Traffic on San Diego's freeways has increased by more than 50 percent since 1980.
“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.
Kymythy Schultze: "When you’re stuck in traffic, there's not a lot you can do. But at least I can give them an end point to look forward to."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
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.
Metro's Cessna Skyhawk takes off from Montgomery Field twice a day, weather permitting. It generally cruises at 3500 feet.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
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.
8 at the 805. The accident on 805, an overturned truck, is out of the road and not causing any problems.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
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.”
Monica Zech: There are days when debris seems to follow a theme; Appliance Day. Tool Day. Furniture Day.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
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.
15 at the 52. "When they built highway 52, at first it seemed that hardly anyone was using it."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
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
Earlier in the week, Metro operations manager Monica Zech was interviewed in her office overlooking Interstate 8. The first female airborne traffic reporter in San Diego, Zech began covering the freeways for the Automobile Club of Southern California five years ago. Traffic reports, she says, used to be short, general descriptions of accidents and slowing patterns. The information given now is specific enough that people can plan their driving routes by it. And, Monica notes, "it has been in that five years since I've started that the traffic has really started to boom." People have jokingly accused her of causing the mess
Metro is really an information-gathering service. One of the company's anchors, Chuck Miller, comes into the studio at 4:30 a m. to begin a “beat check " "We've got a long list of just about every police and fire department, highway patrol, from Riverside to here," Zech says. Miller's first duty is to call the agencies to find out about situations that might affect the morning's commute. Freeway construction is a major source of congestion, and Zech keeps a clipboard listing CalTrans projects for Miller to refer to.
As the day progresses, Miller monitors the police scanner for more current information. Zech carries a pager that alerts her to newsworthy incidents that might affect traffic. On-air reports start at 5 a.m. unless. Zech says, "there's something major going on.” The Metro studio has dedicated telephone lines that connect them to their subscriber radio stations. And for the morning traffic reports on Channel 10, Metro uses the studio's computer graphics system. Monica can pull up freeways onto the screen and place green arrows to pinpoint problem areas. She programs her design, then sends it via telephone line to Channel 10’s computer.
Metro's airborne reporters — Schultze and Terry Boyd — call the company’s
Mission Valley office with information for the in-studio reports but also provide several radio stations with additional, live "actualities” from the air. Monica Zech says the reports from midair used to be "kind of a novelty" but that the reports' importance has now outweighed their entertainment value. "(Radio stations) really like the clarity of the studio. It’s kind of a glamour thing to be in the air, but they were putting up with a lot of static."
The two planes that Metro leases take off from Montgomery Field twice a day, weather permitting. They generally cruise at an altitude of 3500 feet, although sometimes, on very cloudy days, they'll fly at 1500 feet. A helicopter is pressed into service when the cloud cover is too low for planes. Zech says an increased frequency of low-lying clouds during the past couple of years has even made helicopter flights impossible some mornings.
From information provided by Metro's offices and from her own observation, Schultze writes summarizing phrases on a small yellow pad on her knee. She may accumulate five pages of notes during a typical flight; it depends on how quickly the traffic changes For today’s on-air radio spots, Kym will ad lib around these notes. "It's important to make it make sense to the people down there in their cars. I go with the same directions on the same freeways. I do the north and southbound freeways first and then the east and west. They can't visualize it down in their cars. When you’re stuck in traffic, there's not a lot you can do about it. But at least I can give them an end point to look forward to for some relief. And if they haven't hit the jam yet, maybe they can go a different way home that isn't so bad."
Monica Zech is of the same opinion. "We’re sort of a stress reducer. Letting people know why they're sitting in a traffic jam, or letting them know that there is one, so they can leave earlier."
