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2011/03/27 Plea To Caltrans: Improve Your Communication
π 2011-03-27 00:00 in Public, Snow
Dear Caltrans,

This post is about your work around Tahoe, and what you can do to improve. First, I need to state that Caltrans folks who clear the roads day and night in sometimes horrid conditions, have a very hard job. In my experience with Tahoe, they actually do a good job with keeping roads open in bad conditions with the resources they have.

Yet, they could definitely do better. By that, I don't mean work harder, I'm pretty sure they already work hard during the big snow storms (especially the ones we had this year), I mean by improving communication.

In a nutshell, as much as you do a good job with roads, you do quite poorly with communication. This is partly why I wrote my "Tahoe Road Info for SR88 (kirkwood), US50 (South Lake Tahoe), and I80 (North Lake Tahoe) or making caltrans road reports more liveable" page. But my page is just making the online caltrans info a bit more useful, it does not fix underlying problems with how you communicate (or don't communicate in many cases).


Why the goals below are worth following

1. By increasing the frequency and standardizing the format of online updates, Caltrans could improve road safety by redirecting travelers towards the safest roads where Caltrans has the largest crew working.

2. A good example of providing realtime updates to a time sensitive real world situation is: http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/japanquake2011.html#map. This includes visualization and real-time social updates (if you had a twitter hash tag, then some drivers would probably update this info in real time for you!).

3. Your audience increasingly uses the desktop internet and mobile devices to get information, and this peaks during winter driving times (700x growth from baseline!).


4. Improve communication and increase driver safety, as per your mission statement on http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/paffairs/about/mission.htm

5. Not that your main goal should be to have a better web site that other states like Utah, or Nevada, but being far behind them is obviously a sign that things should be better. See for example:
  • http://511.commuterlink.utah.gov/tats.web.report
  • http://www.safetravelusa.com/nv/?map=Sacramento


  • 6. Put an end to road user frustration and anger that were avoidable.
  • You don't want drivers to drive 2-3H around Carson Spur because they didn't know you'd actually open Carson Spur at 07:30 after having worked on it during the night.
  • You don't want for one of your employees to plain forget to change the road status for 88 to show that Carson Pass had re-opened at 05:00 that morning (road change status was delayed by 3.5 hours and too late for those going to kirkwood that day, causing monetary loss to kirkwood and frustration for users who had spent hours driving to South Lake just to go to Kirkwood).
  • You also don't want not to tell road users you're planning to open 80 in about 1h after having closed it for 8H, causing some to drive towards 50 (a long drive around), just to close 50 at Myers for 5 hours without even making any mention of this on your road status updates (another of your employees plain forgot to update the status that day it seems): one of my friends got home 6+ hours later than necessary, exhausted, just because you didn't provide him with useful and timely information (and of course, such a driver is much more likely to get into an accident as a result, and cause one of those roads to be closed further)
  • So, how do you get there?


    Target Goals

    Let me summarize my suggestions here:
    1. Report tentative/planned status changes.
    2. Report actual road status changes as quickly as possible.
    3. Maintain a history of status changes, in addition to current status report.
    4. Standard format for status reports (i.e. computer parsable) and a graphical map with summary view.
    5. A blog like page where you tell us about the challenges you're facing with your job, like why you can't plow a road because of conditions or because your equipment is tied up elsewhere (that's just for extra points)

    So, let's start with my #1 suggestion:

    Caltrans: you should announce tentative road changes, and report road changes as quickly as practical, and reliably

    To give you credit, I've seen two instances where you did over this ski season:

  • Once, I've seen you display on a sign on 88 'Carson Spur will close at 7:30' but that was not available online. In the end, due to bad snow, you actually closed at 7:00 and we didn't make it. Mind you, I'm not mad, I actually want you to give out forecast info even if it turns out not to be fully right (in that case, some cars did get avalanched on and had to be dug out of the snow, not exactly Caltrans' fault).
  • Now, I also have to state that that same day, when we drove around to Carson Pass and their sign at 50 and 89 said 'Carson Pass closed, no ETA' when you were working on it and it opened 30mn later.
  • Actually another time, I remember that you posted 'Spur will close at 13:00 for avalance control'. Ok, you did actually close it at least 15mn early so we didn't get out of kirkwood as a result, but eh, at least you tried.
  • Now, let's look at a sample of the many instances of what you've done badly with communication:

