Bernie Wagenblast is as synonymous with traffic information as Henry Ford is with automobiles. The industry veteran looks back over a 40-year career and documents how times have changed.
For many of us it’s as much a part of our morning routine as brushing our teeth or making a cup of coffee. Either before we head out the door, or while we’re en route, we check the traffic and transit conditions to see what our commute is going to be like.
For over 40 years I’ve had a perch of watching how that process has evolved as a traffic reporter, public sector employee and transportation journalist in the New York City area. In the mid 1970s traffic news was important to New York-area drivers, but only two radio stations made an investment in covering traffic news by using helicopters. Most of the other stations didn’t ignore traffic, but they usually relegated its collection to an intern or a new hire who would monitor what the traffic helicopters were reporting and, perhaps, make a few phone calls to police agencies.
At the time, radio traffic reports were the exclusive source for real-time traffic information. Radio and traffic were made for each other. Most cars had AM radios and in the days before cassettes and eight tracks and if you wanted entertainment for your journey, your AM radio was about the only source.
Helicopters had some great advantages when it came to gathering traffic information. Even in a city with three major airports, helicopters could fly almost anywhere and from their aerial perspective the pilot/reporters could see what was happening. This was especially important because at that time it was police who monitored and responded to incidents and they often were not anxious to share that information, especially with the media.
SUCH A RUSH
The first big change to traffic information came with the birth of traffic reporting companies. In the US there were two major firms that were both founded in the late 1970s; Metro Traffic and Shadow Traffic. The idea behind the companies made a lot of sense. Traffic and transit news were important to radio listeners but most broadcasters couldn’t afford to fly helicopters. Why not outsource the gathering and reporting of traffic news to a company dedicated to that task? Even the two radio stations who flew choppers subscribed to the service. Shadow Traffic came to New York in 1979, a few years after it was founded in Philadelphia. At the start, Shadow’s NYC operation was exclusively a rush hour service.
A group of on-air reporters and producers would work a split shift getting commuters to and from work. Shadow used a fleet of small planes to cover the suburbs and spotters with binoculars atop the World Trade Center and Empire State Building to find problems. Back in the studio, each reporter would serve several stations with updates.
There was one new technology that was introduced by Shadow to the world of traffic reporting; the Shadow Box. In the 1970s and ’80s, CB radio was widely used by drivers, especially truckers, to share traffic information. One limitation of these radios was their range of only a few miles. Shadow Boxes were strategically located in gas stations near major highways. Inside a metal box was a CB radio connected to a phone line. From our studios in New Jersey we were able to dial into these CB radios and with a touch-tone phone transmit questions and listen to the drivers talking about problems.
During this time period transportation agencies in the NYC area took their first steps toward taking a more active role in managing traffic real-time. In the early 1980s DOTs mostly focused on building and maintaining roadways. Response was left to emergency agencies such as the police and fire departments. In 1986 the New York City Department of Transportation, under first deputy commissioner Sam Schwartz, opened a communications center on the Queens side of the 59th Street Bridge. The room, with second-hand radios and television monitors focused on the bridge, was NYCDOT’s first significant attempt at monitoring and responding to real-time traffic conditions. Via the center, traffic agents and contracted tow trucks were dispatched to incidents in an effort to clear them more quickly and to provide information to the DOT and the public, via the broadcast traffic reporting services.
At about the same time the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was helping to create the Transportation Operations Coordinating Committee, better known as TRANSCOM. The New York, New Jersey, Connecticut region is home to dozens of agencies responsible for various pieces of the transportation network. These agencies historically did little coordination in planning or responding to incidents. Following an especially bad example of the lack of coordination during a construction project, the major agencies were recruited to join TRANSCOM to improve both real-time coordination and advance planning for construction projects and major events.
TRANSCOM’s early efforts were not very sophisticated by today’s standards. Like the traffic reporting services, TRANSCOM was not 24/7. The sharing of information was primarily accomplished by alphanumeric pagers. This meant operators who might page doctors after-hours were also responsible for sending messages about major accidents overnight and on weekends.