At all times during the Cessna's flight on this Friday afternoon, most of what we call "the city" is visible, and it comprises only a small part of the county's developed areas To the east, buildings wander off to the horizon, dodging dry hills to disappear under a noxious mantle of smog draping the mountains. Northwest, beyond the gift-box architecture of the Golden Triangle, regiments of melon-colored tile roofs loop more hills and fade into the skyline. There are open spaces here and there, like the cottony, dun-colored hills crisscrossed with fire roads to the northeast.
Preparing for her first live broadcast of the afternoon, Schultze scans 1-8. Her eyes fix on two barely perceptible dots — cars — on the freeway's right shoulder. Without looking away, she grabs her binoculars. "Sometimes when you see traffic is jammed up, you can't see an accident, but you know something has to be there. You look for maybe the lanes moving unevenly, which would show that there is some debris in the lane." Kym takes another quick look through her binoculars and scrawls a note. “Here we can see a CHP vehicle making a traffic stop. .. That’s westbound 8. east of 15. And it’s not causing any problem, so I certainly wouldn’t mention anything like that. But something like that on the busy side of the freeway could really slow things down."
Over time, the airborne reporter learns what to expect from the freeways and also learns to expect the unexpected. Slipping into her on-air voice, Kym explains typical patterns in a rapid, rhythmic stream. * 805 southbound usually gets a little bit tight from 163 down to 8. Southbound 15’s right lanes really jam up approaching Friars down to 8. also; and of course, if we have a ballgame it gets really busy." She could do this in her sleep.
Below the plane, the traffic begins to mimic Schultze’s scenario. "Eastbound 8 now you can see it’s just starting to slow around Fairmount, and it looks like it's about to Waring. Then it usually gets crowded around Fletcher Parkway by the 125 merge.
"This is the 125 connector right here." She curves a finger across the window.
By the year 2010, Route 125 will run north as far as Poway, then west to I-5 in Del Mar. Construction on this section linking 94 and 8 has caused congestion for months. "Just recently, they moved the ramp to 125 over to the right. It's now a right exit, where before you had to exit to the left. In the mornings, this would realty get jammed. Westbound traffic. When they moved the (exit) ramp over to the right, everybody was confused. It was just awful for a while. Traffic was worse than ever before Since people figured it out, it’s been wonderful. Traffic’s so much lighter here now." Her enthusiasm seems genuine.
Below, I-8, with its streams of tiny beans, curves around the El Cajon Valley. There is a beauty in the traffic’s rhythmic movement. Each car, speeding up or switching lanes on the split-second impulses of an individual driver, forms part of a massive, spontaneous pattern. "Later on in the year,” says Kymythy. "as it starts to get darker earlier, when the lights come on the freeways, it looks like arteries and veins.”
"This is 67 to Lakeside. Santee..." The ramp from 8 to 67 is not very wide, and a stalled car there can cause major backups in the mornings. There is a metered light on the on-ramp, but Kym reports unusually long lines in the approach to it. Delays such as this have sparked public criticism of CalTrans's ramp-metering system. According to spokesman Steve Saville, ramp meters are the major cause of complaints to CalTrans these days
But the meters. Saville says, are "the wave of the future" There are currently 80 ramp meters in place countywide, and an additional 170 are planned.
Ramp meters will be added along Route 78. from 5 to 15; south on 5, from Route 76 to Imperial Beach; along 78 from Oceanside, then down 15 to Imperial Beach; along 56. from Del Mar to Poway; along the entire length of highway 52; along 125, from 52 to where it merges with 5 in National City; and along the unmetered stretches of 805 from the Del Mar merge to Chula Vista.
A mechanism at each meter is programmed to activate automatically the ramp-meter signal during peak traffic hours. The ramp meter signal allows waiting cars to enter the freeway at precise intervals, helping to ensure smooth traffic flow. At each meter site, a sensor in the road bed monitors traffic speed (a traffic count can also be taken by the same equipment). A central computer at CalTrans lists all meters and corresponding traffic speeds. By examining those figures, CalTrans (and traffic monitors like Metro, who have CalTrans-system computers in their studios) can tell where slow-downs are occurring.
