“It’s starting out calm today.
Only three accidents and a vehicle fire so far.” Metro Traffic Control’s airborne reporter Kymythy Schultze wriggles a bulbous headset into a comfortable position over her ears. “And there’s a Charger game itonight too." She squints through the Cessna Skyhawk’s window. Shiny, beanlike shapes nudge along Interstate 805. It’s 3:35 p.m., the first day of Labor Day weekend, and rush hour is well under way.
The Cessna curves up and left, beginning a flight pattern that will encompass the southern half of San Diego County: I-805 south, from Clairemont to Mission Valley; east on I-8; a cut across Gillespie Field to torn highway 67 in El Cajon; a curve southward near the Route 125 connector to highway 94 at Grossmont Center; west to downtown; over Coronado and down the Silver Strand; back up I-5 to Del Mar; across Rancho Santa Fe or along Route 52 in San Clemente Canyon to check on 163 and Interstate 15; and back down 805 again. If there are no major accidents or congestion to report.
Kym expects to make the circuit four times before landing at 6 p.m. Metro Traffic Control leases a second plane to patrol the less-busy — “or less exciting, depending on how you look at it." Kym says — North County area
"I've always liked San Diego.” Kym Schultze has lived here all her life "But seeing it from this perspective. I like it even more. I really do." From 3500 feet in the air. San Diego is orange-ish metal, beaten and rough-edged The freeways bind it in a shiny tangle of gift ribbon Afternoon glare burns the tired green from late summer foliage and ignites skyscraper glass, car windshields. The smog is impressive wispy, rising high, much thicker than it looks from the ground.
But another picture of San Diego and its freeways is reflected in some recent statistics from SAN DAG (San Diego Association of Governments). According to the agency's report, traffic on San Diego's freeways has increased by more than 50 percent since 1980 (Over the same period, the area’s population increased by 21 percent, reaching a regional total in 1988 of 2,327,697.) The county’s freeway network, however, is 90 percent completed, and sections of it already operate at full capacity during some hours. “Once currently scheduled construction is complete." says CalTrans spokesman Steve Saville, ‘‘not much more expansion will be possible. There are sections of freeway here that, in order to accommodate all the traffic, would need to be 20, 30 lanes wide.”
Comparing 1986 CalTrans figures with similar studies done in 1976 and 1966. SANDAG has found that San Diego residents today own more cars, travel farther to work, and make more trips — in smaller groups — than ever before.
And there are now more people of driving age; this figure has leveled off since 1985 at 78 percent of the total population. In 1986, for the first time the number of licensed drivers in the county was exceeded by the number of registered vehicles: over 1 1/2 million.
Also contributing to San Diego’s traffic is the explosion of new office and retail spaces and new housing developments. These communities are built separate from each other along the freeway system and are not connected by a network of arterial streets. More people are obliged to use the freeways more often to get everywhere.
Traffic reporters call the week’s first commute "the Monday morning massacre" or "demolition derby." But lately, San Diego’s afternoon traffic has been the worst. In summer, there are vacationers on the roads during non-commute hours, but they all seem to return home in the evening at the same time workers do. Of all weekday afternoons, Fridays are the worst. "On Fridays." Kym calls aft. over the Cessna's drone, "it looks like no one goes to work in the morning, but everyone comes home from work in the afternoon." And of all Friday afternoons, the traffic is worst on those that commence three-day weekends. “But this morning was a real mess. We had a lot of accidents." We soar left to follow I-8 east, and mid-afternoon sunlight cuts in at our necks. She hopes this afternoon that people were smart and left work early to avoid the holiday traffic.
Binoculars to her eyes, Kym scans the road below for accidents, debris, stalled cars, slowing patterns. Traffic is heavy but still moving smoothly. The eastbound lanes of I-8. west of I-15, can be one of the most congested parts of San Diego's freeway system, earning SANDAG’s worst LOS (level-of-service) ratings. E and F. during peak afternoon hours. This means that between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., the road carries 85 percent or more of its capacity, and one can expect to see at least 67 vehicles per mile, per lane here; under ideal conditions — good weather, no accidents — those cars will be inching along at under 30 miles per hour.
Using the two-way radio wedged between her seat and pilot Don Marasco's, Schultze calls the Metro Traffic Control studio in Mission Valley "One to base." She grips a joystick connected to her radio with her left hand, squeezes its button tip when she talks. “Eastbound 8 very slow approaching 15.” She trades data with traffic anchor Dave Berg in the Metro studio. "Slowing on 8 from Fairmount to Waring, eastbound. Slow all the way into El Cajon." The studio periodically calls Schultze with instructions to check out a particular accident or congested area or with updated information from the police scanner, CalTrans, or the U.S. Cellular Telephone network. (Metro has a contract with the company, whose drivers, sales people, and customers call Metro to either supply traffic information or receive it.)
Metro Traffic Control is a young company, about a year old, and one of a few other traffic services in the county. It serves 17 local radio stations and KGTV, Channel 10. Most of Metro’s reports are broadcast from the studio now. by anchors like Dave Berg, eliminating some of the missed connections and background noise that have made airborne reporting so problematic in the past