  • In my Carson Pass example above, we lost $300 for a condo at kirkwood we were not able to get to (we turned back and stayed in South Lake) when Caltrans was actually working on opening the Pass and the sign gave strong impressions that your guys had gone home for the night (it was midnight and snowing hard, so it wasn't an unreasonable conclusion).
  • In just one 10 day period, I noted 5 different examples where the Caltrans web site failed to note some road changes, or did it very late, 4 of them were just in 3 consecutive days (!).

  • Sunday March 20: hwy 50 was closed about 5H at Myers for avalanche control and maybe accidents, I have a friend who was stuck there and waited the entire time. It was NEVER announced on the caltrans web site.
  • Thursday March 24th: 50 closed at Twin Bridges around 23:00 due to an accident and was closed for almost 2H. It took 50mn for the Caltrans website to show that traffic was being held (not as bad, but still, 50mn is pretty slow).
  • Friday, March 25th: Carson pass on 88 apparently opened around 05:00 but was marked closed on the Caltrans web site until 08:30 (!). This really screwed kirkwood over because people went to Heavenly thinking the road was closed, when it actually had opened a long time ago. Caltrans eventually fixed the road status after phone calls from Kirkwood trying to get you to fix it. That's pretty sad.
  • Saturday, March 26th: Caltrans did a great job and opened Carson Spur at 07:30, but there was no way to know you were working on it. All the people going to Kirkwood that morning were not likely to just drive to the Spur on the off chance that it might magicallly open without having Caltrans at least give a hint you were working on it (the Spur has been closed for 3 consecutive days 2 or 3 times this season, so we're unlikely to just drive to it when it's closed now).
  • Saturday, March 26th, still, Carson Pass actually closed around 08:30 due to 2 Subarus spinning out (I was there). It was closed for almost 90mn, and there again there never was any notice on your status web page. Quite unfortunate to say the least.
  • Caltrans, you work hard on keeping roads open, or re-opening them, but I beg you: you *really* need to communicate what you're doing.
    Of course, you can't be everywhere all the time, use us, drivers, on roads that have cell service at least (won't help with hwy88, but at least it will for others), and use us to report up to date problems, accidents and road closures online quicker than you can when applicable.

    Caltrans blog for each road

    Here's my suggestion to you Caltrans: for each road you should have a blog-like page announcing what your plans are for a given road. You obviously have guys who figure out whether they're going to try and re-open Carson Spur on 88, or how long you think you'll keep it open. You also know if 50 and 80 are in such a bad shape that you had to send all your equipment there and therefore you won't be able to work on 88 anytime soon. So:
    Blog it
    I'm not trying to get you to go social because it's cool. I don't care much for facebook or twitter, but please find a way, any way, to let us know what your intentions are. I'm not asking that you tell us that you'll reopen the Spur at 08:22 tomorrow morning, I'm just asking for:
  • tell us if the road or conditions are so bad that it's unsafe for you to work.
  • tell us that your equipment for 88 had to be diverted towards 50 and you won't be able to reopen 88 anytime soon if that is the case (I'm assuming that's the only valid reason for 88 to be closed for 3 days in a row during a bad storm. If that's not the case, save us from assumptions, and tell us the actual reasons).
  • do your best to tell us that you're planning on closing 50 or 88 at a certain time for pre-emptive avalanche control when you have such a plan, or for 88/Spur, just to tell us when you think you'll be closing it for the night, or even over a day during bad storms.
  • tell us each time if a road is closed for snow or an accident (sometimes you do, thanks). If you have any tentative ETA, give it (you konw whether you're waiting for a snowplow or a tow truck and whether they're 30mn away or 2h away). We're not going to hate you if you get the ETA wrong, but you'll help us big time if you say "we're plowing and hope to reopen within 2H", or "two cars have to be dugged out, all tow trucks are already busy, it will take a while". Just give us all information at your fingertips and your best guess. A wrong guess is better than no info at all.
  • for heaven's sakes, if you got your crews up at 04:00 to reopen Carson Pass, or you have crews working through the night trying to reopen Carson Spur for the saturday morning crowd, then tell us you're doing that so that people can decide to chance a drive to the Spur and wait it out if it's not quite open yet. You close the Spur for 3 days at a time sometimes, so you can't expect that we'll just get up at 04:00 and drive up there on the off chance that you might open it if you don't tell us that you're actually planning on doing so.
  • Similarly if you opened Carson Pass at 05:00, don't have one person in an office not doing their job ruin it for all of us by not posting until 3h30 later (unless it's a problem where it never even got radioded to your office after it was done). Example from this case:
    IS REOPENED FROM KIRKWOOD (AMADOR CO) TO 5 MI WEST OF PICKETTS JCT (ALPINE CO) AT 0828 HRS ON 3/25/11