As the Cessna completes a curve to head west again, Don and Kym flip down their window visors in a single motion. The sun blasts through the front windshield seconds after. Mt. Helix has the look of a decaying Ziggurat. Passing on to rejoin 94 heading west, the Cessna moves into Lindbergh Field's terminal control area The pilot looks over his left shoulder at a commercial jet heading in from the eastern horizon. He radios the tower for permission to enter their airspace.
"We got it," he nods to Kym. "We just gotta stay on this side a little bit." He makes a chopping motion with his right hand. Kym puts an arm over her seat back and smiles. "This is sort of a tricky area for us. Many times they’ll just refuse us entry. We don’t argue Keep your eyes open for large commercial jets."
Below us. 94 merges down to only two lanes where it meets 125. The eastbound cars swerve and dart for position as they approach the funnel. Kym points out the new trolley line coming out to El Cajon. She's seen a considerable decrease in congestion since the line from downtown to La Mesa opened and is enthusiastic about further trolley development. There are currently 30 miles of such track in use in San Diego. An additional 60 miles will be completed by the year 2000. Eventually, the La Mesa line will swing up as far as Interstate 8. where it will meet another line running from Mission Valley to Santee A third line will run between downtown San Diego and Del Mar. In Del Mar, the line will intersect with the extension of Route 125.
‘‘One to base.’’ Kym checks in with her office and reports on eastbound 94. "North Park is to our right," Kym calls out, mimicking a tour guide’s chirp. A clotted river of cars obscures the asphalt of Interstate 15, from 8 through 40th Street's five traffic signals. Gaps appear where the road descends and becomes a proper freeway again, sidling towards 805. The beginnings of the 40th Street expansion are barely visible: a few yellow dirt lots, some metal lumps that must be road graders. When complete. 40th Street between 8 and 805 will be an eight-lane freeway. Two blocks of cover over the freeway are planned; the city will consider developing these and a piece of land near Adams Avenue into parks.
"Southbound 805 dense as traffic from 805 and 94 merge to head down into the South Bay," Kym tells Metro through her microphone, looking up 805 to 8 with her binoculars. The interchange is a monster of twined cement tentacles, studded with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
"There's a stalled truck off to one side of 15. Could have been in the roadway earlier and caused all this slowing.,.." In front of the Cessna, the glinting towers of downtown rise. Emerald City-like, from the end of westbound 94.
It’s 4:00, time for Kym’s first report, to radio station XTRA. Her headset has an AM/FM radio in its right earpiece and an audio connection with her office in the left. When she fails to reach XTRA by two-way radio, she waits. She adjusts her two-way. "Sometimes we get a lot of interference from Miramar — which actually shouldn't affect my reports because we're on a different frequency." She raises an eyebrow. Kym will wait for XTRA to contact her. listening to the station's broadcast for clues to the trouble.
"There’s the Navy." she points down. The entire shipyard is visible: more than 50 grey ships, bright as toys. The Exxon Valdez, in dry dock, looks twice as big as the aircraft carrier berthed next to it. Farther down the docks, near another ship, oily, brownish clouds on the water's surface mar the bay's brilliant aqua.
Kym puts a warning finger in the air to signal "no talking.” The studio is calling. "Go base" She grips her pen and scribbles something down. "We need to go south," she tells Marasco, pointing that direction. "All the way to the border. There’s an accident on 805 right near it." Kym does not usually go to the border: the studio receives that information from the highway patrol, which gets it from the U.S. Border Patrol. Some travelers with cellular phones, who are in line to cross the border, call in their waiting times to Metro Traffic. "When you talk to the people who call in, it seems the border patrol tends to underestimate the waiting time...."
It is a clear day. The mountains of Tijuana are sharply in focus and cluttered with uneven roofs You can see Catalina, the Coronado Islands. A Navy jet describes a lazy curve over the calm ocean. Rust-colored squiggles delineate the deep offshore canyons.
