Published August 20, 2013
Volume 21, Number 8

511 Has Everything You Need to Know About Bay Area Traffic, Transit

What are current traffic conditions? How can I get somewhere using public transit? Which roads offer bike lanes? Where can I find parking in San Francisco? The answer to these questions — and many others — is three numbers: 511.

Available via phone, web, and mobile app, 511 is a one-stop source for up-to-the-minute Bay Area traffic, transit, rideshare, bicycling and parking information. Simply by dialing 511 or accessing 511.org, you can find out everything there is to know about how to get around in the nine-county Bay Area. Plus, with features like MY 511, users can use shortcuts to access information specific to their own commutes and travel patterns.

“The idea is to help people make smarter choices about their traveling,” says John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the Bay Area.

Serving the Bay Area for Over a Decade
The service’s story begins in 2000, when the Federal Communications Commission assigned 511 as a nationwide telephone number for traveler information. The Bay Area’s system began operating in December, 2002, as a telephone system, with the 511.org web site launched shortly afterwards.

“In 2004, the web site was upgraded to include traffic, transit, rideshare, and bicycling information,” says Goodwin. “The 511 driving times feature was also added in 2004, and in 2007 that same information was made available on the changeable message signs throughout the regional freeway system.”

New features have been introduced on a regular basis. In 2008, an all-new transit trip planner made its debut, as did the personalized MY 511 service. The 511 mobile web site launched in 2010, along with additional real-time transit information, more robust driving times, the 511 Bike Mapper, a multi-modal trip planner, and the service’s Twitter feed at @511SFBay. A revised web site came online in 2012 along with the new San Francisco parking locator.

"The 511 system has been widely embraced by the people of the Bay Area," adds Goodwin. In its first 10 years, the 511 system received over 48 million calls and saw 195 million web user sessions. The service currently has over 18,000 followers on Twitter. This year, 511 has received an average of roughly 600,000 calls and 1.6 million web user sessions per month.

Use at Your Desk, Via Mobile Device, or Hands-free on the Phone
As you might guess from the vast number of 511 users, it is remarkably easy to access this treasure trove of information. All the information on the 511.org web site can be accessed from a web browser, a mobile device, the 511 app, or via phone. Here is a summary of all that 511 has to offer:

Visit 511.org and click on “Traffic” to use an interactive map to view real-time or predicted traffic conditions, live incidents, and construction projects on Bay Area freeways. A map showing current traffic conditions can also be viewed on the 511 mobile site at m.511.org.

It is also possible to access this real-time information via phone. Call 511 and say “Traffic” at the first prompt for a menu of options about travel in the region. Say “Traffic Conditions” for incident and congestion information for your route. The command “Driving Times” will allow you to find out the current travel times between any two cities. By saying either “Tahoe” or “Statewide Road Conditions,” users are transferred to the Caltrans Highway Information Service, which reports on highways outside the Bay Area.

Asking for “Airports” will allow you to be connected to operators in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, or Sacramento. Saying “FasTrak” or “Golden Gate Bridge Tolls” will provide users with an opportunity to speak to agents with the region’s automated toll-collection service. If you’re headed into San Francisco, say “Parking” to get real-time parking information for 14 garages, one lot, and 7,000 on-street spots in neighborhoods throughout the city. 511 also offers information like location and rates for parking facilities throughout the Bay Area.

Public Transportation
One of the best features of every variety of 511—including the web site, phone service, and the smartphone app—is the comprehensive public transportation information that is offered. Using 511, you can determine your transit options, even if it means changing from one transit provider to another; where and when to board your chosen vehicle; and how much it will cost to get where you are going.

On the web, go to 511.org and enter your starting and ending points, be they addresses, intersections, or landmarks, along with the time you wish to depart. You will also get to specify a limit to how much walking will be involved and you can choose whether you prefer the fastest overall trip, the fewest transfers, or the least walking. If you desire, you can also specify travel via a third destination, desired transit agencies, and other trip details. When you are satisfied with your entries, you simply click the “Plan Trip” button and 511 will respond with several different options for your journey, including important details like fares, time estimates, and interactive maps. The smartphone app works similarly.

511 telephone callers can say “Public Transportation” at the main menu for routes, schedules, and fares for over 60 public transit and paratransit agencies. Users can also be transferred directly to the customer service center of most transit agencies by saying “Transit Agencies.” The command “Departure Times” provides current departure time predictions for many trains and buses.

If you are uncertain whether driving or transit is your best option, you can create a side-by-side comparison of the two — or a combination of them — using the 511.org Enhanced Trip Planner.

Information is also available on all of these transit-related topics:
  • The Clipper Card, the transit pass that provides access to lines including Muni, BART, AC Transit, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit SamTrans, and San Francisco Bay Ferry.
  • Area Paratransit services, for people who are unable to use regular buses or trains, because of a disability or a disabling health condition.
  • AC Transit’s All-Nighter service.
Interested in joining a car or van pool but not sure where to start? The 511.org web site offers access to the fully-featured 511 RideMatch Service. 511 RideMatch can help you find potential matches who both live and work near you, to either form a new rideshare group or join an existing one. The online Carpool Calculator lets you find out specifically how you can reduce costs and emissions when you share your ride with other commuters. You can also find information about additional benefits like HOV lanes and Park-and-Ride lots.

Callers to 511 can speak to an operator — in English or other languages — to get the same information.

Freeway Aid
Even with the Bay Area’s extensive network of roadside call boxes, walking on the shoulder of a freeway to find one can seem to be a daunting task. With 511 and a cell phone, however, there is no need to do so when seeking non-emergency assistance. “All the functions of a road-side call box are now available to any traveler on the Bay Area freeways by dialing 511 and saying, 'Freeway Aid,'” says Goodwin.

The 511.org web site also offers a treasure trove of information about biking to work. Go online to find bicycle maps, bike safety tips and classes, and tips for taking bikes on transit, among other things. 511 callers can receive much the same information by taking to an operator.

Frequent users of 511 will want to customize their experience with MY 511. With MY 511, you get to build your own 511.org home page or bypass phone menu options to get to the information that you need even more quickly. With MY 511, you can define and save up to six traffic trips and six transit trips, with names like "home to work" or "work to gym". Then you can access real-time driving times and transit departure times for those trips on the 511 phone service and 511.org, and even receive text message and e-mail alerts. To start, register at my511.org.

On the phone, MY 511 users can bypass menu prompts to go directly to current information for their preferred trips. During registration, you can save up to three phone numbers that 511 will recognize. When calling 511, the phone system recognizes MY 511 users via caller ID and immediately asks for the name of a saved trip set up during MY 511 registration, such as "Home to work.” MY 511 will respond with current traffic and transit information for your trip.

At 511.org online, MY 511 allows you to create a customizable MY 511 personalized home page. When you register, you can set up and save driving times for your commonly-used routes, see real-time departures for your public transit trips, and check out relevant traffic camera views. After you verify your registration, you will be able to see all your saved trips displayed on your new MY 511 home page

511 Creators, Managers Honored for their Efforts
511 is a publicly-funded service managed by a partnership led by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), with the participation of dozens of regional transit operators. The service has been recognized by a number of both state and national organizations, including the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), the Intelligent Transportation Society of California (ITS CA) and Government Computer News.

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