You might know Katie Austin better by her Twitter handle, @madisontraffic, or from hearing her traffic updates on the radio. Traffic is her passion, and she's seen a lot of changes in its patterns and the way traffic news is shared during her 10 years observing it in Madison. Recently, she stopped by the Capital Times newsroom to talk about her job — although the interview was postponed for a day when the area was hit with a snowstorm.
Austin, traffic reporter for Midwest Family Broadcasting, is used to fickle Wisconsin winters, and knows that a bad bout of thundersnow, a looming polar vortex or a blast of high winds can lead to major traffic headaches. But her job doesn't let up when the ice begins to thaw, because that's when construction season begins.
If she can save a driver from a traffic jam — or, more importantly, an accident — then she's done her job. That's what keeps her tuned into the latest weather, construction and crash reports.
Cap Times: How long have you been doing traffic reporting?
Katie Austin: I did traffic from 2003-2006 in Madison for different radio stations. And then, I actually worked in health care until 2011. I came back in 2011, and I've been doing it full time, Monday-Friday, morning and afternoon, since November of 2012.
Did you miss it while you were away?
I did, I really did. And when there would be crashes and stuff, and snowstorms, I just wanted to get information out there. I really missed it. I don’t know what it is about traffic, but I just love to do it.
Were you interested in it when you were younger?
No, I did radio — since I was 17. I’m 37 now, so I've worked in radio for 20 years. I was doing news for an AM station here in Madison, and I liked it, but I didn't love it. And then I was asked to fill in on traffic. The first day I did it, I loved it. I saw a lady eating cereal on the Beltline. Back in ‘03 and ‘05, we drove around. There were no traffic cameras, there was no Twitter, there was no Facebook. There was nothing on the internet regarding traffic. So in order to get traffic info, we actually had to drive and do reports on what we saw.
What’s your schedule like now?
I do six radio stations in Madison, morning and afternoon, Channel 3 in the morning, and then Twitter. And I have a website now, madtowntraffic.com, that just went online. I’m going to have a construction blog, the same traffic updates that are on Twitter, and I’ll share news stories that have to do with traffic.
When did traffic information become more internet-based?
Probably when the DOT put up all the traffic cams, that made it possible to see so much more in one spot than you would see driving around. I think the traffic cams went live in 2006. They’re available online.
I would think you’d end up getting stuck, yourself, sometimes.
Oh, yeah. I got stuck in traffic every single day. You’d try to avoid it. If I knew there was a crash on the Beltline at Todd (Drive), I’d end up on Fish Hatch looking at it. Now I can be very specific: “10-minute delay, here to here, on the westbound Beltline.” Back, 10 years ago, you’d have to say, “It’s slow on the westbound Beltline.” But you wouldn't really say where because you didn't know unless you were sitting there.
How do you figure out how long the delay is?
The DOT, on the Beltline and the interstate, have sensors. So they can actually tell. And I also use Google Maps, which uses cell phone data, from people who are driving and having their phones turned on. Routes are colored red where traffic is moving slow. I don’t get all my info from one source; I put a bunch of different sources together.
What’s your setup like?
I have two handheld scanners, and I listen to scanners online. I’ll have six different scanner channels going at one time. I have five Google Maps tabs open, five DOT tabs open, Twitter, Facebook — tons of tabs. I have two computer monitors, one of them with moving traffic cameras, and three different feeds of the traffic cams. One in Rock County and two in Dane County. Not only is the traffic moving, but the cameras are rotating. And people call, text and tweet at me.
How do you focus? It sounds like a lot of lights and sounds all at once.
That’s why I think I love doing traffic, because I love working in an environment where there’s a ton going on. I thrive in that environment, and I do really well. I just have that kind of brain that likes a lot of info. I can process it. My Twitter helps me. I can keep track of everything going on. Because as soon as I know about it, I enter it on Twitter. There are times when I’m about to go on the air and I read my own Twitter feed. It actually helps me to keep track of everything going on in a central location.
When did you start using Twitter?
There was a blizzard in December 2012. I got annoyed because the radio station I worked for kept calling me with listeners that were reporting crashes that I already knew about. But I only had two reports an hour on the air, so unless a crash happened right before a report, I would miss it in my report. So as a way to get info to the radio stations — I never imagined that people would love it as they do — I started a Twitter feed and I said to my coworkers, "Look, go to my Twitter and watch it."
I thought maybe a couple people would follow me, no big deal, but then people started to love it. And it helps me too, because right now I have 2,600 followers. Probably 100 of them are constantly feeding me information. They’re taking pictures of a crash, and then I can really get a good idea of what lane is closed. So it’s more interactive than I ever thought it would be.
Do you have to go through extra verification with so many people sending you information?
It’s more of an instinctual thing. There have been times that people have tried to pull my leg. Not through Twitter, but through calling the radio stations. I don’t know what they’re trying to do. But I always verify, and a lot of times, I usually like to verify it through at least two sources.
For example, I got a message this morning that on Highway 14 in the Town of Rutland, there was garbage covering both lanes. Garbage mayhem. About two minutes later I heard it on the scanner. I heard it a third time in a different location about a mile up, and this garbage truck was still losing trash. The probability of five different people having the same joke is pretty slim, so I knew there was a problem. If I’m not sure about something, I’ll double check it.
A lot of your tweets are really straightforward, but some get a little more creative. Where do those ideas come from?
I just have fun. Sometimes I get frustrated. It’s very frustrating sometimes — I'm watching the traffic cams and I know that there’s a crash at Whitney Way. And there’s cars flying, 55, 65 mph, weaving in and out of traffic. So I’ll write a note from the Beltline, ‘cause I can’t really yell at them. People wouldn't like that. So I just try to make it fun. Or when the interstate was backed up because of the Beltline, I’m like, “You know, if I was the interstate, I would be mad that the Beltline can’t handle its job right now.”