"Southbound 5 starting to do its thing now," Kymythy tells the studio. "It'll slow approaching Front Street and the Civic Center to Harbor Drive as people head into the South Bay here" Switching the radio off, she adds. “It’s not usually too bad. just kind of a small area where it bunches up."
The "S-curve" "Round-robins." "SigAlerts." "Number-two lane." "Working an accident." The terminology of air traffic reporting has become familiar, if not understandable, to everyone who drives to and from work. "SigAlerts," Monica Zech chuckles. Referring to the origin of the name, she says, "Without a doubt the most asked question of all time" A SigAlert is a radio bulletin issued by the California Highway Patrol to warn motorists of a major traffic tie-up, where lanes are expected to be blocked for 30 minutes or more. The name is a tribute to Loyd Sigmon, the Los Angeles radio broadcaster who began the SigAlert service some 30-odd years ago — incidentally, on a Labor Day weekend.
Over Coronado and down the Silver Strand — the Hotel Del; beige, pristine beaches; apartment towers. A cargo plane headed for North Island growls past the Cessna’s right wing. Leaving the Strand, the Cessna heads slightly inland, over the bay. Where the Silver Strand veers inland, salt flats and marshlands segment the water into fields of white, oxblood. lavender, lapis. Kym gestures toward the right, "There's the border. Not too bad. Yet." Beyond the checkpoint, cars are nose-to-end all the way back onto the Zona Rio interchange in Tijuana.
The Cessna curves sharply left and down, leaving our stomachs somewhere above us. The accident on 805, an overturned truck, is out of the road and not causing any problems. When a report of an accident is dispatched over the police scanner, Metro checks back with involved agencies for verification. "We've learned to say report of an accident' rather than 'an accident,’ ” Monica says. "A lot of times it’s just a car that's broken down, and somebody else stopped to help them out, or it was a quick fender-bender." Another problem is that motorists calling in are often unable to accurately name the location of an accident.
Rather than re-enter Lindbergh's flight path. Marasco cuts back west to parallel 5 from over the bay. Construction is nearly complete on the South Bay Freeway, Route 54, from west of 805 near National City to Worthington Street east of San Diego, a distance of nearly four miles. Currently a four-lane expressway (a divided highway for through-traffic, with "partial control of access," capable of handling more traffic than an urban arterial street but less than a freeway), some sections of the route now carry 48,000 vehicles a day and are projected to carry 113,000 vehicles per day by the year 2010. The unfinished ramps connecting 54 with I-5 empty out into air, looking like the aftermath of an earthquake. Construction was halted because of a legal battle with the Sierra Club; but according to Steve Saville, it will resume toward the end of this year.
CalTrans's Ron Main says that selecting freeway locations and designing the proper facility is the easy part of what the agency does. Convincing the government and the public that they've made the right decisions is much more difficult. One project that didn't make it is Route 252. from I-5 to I-805 on the border between San Diego and National City. CalTrans invested $11 million in the project and cleared the land to build the road. But some residents of the area protested that they had already been impacted by freeways to an intolerable degree, and the plans have been scrapped.
Beyond the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, each familiar building of downtown is visible "There’s Horton Plaza," Kym calls out. It looks very much like an amusement park. "There's the zoo. It’s amazing how little of the zoo you can see, other than the parking lot.” The, area is a mass of brownish-green foliage.
From the air as well as on the ground, 163 between 8 and 5 is the prettiest road around, a lush, dark furrow. It is also the oldest bit of freeway still in use in San Diego, completed in 1946. But the stretch is overburdened now. and while 163's interchange with I-8 is currently undergoing an $18.5-million upgrade, there's no room for expansion through the freeway's Balboa Park section.
The Cessna passes directly over Lindbergh Field. Following 5 north past Washington Street, the marine layer becomes visible in cross-section on the plane's left side. It is white and fluffy looking, between a smooth-surfaced, grayish underside and a celestial, whipped-potato top. "Looks like it's already covering 5 up here," Kym notes grimly, knowing that the thick, persistent cloudbank will interfere with her view of the roads below.
