Facebook group turns commuters into traffic reporters

Dec 16, 2020

Credit South Peninsula Road Conditions

Mike Barrett remembers hopping on CB radio to get the highway report from truckers when he was growing up on the peninsula.

“That’s how we would find out what the roads were ahead," he said. "It was the social media of its time.” 

That’s the kind of thing Barrett was going for when he created South Peninsula Road Conditions, a Facebook group with a dedicated following of commuters who crowdsource updated information about the peninsula’s roads.

Barrett, a retired oil worker, jokes that he’s now a full-time social media moderator. He started the group in 2016 to help his wife, Colleen, commute from Anchor Point to Homer each day.

“There’s areas between Anchor Point and Homer [where] you don’t get cell service and there’s a lot of moose down in there," he said. "And it’s just kind of scary, it’s like driving a gauntlet. And so with the road page, I started it so that we could have others tell us and then, in turn, we could tell others what the roads were like after we passed on ’em.”

It was apparently something a lot of people wanted. In the last four years, the group has grown to 11,400 members.

Anyone in the group can post a road report, detailing their travels around the southern peninsula or beyond. Several users, like Heather Mercer, do their reports at the same time every day.

Mercer commutes from Soldotna to Homer on weekdays for her job with a distribution company.

“It was about four years ago when I first started with the company and I was heading out so early in the morning," she said. "I was wanting a vision of what I was going to be expecting, because I’d never driven in heavy inclement weather before and it was all a little disconcerting. But to my dismay, I found that no one was really traveling at those hours. And I ended up being the one to start giving the reports.”

She posts her report when she gets to Homer around 6:30 a.m.

Another poster works for Apple Bus, the company in charge of busing for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Sometimes the Department of Transportation posts, as well.

Each user has their own take on what makes a good report.

“We have one guy who does the dashcams," Barrett said. "Another guy, he gets on there and posts and he gets into the character. The last time, I believe, was Sean Connery. And he tried to spell the way Sean Connery would speak. And gave his entire road report in a Sean Connery ‘voice.’”

It’s a way for members like Mercer to make their commutes more fun and productive. She sees it as community service.

“I actually really kind of look forward to it," she said. "It’s turned into something that I make time for in my workday.”

The group is open to Alaskans and families of Alaskans who might want to see what their loved ones are dealing with on the roads. Most members are from Anchorage, Homer or Soldotna.

Membership spikes when there’s a big event, like a wildfire or fatal highway collision.

“During the wildfire, people just didn't know," Barrett said "But I had family working up on the road who were some of the flaggers. And they would get in touch with me and I had instantaneous ‘roads open for now’ or ‘roads closed,’ and people just really flocked to that for information.”

There’s more to the group besides traffic updates. Debra Leisek of Bay Realty in Homer is a sponsor and buys coffee cards for members who can answer local trivia questions. There are also photo and art contests.

Credit South Peninsula Road Conditions

It’s all part of an effort to keep the community engaged. Barrett, who livens his posts with emojis, didn’t have much experience with social media before. 

He said he sees his job as keeping the peace.

“There’s a mentality on social media that there’s no decorum," he said. "So a person can say something nice but it’s taken wrong and they can get socially attacked or yelled at or corrected. One of our posting guidelines is please remember you’re not here to set people straight.”

Another guideline is users can’t post gory photos of roadside accidents. Barrett doesn’t want people finding out from the group that a loved one died.

Political talk is also not allowed. But sometimes, politics and traffic collide.

This fall, there were several Trump Train rallies across the peninsula that impacted the roads. Barrett went out with his drone to get video for his traffic report. 

In some ways, it’s a modern take on the old CB radio tradition. But it’s also a restoration of an older set of values.

“What I see is Alaskans helping Alaskans," Barrett said. "And that’s kind of the Alaska I grew up in. And sometimes, when we get huge increases in population, I think we lose some of that, ‘He’s my neighbor. He’s not some jerk in a car. He’s my neighbor.’”

You can find the group by searching “South Peninsula Road Conditions” on Facebook.