Tuesday, April 29, 2014

LA Traffic Expert: KFI's Mark Denis

"A gig's a gig.... Do what you love and you'll never have to 'work' a day in your life." - (Mark) Denis Melbourne

Like most of my colleagues in broadcasting radio, I first met Mark Denis through a conversation on a 2-way radio. His messages were always brief, happy and helpful. I was 19 at the time, a newbie in traffic reporting. Denis (his official first name) was an established radio legend at the time, the staple traffic reporter and station voice of KFI AM 640.

Despite the fact that he worked for a competitor, Mark heartily invited me to the radio station. Upon meeting him in person the first time, he wasted no time introducing me to the Program Director of the radio station at that time, David G. Hall.

You see, in an industry like broadcasting, and certainly in a competitive market like. Los Angeles, there was (and still is) NO ONE like. Mark Denis. He always thought of how to make other peoples' days brighter. He always asked how he could help. He always had a smile on his face.

With Mark's encouragement and endorsement, i never gave up on advancing my career and adding KFI to my broadcasting resume. Just months after meeting Mark, I was a regular member of the KFI weekend staff, facilitating show segments and producing promo and commercial material for the station.

I met Mark on what us traffic reporters would simply call "the 2-way" and we continued to have many conversations both as traffic reporters (where we were technically competitors) and as KFI team members. While he never said my actual name on the air, he graciously referred to me as "TIRK" - the Incredible Randy Keith - whenever referencing me for a traffic tip.

I had the pleasure of conducting one recording session with Mark. He laid down vocal tags for the shows I was producing at the time, Melinda Lee (still heard today weekends on KNX hosting "Food News") and Fred Ebert, a freelance talk show host. This was the nicest guy I had ever met, and he had the most beautiful (and low) speaking voice I had ever heard.

Mark made it a habit to, upon meeting someone, write down their birthday. I met Mark in the Summer of 1999. My birthday is May 1st.

In March of 2000, Mark had heart surgery which was supposed to be preventative. He seemed to be doing okay until coming do with pneumonia on April 27th, and he passed away two days later.

It may have been the first funeral I had ever been to. It certainly was the biggest funeral I had ever attended. It was quite fitting that there was literally a traffic jam on the road to the traffic reporter's funeral.

It seemed that everyone that had ever worked at a radio station was there... Colleagues, co-workers, producers, and bosses all came together to pay tribute to a man who clearly touched countless lives.

The Monday following Denis' passing, KFI Program Director David G. Hall delivered a beautiful on-air eulogy. Mark's voice survived on the air for several months before KFI went through corporate changes (including Hall) and graduated to a new voice.

After his passing, a group of fellow traffic reporters teamed up with legislators to commemorate a freeway interchange after Mark. Another traffic colleague, Bill Keene, had worked at KNX and passed before Mark. The "four-level" (101/110) interchange in Downtown Los Angeles was memorialized for Keene.

Denis lived in Orange County and when it wasn't feasible for him to travel Metrolink and other public transit, he would make the drive to the KFI studios (in Koreatown) starting on the 91 in Anaheim Hills. He would often "check in" with his fellow traffic reporters on the two way with his trademark "Code 5" when he would pass the 91/55 interchange. Therefore it was determined huh at this interchange would be named the "Mark Denis Melbourne Memorial Interchange."

The signs are placed at every entrance of the interchange, East and West 91 at the 55, and North 55 just before the 91.

I never got to receive a birthday gift from Mark. His friendship, legacy and inspiration have far outlived the almost-year that I knew him.


Randy Keith is the owner of PremierPianoShows,com. arizona's leading dueling piano entertainment company for corporate functions, weddings and private parties. Randy is a Southern California native, and prior to leaving LA and pursuing a dueling piano career in 2007, served as a traffic reporter. 

Working for Metro and Shadow networks, leading traffic service providers at the time, From 1998-2008, Randy reported from the studio and the air for KNX, KFWB, KABC, as well as affiliates in Los Angeles suburbs including KVEN and KHAY in Ventura, KBET and KHTS in  Santa Clarita and the Highway Stations in Barstow.

Randy is currently writing "Help! Get me Around LA Traffic: the SoCal Traffic Expert's Guide," slated to be available as a published guide, e-book, website and app. Like Mark Denis, Randy has a passion for helping people save time in their commutes and hope that his accumulated knowledge of freeways and traffic patterns will serve Southern California drivers better than any existing resources.

Friday, April 4, 2014

SoCal Traffic Expert: Traffic Tips for San Fernando Valley Freeways

Despite lots of expansion of lanes and interchanges, traffic patterns in the San Fernando Valley have stayed pretty much the same over the last 20-30 years. The 5/170 interchange is one of the biggest improvements in traffic flow in the Valley in decades, and is one of the few freeway interchanges that still have room to expand. Most others are built up in the middle of commercial/residential districts, or sandwiched in between mountains like the Newhall and Sepulveda Passes.

Ventura Fwy (101/134)

The easiest estimate for any prime traffic time for travel on the 101 (Ventura Fwy) along the Valley floor (usually considered from Thousand Oaks to Sherman Oaks) is an hour. Add a half hour for rides extending into Studio City or Burbank, or for special holidays or Fridays.
The 101 has no carpool lane its entire stretch, yet the 134 does for its entire stretch through Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena.