Near Sea World Drive Kym spots a slow-down and a truck pulled over on the right shoulder. "Looks like somebody lost something off of a truck. It was slowing traffic because... God, that’s dumb — somebody went out in traffic to retrieve whatever it was."
Debris is a traffic reporter's main source of amusement. In addition to shredded tires and various engine parts. Kym has seen mattresses, suitcases, and sheets. Monica Zech says there are days when debris seems to follow a theme; Appliance Day. Tool Day. Furniture Day. "We've had. like, three, four ladders in one commute."
But most often, what's in the roadway is people. "A large part of that," Zech says, "is aliens in South Bay." Problems also arise from people running into the road to retrieve items that have fallen off of loads. Or cars breaking down on freeways and the drivers running across the freeway to get to a gas station or phone. Zech. who frequently lectures on highway safety and related topics, says nine out of ten so-called freeway breakdowns are actually just cars running out of gas. Mechanical failure and flat tires account for the other ten percent.
Freeway call boxes are supposed to help this situation, but there's a lot of abuse of this emergency system. Says Zech, "People will call to ask directions to the zoo or Disneyland. People have wanted to know the hours of Disneyland or the zoo. They've got people in a profession — a doctor, lawyer — who're late for an appointment, and they’ll ask the dispatcher to call ahead and tell them they'll be late."
At 4:07. XTRA finally contacts Kymythy. After a greeting, she pauses, listening to the station on her headphones, then begins her report. "Okay. Right now on southbound 5, just south of Mission Bay Drive, we have a vehicle on the right shoulder. Looks like they’ve lost something on the travel lane, and we seem to have people running out to get it. So traffic's bunching up right there. Should clear out pretty soon because the people just got back over to the right shoulder..." She pauses. "Southbound 5, south of Mission Bay Drive, and then further south, traffic bunching up approaching Civic Center to Harbor Drive as you head into the South Bay. We also notice that eastbound 94 is bunching up by 25th Street I heard you mention that car on the ramp; look’s like they've got that off on the shoulder now. Also northbound 15 was bumper-to-bumper from Ocean View to 94...."
Over Mount Soledad. the La Jolla coastline is silvery in the marine layer's advancing haze. "There's Steve Springer,” Kym points to another single-engine plane flying in the opposite direction on the other side of I-5. Springer flies for the company he owns, Airwatch Communications, now "the largest traffic-monitoring service operating in San Diego,” he says.
Looking east over Route 52, few cars can be seen, although the average daily traffic on 52, between I-5 and I-805, increased more than 61 percent from 1980 to '87. According to Monica Zech, the road's beginning was inauspicious. "When they built highway 52, at first it seemed that hardly anyone was using it. We'd make fun of that. They'd say, 'Well, highway 52 looks good.' and I'd say. Yeah, for the only two people that are using it.' But now it relieves a lot of the congestion coming out of Kearny Mesa into Mission Valley on the 805 to the 8.
“(But) now people are continuing across on 52 to south 15. which is not as big. So 15 stacks up along Murphy Canyon to the point where it will be bumper to bumper, because everyone wants to get onto 8. It gets really bad if there's a stadium event.” Target date for the completion of 52's continuation east to 67 is 2002. Along the way, extensions will be built from 52 to Mission Gorge Road and other streets.
The 5/805 merge appears, a creeping mass of brightly colored metal that is stopped dead near Del Mar Heights Road. "Go, base." Switching again into her on-air voice, Kym talks to Dave Berg at the Metro studio. "Right now the northbound 5/805 merge is stop-and-go approaching Carmel Valley."