    Also, the reason why I mentioned a blog-like page, is because it's worthwhile for us to know what you've done in the last days or the last week. It's even useful when you close a road to know how long ago you closed it: for instance when you closed 50 for avalanche control as I was driving up, it was useful for me to know (through my own page, not yours), that you had closed it 1H ago and guess that it'd probably reopen 2H after it was closed, which it did.

    I did that part for you by scraping your web page and keeping history for me and others, but you really should do this yourselves. See: http://marc.merlins.org/snow/roadinfo/sr88

    More user friendly as well as computer parsable status reports

    Another reason why I created this page http://marc.merlins.org/snow/tahoe_caltrans.shtml is because how are we supposed to know where "Peddler Hill" or "Nayak" (really Nyak) are? Telling us a road status between points that most road users don't actually know, isn't useful.
    Would it be so hard to give us a graphical map like what Nevada DOT tries to do by parsing your free form text data: http://www.safetravelusa.com/nv/?map=Sacramento ?
    I personally have 4 months worth of data from you, and you can tell it's free form text entered by a human. There are some patterns but really it seems to depend on the operator and it's nothing that's easy to parse for computer for any kind of automation. As result, Nevada DOT has even showed incorrect road status for California on the graphical map because they couldn't parse your data properly.

    What should you do? Well, I recommend that part of your reports be made out of drop downs so that the format is guaranteed to be the same at all times, and then the operator can add free form text that is useful to humans at the end without compromoizing the computer parsable section at the beginning. As an example to others, those are examples I've seen:

    IS CLOSED 1.5 MI WEST OF KYBURZ
    IS CLOSED FROM TWIN BRIDGES TO MEYERS
    IS CLOSED TO WESTBOUND TRAFFIC AT 4.8 MI WEST OF STRAWBERRY
    IS CLOSED FROM ECHO SUMMIT TO MEYERS
    IS CLOSED TO EASTBOUND TRAFFIC FROM COLFAX (PLACER) TO THE NEVADA STATE LINE
    So, we have 'AT X', 'From X to Y', 'TO traffic AT X', and even 'TO traffic FROM X TO Y', and probably a few more. Then a road can be CLOSED or have 'TRAFFIC HELD', which quite frankly are the same in real life, but you seem to use one or the other depending on the road for some reason.
    Also sometimes you send a 'CLOSED AT 21:22' and then replace it with 'CLOSED' 5mn later. Sometimes you never send the 'AT XX:YY', so computer algorithms can't do much with data that is randomly missing.

    My point is that all this could be simplified and be made more consistent. Please do what you can there.


    Conclusion

    Thanks for doing a lot to keep our roads open as much as possible during bad weather. Your Tahoe staff does do pretty incredible work. But please: let us know what you're doing, and maybe even give us some insight about how you're working on the roads and what you're dealing with.


    This was a busy year, especially for March

    Thanks,
    Marc


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