Beyond sharing information, TRANSCOM also started to become a resource to test technology and share resources. Two early examples were a Velcro truck and slow-scan television via cellphones. The Velcro truck was an idea borrowed from Caltrans. A utility truck with a signboard had a library of cloth messages that could be sent to highways in the event of major problems to inform drivers. Slow-scan television was a bit more technologically sophisticated. TRANSCOM was one of the first to hook a camera to a cellphone in an effort to transit “live” pictures from the field. At the time the cameras were rather bulky and the cellular connection was via a phone permanently attached to the vehicle. The black and white pictures would take several seconds to refresh, but they were a precursor of the almost ubiquitous cameras we can view today.
While TRANSCOM was primarily created to share information among agencies, a side benefit was that it also served as a clearinghouse for sharing information with the traffic reporting companies. By notifying TRANSCOM, the agencies could also get their information out to the public via the traffic services.
While all this was going on, Shadow Traffic was joined by Metro Traffic as a broadcast service in the New York City market. Traffic reporting was now a round-the-clock service you could find every ten minutes on the city’s two all-news stations. No longer was radio the exclusive broadcaster of traffic information; TV stations in the city added traffic updates to their morning news shows.
Helicopters were still used to gather traffic information for broadcasts, but the fleet of airplanes, which could only fly during good weather and during rush hours, were grounded in favor of a growing network of privately-owned cameras. The cameras served double-duty. In addition to being used to monitor conditions, they also were used by the TV stations during their reports. Public agencies were also growing their network of cameras, but there was no ability to share those images with the public or broadcasters.
Both the agencies and the traffic services desired to share their information with the public, but they did it through different media and with somewhat different goals. The traffic companies relied primarily on television and radio broadcasts to disseminate information and the agencies were starting to use technology such as dot matrix signs.
The different bosses and clients of the two groups also sometimes lead to strains in the relationship. While both ultimately serve the public, the traffic services are also involved in reporting news for their stations and that meant they were interested in details the agencies didn’t necessarily want to share, especially if it reflected negatively on the agency or elected officials.
THE HUMAN TOUCH
While Metro Networks and Shadow Traffic primarily relied on broadcasts to get their information out, a new hybrid model was being created in New England. SmartRoute Systems partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in the late 1980s to share information via an interactive telephone system. Real people, rather than computer-generated speech, were used to record traffic updates for segments of roadways and for transit in the Boston area. Callers would dial a number and via a touch-tone phone could access reports on the segments in which they had an interest. The system was created during Boston’s Big Dig, when the massive construction project was causing significant traffic disruptions. SmartRoute was one of the first to create a short-cut phone number to access information, in the days before 511 was established. The shortened version of the number required the cooperation of the cellular phone companies to create and properly route the phone calls. SmartRoute Systems also had broadcast clients, but MassDOT was its biggest customer. SmartRoute expanded to other markets, usually through a contract with a transportation agency serving that region.
By the mid to late 1990s the Internet was taking hold and both traffic reporting companies and transportation agencies started to use the Web to share traffic information. Metro and Shadow were slower to embrace the Internet, in part because they didn’t want to divert listeners from tuning in to broadcasts. SmartRoute Systems, on the other hand, embraced the Internet as another tool to help them disseminate information.
At the turn of the 21st Century consolidation began in the traffic reporting business. Westwood One, which owned Shadow Broadcast Services, bought its largest competitor, Metro Networks. Several years after that, Westwood One also purchased SmartRoute Systems.
On a personal note, my career had come full circle in 2009 when after a 23-year gap I once again found myself on the radio as a traffic reporter. Getting back into the studio I felt a little like the Rip Van Winkle of traffic reporting. When I left the broadcast booth in 1986, traffic reporting was an analog business. Cellphones, traffic cameras, satellite radio and the Internet were still tools of the future. Reel-to-reel tape was how we recorded reports. Now it was all done digitally. Where we once had to rely on spotters and police for information, we now were getting calls directly from listeners stuck in traffic jams and could find problems by moving our own cameras.
Despite the technological changes the mission hasn’t changed since the dawn of my traffic reporting career in the 1970s. We still are working to get the correct information to travelers in the fastest way possible.
Bernie Wagenblast is editor of Transportation Communications Newsletter