The Cessna sweeps inland. In the distance. Cuyamaca Peak, Middle Peak, and North Peak stick their summits above the smog. Schultze receives word from the studio of a vehicle fire on I-15, and Don veers south. For miles, northbound automobiles are bumper to bumper. The vehicle fire turns out to be a distinctly uncharred-looking compact car with a fire truck parked behind it. There is no smoke and no flame. "Well, whatever was here," Kym snorts, "it's gone now."
Farther south, traffic is moving smoothly along 15 in CalTrans's widely publicized HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes. A sort of perk for ridesharers. more HOV lanes are planned for I-5 north of route 8, and for highway 15. The cost of adding HOV lanes to I-15 between Friars Road and Route 52 alone — a distance of 4.5 miles — is currently estimated at $12 million.
At the point where 15 drops down into Mission Valley, Kymythy gestures toward Jack Murphy Stadium. The massive structure is ringed with boxy mobile homes. Sunlight flashes off shiny truckbeds. "The game doesn't start till 7. Look at all the tailgate parties! And it's barely 4:30." Schultze speculates that the traffic on Friars Road and the Friars Road interchange with I-15 might not be as bad as usual because so many people have arrived so early.
Kym's notepad is now covered with scribbled lines, notes in margins. She shuffles through her sponsor sheets, bold-typed scripts she rotates with her
reports. The plane, whipping along at 90 knots, passes a blue party balloon that has somehow floated 3500 feet up without bursting.
We fly back out 8, over Gillespie Field, down 67. The congestion on 8 has traffic in El Cajon nearly at a standstill. It is hot. One of the plane's air vents is broken. The windows must remain shut against noise and turbulence. Kym's and Don's light cotton shirts are sticking to their backs. Heading toward 94 a second time, the Cessna climbs to 4000 feet to avoid a commercial jet. We drop back down to 3000. Downtown and Interstate 5 come into view again. At 5 p.m., cars are inching along the snake of I-5 from Front Street to 163 to 94. An ambulance is parked on the shoulder of a ramp to 163, behind a highway patrol car and two slightly rumpled-looking passenger cars. Kym gestures to the pilot to circle around for a second look.
Back up 5. the marine layer is creeping farther inland. At Del Mar Heights Road. Kym calls Metro to report a vehicle facing north in the southbound lanes, on the center divide. Kym switches a toggle on her headset and listens in on radio station KGB, preparing for her next live report. Contact with the station is made by two-way, she gives her report in a folksy, relaxed voice. Stations sometimes request certain reporters or a certain on-air style Kym says she "likes to kid around with the KGB morning-show guys. But some stations want just the facts."
Kym asks Don to cut across to 15, over Rancho Santa Fe and we have a view of the horse farms and Spanish-style estates, ornamental lakes and tennis courts. There is no hint of the shacks that are hidden in the thick foliage of the surrounding hillsides.
Heading south on 15, the Cessna descends to 1600 feet for our passage through Miramar Naval Air Station's airspace. Kym asks Metro for an update on I-8, data for which she exchanges: "We have an accident on northbound 15, three-car, CHP not yet on the scene..."
An F-14's shadow flits over the barren hills on the Cessna's left. The jet suddenly appears again on our right side. Kym says they’ve had some near misses with F-14s, some, she speculates, intentional buzzing on the part of exuberant young pilots. "When I can look over and see the guy’s face, that's too close!"
Whatever the dangers of her job may be, Kym still feels safer up here than she does on the ground. "Traffic,” she admits, "is not hilarious." She doesn’t mention unpleasant details on the air — "unlike one radio station that talks about ‘road pizzas' and stuff.” But in Schultze’s brief airborne career, she has seen plenty. Bodies through windshields, blood. "It’s worst when the ambulances haven’t gotten there yet. You can see it all. but you feel so useless!”
Monica Zech is a veteran witness of many tragic scenes. "We used to be the ones who called in the majority of fatalities," Zech says. An increase in the number of car phones in use is part of the reason air-traffic reporters are less often the first respondents to accident scenes these days. "You’d see a lot of the end results of when someone didn't buckle up, being ejected from their cars, seeing the cracked windshield from where their head hit.”