It’s just stuff that comes to me and I just write it — sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of frustration. Sometimes I feel like I just have to keep it a little interesting, because who wants to read 100 traffic tweets that are just boring every day? When stuff pops in my head, I just do it, like the Beltline haikus. I feel bad for people who are just sitting in traffic for half an hour. How frustrating. I figure I can either tell them there’s a 30-minute delay on the Beltline, or I can write a little poem that people would enjoy reading. But I also try to balance that without making it all jokes, because it’s not meant to be all jokes and laughter. It’s supposed to be serious, like, avoid this area. There’s ice. You need to slow down.
Is it harder to do those on a day where there’s a lot of activity?
Yeah, I usually do it on a day that there’s not that much going on, or as kind of a comedown to a really stressful day.
When you take a day off, are you able to turn off the traffic brain?
Yes. I have to, for my own sanity. It is actually tough finding people to fill in for me. There are two people that are trained to fill in for me. So what’s hard is the split shift. I work 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m., and that’s on a normal day. Yesterday I worked 6 a.m.-6 p.m. I left to go get lunch and got stuck in a parking lot. Some days are long. But when I do take a day off, I do turn it off. Because it would drive me nuts if I didn’t. If I knew something and it wasn’t on my Twitter, I would want to post it.
On the other hand, I’m very independent in my job. There’s not anyone looking over my shoulder saying “Do it this way and this way.” It’s very autonomous. I didn’t have to ask my boss if I could write a haiku for the Beltline. Having that free range of creativity just makes it fun.
Has your job changed the way you drive?
I’m always watching for stuff. I know where the delays are. I would never make an appointment for 8:30 a.m. where I have to drive the westbound Beltline. But I’ll sometimes be late meeting family members because I heard there was a pothole as big as my car on Mineral Point Road and I had to go see it.
Verona Road, that construction coming up is going to be a nightmare. And they’re starting on Monday. It’s not going to be too bad on Monday, they’re just going to be putting up temporary traffic signals. But March 10, there’s going to be a traffic shift. Last year, they closed a lane on southbound Verona Road at the Beltline — there was over an hour delay. And now they’re going to be closing lanes in both directions, starting March 10. They're not only just closing a lane, but you’re going to have to shift over across a median and all the northbound lanes are going to be on the southbound side. It’s going to be a nightmare and people aren’t going to be prepared for it.
Are there other problem areas you’ve picked up on over the years?
When I started traffic, in 2003, the westbound Beltline only slowed down around 7:30 a.m., near Todd Drive. Otherwise it moved fine. Now it’s gridlock from Stoughton Road through Whitney Way, every single day. That’s just volume. If there’s a crash, or slippery, anything slowing down, forget about it, it’s backed up onto the interstate. A disabled vehicle can back up traffic for miles. So that’s over 10 years, and I can’t imagine what it’ll be like 10 years from now. They are talking about fixing it, but it’s like 10 years out before they’re talking about building another Beltline or whatever they’re going to do to ease congestion.
Have you noticed any other big changes?
Everywhere that was slow is getting slower. That’s the thing. They’re fixing roads as far as repaving them, but besides residential streets for subdivisions, there haven’t been any new major roads built. Everywhere where there was a delay 10 years ago, there is 10 times the delay now. East Washington Avenue was a big project that was just beginning when I did traffic 10 years ago, and there’s a lot of delay there. Now there’s the same delay with the extra lanes. (And) that’s not even counting roads that need to be fixed.
In my opinion, construction of new roads and widening roads and adding lanes and adding major thoroughfares has not kept up with the population growth. But I’m sure people from L.A. and New York and Chicago are gonna laugh. Ten-minute delay on the Beltline, there’s an hour delay in L.A., at least. I think it’s a problem all over the place in bigger cities.
There’s the winter weather you have to deal with, and when that lets up you go right into construction season. Is there one season that’s better or worse?
They all have their own challenges. And what’s interesting is, there’s a lot of crashes in the winter, obviously, because (of) slippery roads. But in the summer, there’s motorcycles out and there’s more traffic out and there’s more pedestrians and bicycles. Days that there’s a snowstorm, obviously there’s a ton more crashes than any other day. But an average winter day and an average summer day, there’s more crashes in the summer than on a clear winter day. That’s because there’s just so many more people in vehicles, and honestly I think people drive more recklessly in the summer. Maybe top down, music up and just not paying attention.
Interstate and Beltline crashes seem to be more plentiful in the summer than on a clear winter day. And then construction, last year, I was so looking forward to the end of winter, but then there’s orange barrels everywhere. It was like I couldn't even keep up with how many roads were closed for construction, and that’s akin to the winter when roads are closed for snowdrifts. Now we’re looking at construction on Verona Road which is going to be a nightmare. We still have another month or more of potential snowstorms. So not only is there no break, but they actually overlap.
I want to help people, in a sense that, if they can avoid being stuck on the Beltline for a half an hour, or if I’m talking about black ice everywhere on Highway 151, people slow down. I hope that that’s helpful to them. If I can avoid someone going through that or getting in a crash or hurting themselves, to me, that makes it worth it. Although I don’t necessarily want people to check their Twitter as they’re driving.
Do you worry about people reading your tweets while they drive, or sending you pictures and tweets from the road?
A lot of the time, people are carpooling, and the passengers check it or send tweets. I had someone ask me about the pictures I retweet. It's not my job to parent people. I would hope that they're obeying the law. But I talked to one person, who has her phone mounted on her dashboard, and when she says "cheese," it takes a picture. I thought that was pretty cool.