“Cramps on the ramps,” “waits at the gates,” and “tails at the tolls” are among traffic reporter Chuck Whitaker’s pet phrases when he’s telling drivers in Baltimore and Florida that roadways aren’t clear.
The long-time fixture on WCBM and numerous radio stations in the Sunshine State hasn’t been using those stock descriptions recently, as highways and major streets have few commuters making their way to work or school.
As the COVID-19 pandemic made going to work some place other than a kitchen table obsolete, every metropolitan area in the United States saw a virtual halt to its car travel. Gone were the school buses, mass transit, college students driving to campus, and ticket holders heading to sporting events.
Traffic was at a standstill, because there was none.
But while other professions were able to shift—Zoom management meetings, telemedicine, online teaching, and the like—traffic reporters were jammed. Unlike their entertainment, sports, politics, health, and business brethren, they had nothing to report on.
“It went from a full-capacity rush hour to about 50% of the rush hour,” recalls Whitaker, a 51-year veteran. “We were sitting there kind of twiddling our thumbs. In our business, it’s harder to say nothing than to be busy with lot of problems.”
The death of traffic
Once 40- to 45-seconds long, Whitaker’s reports were by cut about 50%. Listeners heard him use descriptions like “pretty smooth,” “easing on down the road,” and “you’ve got the road all to yourself.” The audience for those traffic hits were likely essential workers.
That was the situation everywhere. Notorious national hotspots, like Houston’s Loop 610 and the Hudson River crossings linking New York and New Jersey, simmered down to nothing, while the I-10 in Los Angeles and I-94/I-90 between the Stevenson Expressway and I-294 in Chicago were as quiet as the intersection of Main and Elm streets.
Between the beginning of March and the middle of April, traffic dropped 51% nationwide, according to StreetLight Data, which tracks vehicle travel patterns. As of last week, it was 10%.
Chuck Whitaker, traffic reporter, WCBM
We were sitting there kind of twiddling our thumbs.”
With that decline came a diminished need for radio and TV traffic reporting, according to Bernie Wagenblast, editor of the Transportation Communications Newsletter. Stations either trimmed the length or frequency of their reports or nixed them entirely; some of those with round-the-clock coverage jettisoned reports between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
What was left to cover were the road crews, taking advantage of decreased traffic to do repair work for longer stretches of time, and the new traffic patterns taking root, as highways exits and surface streets near COVID-19 testing sites, food pantries, grocery stores with special hours, and other now-busy spots overhauled the well-trod traffic maps.
Traffic reporting workarounds
Traffic reporters found what to talk about by focusing on smaller disruptions, rather than expletive-inducing miles-long backups, or by giving more details about fewer incidents instead of motor-mouthing through long lists of trouble spots. “Spreading it out a bit” is what they say, though the nature of a big city is to provide something to report on.
“Any of them that had experience would never go on air and say, ‘Everything looks good from Trenton to Stamford,’ because someone will say, ‘Why do we need you?'” Wagenblast says, referring to everyone from the helicopter jockeys sounding slightly muffled through their face masks to the music stations’ rush-hour add-ons.
He knows of several traffic reporters who have either been laid off or reassigned since March, although organizations such as SAG-AFTRA that represent broadcast journalists do not have hard data.
Doug Turnbull of 95.5 WSB in Atlanta went from reports every six minutes to eight per hour as traffic became, as he described it, “eerily light.” Previously, the station used as many as four people at a time, plus a helicopter. He recalls what the roadways in the sprawling metropolis were like during the 1996 Summer Olympics and contrasts it with the way things developed in 2020, thanks to telecommuting and shuttered schools.
“As traffic reporters, we used to be so relevant, and now we felt like we’re in the way,” Turnbull says. “Instead of doing macro and huge swatches, we went micro . . . We’ll talk about the four to five biggest incidents. You take a deeper drive. If you have information about how it happened or that it was a six-car crash or a truck was carrying this substance and the multiple ways to get around it.”
From COVID-19 to car crashes
The number of accidents skyrocketed as drivers faced with open roads drove at high speeds, causing more dramatic crashes—and backups—than typical fender-benders. If the standby phrases like “loaded up,” “jam-packed,” or “bumper-to-bumper” were deployed, that’s probably where.