"You see a lot of the blood and gore. The vehicle fires. The overturns." Monica says the worst she has seen was on Del Mar Heights Road shortly before she quit flying. A girder had fallen onto a crane operator. She remained circling the scene, giving traffic reports, from 2 p.m. until 7 pm. And in 1985, on Interstate 8 at 125, a truck lost its freight, hit the guardrail, and remained dangling off an overpass for hours. "Traffic was backed up on 94 and on 8 — backed up on 8 all the way to Interstate 5. where it backed up even further."
On the wall of Monica Zech’s office at Metro, there are plaques: one Golden Mike and two San Diego Press Club awards for her coverage of the July 1984 San Ysidro massacre. "Bullets were actually getting to the freeway so that a section had to be closed." Monica had heard reports that the gunman had a radio. "I didn’t want to give away that I could see people crouched in the corners of the playland portion of it. They looked like they were dead because they were so still, but then I could see they were hiding. Imagine if I had said." she switches to her cheery on-air voice, "Yes, and there's people hiding in the bushes ..' Afterward. I got a lot of feedback on my reporting, especially from U.S. Customs. They said they had a long backup [at the border], but no one complained. They could hear the radios tuned to me. and they were all patient."
It is near the end of the afternoon. An accident on eastbound 94 is reported, and Kymythy includes mention of it in her next XTRA report. Another F-14 flies by. The Cessna climbs to 2000 feet and leaves 15 to follow 805 south. The sun sears through the windows. Don adjusts some switches and makes contact with Montgomery Field for permission to fly over. By the time Interstate 8 appears again, the ramp from 805 to 8's eastbound lanes is clogged from the edge of Kearny Mesa all the way to Adams Avenue.
"You can see it’s heavier now." Kym says, "probably because of my earlier report about an accident on 94 east. People will avoid driving a certain way. immediately."
After another circuit of the freeway system. Kymythy shrugs her shoulders. "You must be good luck. This is incredibly light for a holiday." It is nearly 6 p.m. Cars, nearly colorless in the glare, are moving in clusters now on 805, on 15, on 163. The light is hard. Lake Murray is an oakleaf of tin.
Checking in with the Metro studio a last time, Kym records a final traffic update for an upcoming radio program, then presses index finger to thumb in front of the pilot. An okay sign that means "head for home."
As Kym caps her pen and clips it to her notepad, the growl of the Cessna's engine drops an octave and we descend. Another small plane, perhaps a businessman returning home from a different kind of commute, circles Montgomery Field above and behind us. Office buildings, fences, trees, and cars pop up to life size The smog once again becomes a vague menace, far away in a blue summer sky. Don puts the Cessna gingerly down at Montgomery Field. The ground is reassuringly firm.
The Cessna s windows are popped open, and we all sigh at the fresh air. Kym opens her bag and puts on a pair of plastic child’s sunglasses. There's a cheery, round-bellied airplane on the bridge of the nose. "Monica gave these to me the other day. Cute, huh?”
Can We Get There From Here?
Says one CalTrans staffer, "There was no way we could have known how rapidly the city would expand. We underestimated population growth.” As a result, the freeway system in CalTrans District 11 — which includes San Diego, Imperial, and Riverside Counties — has been "underbuilt." And highway traffic congestion is the first and most obvious consequence. CalTrans estimates that motorists in San Diego County now experience about five million vehicle-hours of delay each year, and the state agency expects that figure to triple by 2005
In 1980 each San Diego-area resident was traveling approximately 17 miles a day by car. By 1988 the figure had risen to 23 miles a day. A 1986 CalTrans study found that the average trip length of a freeway user had increased 15 percent, from 9.3 minutes in 1977 to 10.6 minutes in 1986 The average trip distance increased from 5.5 miles to 6.4 miles. Not surprisingly, people spend the most driving time traveling to and from work.
