, about 100 computer monitors and a few televisions scroll imagery and data.
In a sense, the center -- a joint venture between Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol -- is the heart of San Diego, keeping the county's arteries circulating.
The Man Behind Those Freeway Cameras
It's the beginning of afternoon rush hour, 4:00 p.m. on an autumn Thursday. I'm sitting with Larry Landeros, a media information officer who works for the California Highway Patrol.
"What I do here is I monitor the computer that gathers all the information that comes into this room, and I provide that information back to the media, whether it be newspaper, radio, or television," Landeros, 49, tells me. "And I keep a log here, and the media has access to it via the Internet. Over here, I have a Caltrans freeway speed map screen, and it lets me know how fast traffic is moving all over town so I can relate to the public what slowing down is occurring. And then I do my broadcasts on radio and television."
Landeros has been with the CHP for 23 years, the past 7 with the Transportation Management Center. He shares media-information-officer duties with Alicia Contreras and Robert Sanchez. Between 3:30 and 6:00 p.m. every weekday, Landeros delivers six 45-second radio traffic reports for KECR 910 AM and two 25-second television traffic reports on KGTV Channel 10.
At 4:15, he receives a phone call, says hello, and then launches into a speedy report:
"Good afternoon. On the eastbound 94 we've got brake lights from out of the downtown area to the Interstate 15 before heading back to full speed. Eastbound 8 slows from the 805 to Waring, with additional slowing East Main to Greenfield in the El Cajon area. Southbound 805 slow out of the Golden Triangle to 52. Expect to be on and off of the brakes from the 163 to Interstate 8. Brake lights reappear around Division Street, and they're going to last to Plaza Boulevard. Northbound 15, we have slowing as you come up on Ted Williams Parkway. That's going to last till Rancho Bernardo Road. Northbound 5, typical slowing from the 805 merge until Via de la Valle. Additional slowing Palomar to Cannon. Southbound 5, the brake lights get real heavy from Encinitas Boulevard to Manchester, and then again from Washington Street all the way through the downtown area. Eastbound 78, expect a little slowing around Emerald Drive. The real brake lights begin around Rancho Santa Fe Road, and they're going to last all the way to Interstate 15. Remember to buckle up. For KECR radio, I'm Officer Larry Landeros for the California Highway Patrol."
Landeros doesn't trip over a single word.
"It took about three or four months for me to figure out how to do that," Landeros concedes. And then he says, "I can actually do it without looking at my cheat sheet or the computer screens, it's become so predictable." And then he demonstrates. He repeats his whole report, verbatim, while looking me straight in the eye. Then he smiles.
Landeros has an engaging manner. It's easy to see why he was chosen to represent the California Highway Patrol on television. You've probably seen him, five evenings a week for the past seven years on the five o'clock news. He gets two to three seconds of airtime at 5:25 and two to three seconds more at 5:45. He wears thin reading glasses about halfway down his nose and sports a thick black mustache. His hair is mostly black, but his sideburns are gray.
Landeros uses a video wall control panel to patch in to the 78 cameras located on the highways throughout the San Diego corridor. He hits a few buttons, toggles a joystick, looks around, and zooms in on traffic all over the city.
There are three ways to monitor the area traffic. Landeros can patch in to the freeway cameras and watch cars, he can refer to the Caltrans freeway speed map, and he can watch the codes on the computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) screen.
The Traffic Management Center also offers a useful array of interactive services directly to the public. You can either go online and type in 511sd.com, or dial 511 from your phone, and you're offered all sorts of traffic information, including how to use public transportation, what accidents are where, how long it might take you to get where you're going (provided there are freeways there), and so on.
And best of all, 511 is a free call.
On the video wall of the operations room, I can see the freeways getting busier. It doesn't happen all at once, though. Instead, I look away for four minutes, and when I look back, the traffic is thicker and slower. But if I watch the screen continuously for four minutes, then I can't tell that anything has changed. It's like watching a sunset.
The freeway speed map updates every 30 seconds. At 3:30, the routes on the screen are all green (indicating traffic traveling over 50 miles per hour), with a little yellow (37 to 50 miles per hour). By 4:30, a dozen red lines (under 37 miles per hour) have appeared. The red lines will remain until 6:30 or so, when the yellow and green take over again.
Collisions and traffic incidents show up on the dispatch screen. The screen is all in code. An 11-79 is an accident with an ambulance rolling; 11-80 is an accident with major injuries; 11-81 is an accident with minor injuries; 11-82 is an accident with property damage only. And 11-83 is an accident without any details.
After listening to Landeros's radio report (twice), it occurs to me that he must have to think of a lot of different ways to say the same thing.