The height of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a 20% increase in collisions, according to the data analytics firm Zendrive.
Fueling that skyrocketing rate are motorists interpreting the open roads as an invitation to speed and a level of pandemic-caused anxiety so high that people constantly want to know if their loved ones are okay, explains Syed Ali Haris, Zendrive’s director of of product marketing. As a result, they’re checking their phones a lot while driving, wrongly assuming they can get away with it with so few other vehicles on the road.
“We were using the phrases ‘wide open’ and ‘free flowing’ way more than we ever expected at times we never expected to say them, like 5 p.m. on Tuesday about the Downtown Connector,” Turnbull says. “We [saw] a increase of people driving at triple-digit speeds and making maneuvers at the last minute. We started to see spectacular wrecks, and gridlock would still happen. We didn’t have to retire that phrase. We just had to say it for different reasons.”
Doug Turnbull, 95.5 WSB
We started to see spectacular wrecks, and gridlock would still happen.”
While an individual city may experience a prolonged traffic hiatus (think metro areas in Florida or Texas after hurricanes, for instance), it’s rare for that to be a national phenomenon. Before COVID-19, the United States experienced this only twice—when the 1973-1974 OPEC oil embargo made gas station lines snarl traffic for miles, and during World War II, when fuel was rationed and cars had stickers on windshields to indicate which motorists had priority on the road. That’s according to Peter Norton, associate professor of engineering and society at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.
“It will mostly return to pre-COVID-19 levels if we really get this epidemic behind us,” he points out. “There’s pent-up demand for driving, so we’ll see a lot of it.”
How American culture became car culture
Traffic is an all-American nuisance. We love building suburbs so much that we now assign numbers to the rings. We send office workers to both city centers and big, glassy office parks. Unlike many countries in Europe and Asia, we don’t embrace mass transit and biking to work.
The car crunch started to increase as automobile radios grew more common; they provided entertainment while driving. Along with it came the push to use your car for shopping, commuting, and every activity in between, due to suburbanization, white flight, and deft automotive-industry advertising in the 1950s. Previously, driving was primarily for weekend recreation.
Six decades later and the long ribbons of brake lights that begat traffic reporters vanished, leaving behind Alex Lee, a reporter on several stations in New York and New Jersey; KNX 1070 Los Angeles airborne reporter Scott Burt; and all the traffic journalists in areas with less notorious commutes.
Danielle Wiggins of Cleveland’s NBC affiliate WKYC, for example, got a new job.
In the Before Times, the morning show anchors would cut to Wiggins every 15 minutes for traffic updates, but in mid-March, as the pandemic pounded its way across the United States, WKYC completely pulled traffic and reassigned Wiggins to cover what she called “stories of hope”—pre-taped features that made her miss being on air live. She was able to resume her schticky shorthand (for instance, “green and clean” means “no traffic,” because of what that color represents in navigation apps) only in the summer when traffic reporting was slowly reintroduced. Wiggins is now a multi-platform anchor, who anchors broadcasts, handles digital news updates, and covers traffic every 30 minutes during the morning show.
“Traffic is nonexistent. There’s one or two or three cars out there each hit for the morning,” she says, describing the height of pandemic. “I’ll joke and count as they’re driving by, when I show the camera.”
Radio and TV traffic reporters study constantly updated maps, watch live-feed cameras installed by traffic-information companies or local transportation departments, listen to state and local police scanners, check in with mass transit agencies, monitor social media, and field calls from tipsters.
For Tom Kaminski of New York’s CBS 880, the job became even more about public service.
“Our point is to provide as much information as possible. It really kind of became evident people still needed that information. They’re still relying on us. They’re relying on us even more so,” he reflects.
Kaminski was working when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. That day, Manhattan closed down, so there was nothing to tell listeners about that borough other than to advise those stranded not to walk through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey. When the city reopened, he had to outline the new reality for commuters, like everything south of 23rd Street was essentially a crime scene and the Holland Tunnel was closed.
“It became a slow-motion 9/11,” he says of the pandemic. “It didn’t happen all at once. The patterns here are across the board. As the reopenings begin, we’ve been seeing the traffic come back little by little.”