In 1986 the average vehicle occupancy rate for all freeway trips was 1.4 persons. Home-to-work trips had the lowest occupancy rate, an average of 1.06 persons per vehicle.
To measure freeway congestion ("level of service," abbreviated LOS. is the polite term), CalTrans compares data from vehicle counts, conducted periodically at designated freeway locations, with each freeway's known capacity. Figures from 1987 show three major trouble spots. Interstate 5, south of Encinitas Blvd.; Interstate 8. west of I-15; and Interstate 805, south of Route 52. All three have at least nine hours of service levels graded C or worse, which means the freeways are more than 50 percent full, there is little room to maneuver, and cars will be traveling under 45 miles an hour. But as traffic reporter Monica Zech says. "The worst spot on San Diego's freeways is wherever you are stuck in traffic."
Peak congestion hours on our local freeways are now spreading out Los Angeles-style over most of the day, although 8 a.m and 5 p.m. are still the most popular times for drivers to be on the road, an increasing number are beginning their morning commutes at 7 a.m.; and peak evening commute time now stretches from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. On Interstate 805 southbound, the situation is even more extreme. The section below Route 52 in Clairemont had only two periods of LOS C-rated time in 1981 — 8 a m and 5 p.m. By 1987 the hours of 8 a m. and 9 a m. had both slipped to D ratings, and the C rated hours stretched from 10 a m. to 3 p.m. The hours from 4 to 6 p.m. were E-rated; and by 7 p.m., traffic flow had improved only to a C. If you want smooth sailing on 805. try driving between 11 p.m. and 6 a m. — the only hours with a density of 12 or fewer vehicles per mile per lane.
As long as there are no traffic accidents, disabled vehicles, spilled loads, or bad weather, it is possible to encounter little or no congestion at the D level of service. However, even minor incidents can cause major problems, as cars have little room to maneuver when they’re packed 42 to a mile in each lane.
Faced with such daunting statistics, CalTrans has proposed, as part of its overall traffic-management plan for San Diego, a $73 million traffic operations center. The center will include a computer and communications system of ramp meters, closed-circuit television, under-pavement incident detectors, highway advisory radio locations, motorist information message signs on the freeways, and three incident-response teams on the freeways during rush hour, to help remove stalled vehicles and help out at accident scenes.
A number of construction projects, scheduled through the year 2010, are included in the newly adopted Regional Transportation Plan developed by SAN DAG (San Diego Association of Governments, a 40-year-old agency run by public officials from around the county). The RTP proposes that San Diego's freeway system be increased by 53 miles. Besides the addition of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes (sometimes called diamond lanes), freeways will be upgraded through widening, interchange improvements, and 170 additional ramp meters.
To ease the congestion on the freeway system still further, a regional arterial road system is also in the works.
Improvements for alternative modes of transportation are also suggested: trolley line expansions; AMTRAK commuter runs down the coast; expansion of regional airports, as well as Lindbergh Field. The plan also suggests that San Diego’s 400-mile bicycle path network be lengthened by approximately 30 miles per year. Local efforts to develop alternative transportation include the formation of TMAs — transportation management associations — composed mostly of area employers and dedicated to encouraging carpooling and trolley-and bus-riding by providing incentives for employees. Monica Zech, active in the downtown TMA, sees the groups as one preventive measure San Diego can take to avoid ending up with Los Angeles-style congestion and pollution.
In June of 1989. SANDAG’S board of directors adopted the $14 billion RTP (of which $4.9 billion remains unfunded). Implementation now depends on CalTrans and other involved local agencies. At CalTrans. for example, project proposals go to the California Transportation Commission, where a final decision is made and funding, if any, is allocated. CalTrans spokesman Steve Saville says that the agency generally follows SANDAG’s recommendations closely, and that it’s safe to assume that if SANDAG’s plan proposes 170 new ramp meters, for example, there will be 170 new ramp meters.