Gridlock Guy: Covering Atlanta traffic during a pandemic

Traffic will be lighter than before the virus for a long time, but some of it is and is continuing to return

These strange times have caused confusion and stress for many. Job loss, anxiety, social distancing, changing habits, down time — all these have thrown sticks into the bicycle spokes of routine life.

WSB Triple Team Traffic has seen both sides of the coin during this pandemic. We largely have operated at full capacity, but we have had to pivot our strategy of how we cover traffic, given how those patterns have changed.

Atlanta traffic evaporated like the steam off of the streets in the muggy sun after a summer storm. Well, even faster. Metro Atlanta needed about one week to go from terrible to eerily wonderful, as towering waves of closures and stay-at-home orders crashed on our shores in mid-March.

Traffic is part of WSB’s bread and butter around the clock on the 95.5 WSB and in the mornings on Channel 2 Action News. Our traffic coverage suddenly went from relevant and timely to really being in the way of the swarm of the coronavirus news. We were jumping in like normal — every six minutes on radio and every 10 on TV — but we pretty much universally were saying, “Nothing to see here. Ain’t that weird? Move on along.” But we still patrolled the roads in the WSB Skycopter and looked over our map data on the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App with a fine-toothed comb. We were ready to pounce on any strand of hair that appeared out of place.

Being less relevant was a bit of a gut-punch to us. Covering big traffic blockages was still important for essential workers and emergency responders, but Atlanta and America were mostly holed up at home. We, like you, had no idea how long the “Great American Shutdown” would or should last. We wondered how long we would stay powered up and staffed up if this diminuendo continued to softly play. Did we sound and look silly?

But while other stations suspended traffic reporting or just had news anchors quickly voice over traffic maps, WSB Radio and TV pressed on. We eliminated some reports during drive times, because there were no longer dozens of miles-long, predictive traffic delays. But we still stayed on the air and present digitally. And, as noted multiple times in this column, there have been just enough bad crashes and extended construction zones to make driving around town extremely unpredictable. The best tool any driver can bring to their commute is preparedness. Triple Team Traffic was and is still relevant!

But we, too, have also had to conform to work-at-home orders and the effects, both good and bad, that they have. The WSB Traffic Center usually has three people in it at drive time on weekdays. COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines reduced that to two.

"Quarantine life is a challenge," 95.5 WSB and KISS 104.1 morning reporter Veronica Harrell said. She and afternoon reporter Mike Shields each work their weekday shifts at home, only coming into our Midtown studios for their solo weekend shifts. "Although I love the comfort of being at home, I do miss the technical assurance I have when I'm inside of the Traffic Center."

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Harrell is referring to the multiple computers and monitors we have to effectively watch multiple problems on the WSB Jam Cams (which are harder to access on the bulky intranet site remotely) and the multiple police scanners we have to listen to emergency dispatches about wrecks and other problems.

Morning reporter Ashley Frasca and I have been gung-ho about those police scanners and the good nuggets of news we can hear on them and nowhere else. Frasca's keen ears have heard multiple fatal wrecks in recent mornings and even a police chase and carjacking of a news van. With fewer people out on the roads calling in info to us, we and the rest of the Traffic Team have had to beef up our scanner listening and "detective work" around traffic incidents. I have actually called businesses near the scenes of road closures to see if they are still blocked. The cameras nearby weren't working and the police the GDOT didn't have straight answers. The devil is in the details and that is especially so these days in traffic reporting.

Our on-air strategy has shifted from adhering to a geographical rotation in our rush-hour reports, to taking an approach more apropos for midday and weekend traffic. That is, we simply rotate covering the worst traffic problems. So a listener or viewer will not hear us spending time saying a bunch of interstates are clear as much as they will hear us repeating the few problems we do have.

And with regulations around the state easing and more people taking to the streets, traffic volume is slowly on the rise, as are the number of wrecks. Conditions are nowhere as bad as they were pre-pandemic, but we're starting to see daily PM drive delays where I-285 hits I-20 on both sides of town and the busy I-75/85 at I-20 intersection. AM drive WSB Skycopter anchor Smilin' Mark McKay keeps relaying, however, that the mornings are still a lot less busy than the afternoons. This is likely because people are running errands in the afternoons and sleeping-in in the mornings, since many commutes are just from the bed to the home office.

That remote-working environment has been a blessing for Shields and Harrell. They each save hours per week in commuting and have fashioned up multiple devices to be able to gather traffic information and report for 95.5 WSB and our music stations. They can remotely upload reports for KISS 104.1, 97.1 The River, and B98.5FM almost as seamlessly as they could from the studio. But those reports and their live ones on WSB Radio do have a bit less audio quality than before. It’s all still very impressive, considering they didn’t work at home as much before.

Another drawback for them, just like many of you, is the people they do not get to see.

“The work-at-home life can also make it difficult to contact my co-workers. Overall, I do miss the energy that being on-air at the radio station brings,” Harrell, who arguably is the biggest social butterfly on our Traffic Team, said.

So as we all look ahead to what life looks like in the second half of 2020, know that WSB Triple Team Traffic has stayed full bore in our defense of your commute. But we also have experienced some of the fears and strangeness that you have in this major cultural adjustment. Traffic will be lighter than before the virus for a long time, but some of it is and is continuing to return.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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