The Busiest Travel Day of the Year

In 1992 I moved back to Austin. I wasn’t there a couple of weeks before I was given a job offer back in the media from Metro Traffic Networks. The network provided traffic reports for all most all of the local radio stations. Soon after I went to work for them, I was asked to fill in for the normal airborne reporter, “Buck Naked.” I don’t remember why he couldn’t fly but it fell on me to take his seat in the airplane next to the pilot.

We flew two sorties each day. We were in the air at 5:30 in the morning and would land about 9. We would return for the afternoon shift and be back in the air about 3:30 and stay there until about 7pm. It seemed as though there was an adventure every day. On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving in 1992, the afternoon flight was going to be a bit different. Traditionally, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. More people fly and even more hit the road to get to destinations near and far on that day than any other single day of the year. It is that day in the year where almost everyone sets out “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.”

Our job was to watch the traffic patterns on the streets and highways of Austin. As road blockages or problems became evident our job was to report the incidences and offer alternate routes. As you can imagine there were a lot more cars on the roads that particular afternoon and evening. Lots of folks try to get out of town early. You can see a steady increase in the volume of traffic from noon on. The later into the afternoon you get, the heavier it gets—a trend that continues well on into the evening.

My favorite time to fly was late in the afternoon heading toward twilight. There was something magical about watching Austin go from day to night. It was the lights on the buildings, street lights and the landmarks like the capitol building or the University of Texas tower. It was spectacular and thrilling to be a part of all that.

After the sun set it was fascinating to watch these little “ants” with lights travel the various roadways. It wasn’t hard to see the correlation between the human body and the traffic patterns. I remember thinking how these little cars on the roads resembled blood carrying capillaries, veins & arteries—side streets, main roads and the interstate. It was captivating flying over the city. As we crossed over downtown Austin the main body of traffic was traveling north and south. As you cross I-35 going east as I looked out the left side windows, it was primarily two lines going north and two going south. As you look north it is a solid 2-lane line of red tail lights and a solid 2-lane line of headlights. A glance out the right window would show the same thing only moving in the opposite direction.

As we make our various orbits over the city, you could see where all the police cars, ambulances or fire trucks were that were out on calls just by seeing the flashing lights.

The one instance I recall from that night was an accident at Northbound I-35 and Hwy 290. There was a wreck and it backed up the traffic. What was interesting to me was that visual. Our operational altitude was between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. From that height, if you looked up and down I-35, you could see all the way to Georgetown to the north and San Marcos to the south.

The visual I was referring to was looking to the north where the wreck was that solid red line going to the north stopped cold at the wreck site. Nothing was moving and that solid line now showed a huge gap up to near Round Rock showing virtually no traffic. Pretty stark.

So now traffic is seriously backed up. Thousands of people are virtually stuck at a standstill. So I report the wreck and suggest to avoid getting caught up in that mess, drivers could take Lamar Blvd to the north and get past the wreck. I offered a couple of other alternate routes. It was amazing to see hundreds of cars start to pull out of the logjam and head to the suggested alternative. It was like a thousand people got the exact original idea at the same time. That was visual proof that people were listening to us. It is quite fulfilling to know when your work or efforts make a difference.

In about 30 minutes the wreck was gone and the heavy traffic resumed its migration. Today is the busiest travel day of the year. Please be safe while you’re out there. And remember, that other guy is out there to get ya so stay alert. Happy Thanksgiving to you & yours.


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