The East/Southbound ride usually has a slow pocket through Calabasas (about Lost Hills to Las Virgenes) and then slows again through Woodland Hills toward the 405, usually starting at around Topanga but can extend further back on particularly tough days. Continuing east, like clockwork traffic usually jams before Van Nuys Bl through Coldwater Canyon, and then on the 134 portion approaching Forest Lawn through the merge with the 5.

The west/northbound Ventura Fwy is quickly starting to resemble the Eastbound side symmetrically. In morning rush hour, the 134 portion west gets some choppy slowing through Downtown Glendale to the 5, then about Hollywood way through the 170, and usually it stays slow through the 405 until Balboa before you gain an extra lane and traffic flows again. Usually the ride stays free until Newbury Park and the merge with the 23 (Ventura county).

Ronald Reagan Fwy (118 – Formerly “Simi Valley Fwy”)

The 118 is one of the few freeways in Southern California that can boast decent speeds many times of the day, but rush hours can get messy for sure. It helps that it has a minimum of 5 lanes in many spots and a carpool lane that stretches the entire stretch through Simi and the San Fernando Valleys.

The eastbound commute sometimes catches sun glare, especially approaching the Santa Susana Pass. Rarely does traffic slow again until Reseda Bl, and especially in busy morning commutes, stays very heavy onto the 5. The eastbound side can get heavy in afternoon commutes approaching the 210 as well, as this serves as a great alternate to the 405 into the Newhall Pass, barring a huge closure when everyone will use this route.

Westbound commute is rarely problematic. Morning commutes can bunch up near the 405, ant afternoon commutes can catch slowing through Reseda Bl, but even this is rare.

San Diego Fwy (405)

The 405 is one of the busiest and most frustrating freeways in the country to drive on. While the stretch of the 405 in the valley is not always as troublesome as points further south, the commute into and out of the Sepulveda Pass is rarely an easy one. In morning drive, the 405 Southbound can sometimes be troublesome as far north as the 118, and usually is a grind most of the way to the West side. 

 Northbound lanes are usually wide open in AM drive, as are Southbound lanes in PM drive (through the valley stretch). In PM drive, Northbound traffic usually breaks up coming down the hill toward the 101 but usually has heavy volume all the way up to Nordhoff. Almost guaranteed anytime after 3pm, traffic grinds to a halt near San Fernando Mission Bl up to the merge with the 5. Fridays are especially worse.

Hollywood Fwy (170)

The 170 is one of the smallest length freeways in the entire state. It technically continues onto Highland Avenue in Hollywood, which is only relevant in that Highland Ave onramp to the north 170 joins on the left side. Other than that, that fact is meaningless for practical purposes.
The 170 has a carpool lane its entire length and a speed limit of 65. In my entire traffic career, I always seem to remember getting an inordinate amount of reports of vehicles over the side of the road near Victory Bl. There is a curve in the road there, and I suspect that drivers especially when drunk or distracted, take the turn too fast.

The 5/170 interchange has gone through phases of being bad to really bad. Until the most recent construction project, at its junction the 170 would narrow 2 lanes into the 5 feed. In 2013, Caltrans completed a new section of transition road from the 170 where it ends and merges with the 5, expanding to 3 rather than the former 2 lanes with no HOV. This has helped alleviate traffic but as with every interchange in Southern California, no matter how many lanes are added, traffic is inevitable when one freeway ends and merges with another. Therefore, the Northbound 170 still slows (although not as bad as it used to years ago) from before Sheldon St through the merge with the 5 and usually eases up after Osborne.

Glendale Fwy (2)

Generally the Glendale Freeway is a great alternate to dealing with the Golden State or Hollywood freeways. But because it runs due north/south for most of its stretch, the challenge is getting back to points west. Usually the biggest traffic jam on the 2 is during morning drive the closer you get to the 5 merge. Sometimes southbound traffic can load up as far back as the 134.

Foothill Fwy (210)

The stretch of the 210 in the San Fernando Valley (most of it along the northern edge, through the Verdugo Pass) is one of the most accessible and least used secrets/alternates to the crowded valley freeways. It serves as a straight (and usually wide open) shot for commuters from Santa Clarita/Simi Valleys to Pasadena. The 210 for this stretch rarely ever has traffic during morning drive. In PM drive, it is common to see a slow stretch in Westbound lanes from the 118 to the 5. On Fridays, holidays, and rain days, this traffic can be especially thick and only on rare occasions stretches east of the 118.

In ten years of reporting traffic, the only time I recall there being a significant traffic jam on the 210 was during brush fire events. When brush fires burn along the side of the freeway, fire crews usually shut down one or several of the right lanes so commuters won’t be injured by flames or flying embers. On particular occasions, all lanes have been shut down, and when this happens on this stretch of the 210, it puts extra pressure on all other routes between Pasadena and the Newhall Pass, including the 170, 5, Foothill Bl, and San Fernando Road. Again, this type of event is extremely rare, so this stretch of the 210 is usually a good bet for a wide open commute.

Golden State Fwy (5)
And more to come in future blog entries....

Contact your Socal Traffic Expert
Randy Keith