Published September 17, 2002
Volume 10, Number 9

511 to Provide One-Stop Shopping for Transit Info

Technology has definitely made our ability to investigate transportation options easier than ever. If you’re sitting in front of a computer, you can use MTC’s TakeTransit Trip Planner (www.transitinfo.org/cgi-bin/taketransit) to plot your itinerary or take a look at the multitude of online transit schedules and information. However, if you don’t have access to a computer, how do you take advantage of all of the available transit information? Right now, the answer in our region is to call the TravInfo information line at 817-1717, which is available throughout the Bay Area's nine counties and six regional area codes (415, 650, 408, 510, 925, 707). Soon, however, calling for information will be even easier regardless of the area code you're calling from. Just as you dial 911 for emergency help and 411 for directory assistance, you’ll be dialing 511 for transit information.

In July of 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) nationwide assignment of the 511 dialing code for access to traveler information services. The FCC decided that while a governmental entity could request 511 from both telephone and wireless service providers, the federal, state, and local transportation agencies would have to determine the deployment details and type of transportation information to be provided. In the Bay Area and Tri-Valley Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is the transportation planning, coordinating and financing agency, and hence, is the agency that will be implementing 511.

“We were one of the first at the door of the FCC in support of a number for traveler information,” says Emily Van Wagner, a current project manager for TravInfo who is involved in the transition to 511. “In the Hacienda region, area code splits prevented us from keeping or assuring our customers in the nine-county Bay Area that they would be able to get the 817-1717 number. Luckily, we were able to get it in the new 925 and the 650 area codes.” TravInfo provides Bay Area commuters with up-to-the-minute information on traffic congestion, roadway incidents, construction activity, public transit options, and carpooling options. The system’s data is collected from a variety of sources including the California Highway Patrol (CHP)'s Computer Aided Dispatch system, Caltrans' Transportation Management Center (TMC), and the region's transit agencies.

As the TravInfo system evolves into 511, a number of improvements are planned to make the system more valuable to travelers. “We’re looking to significantly enhance the information we offer with this new 511 number.” Van Wagner says. “We’re also changing the response system so that instead of a touch-tone-based system, it’ll be voice interactive, which is much more voice friendly than the current system.”In the case of wireless phone service providers, the MTC needs to receive their approval and a commitment to make 511 work with their services. Currently, the agency has commitments from a number of wireless carriers including Cingular and Sprint PCS who will be on board for the system’s late September launch. Obviously, it will take a bit of time before the system has evolved into the all encompassing transit information system the MTC envisions, but it won’t be long before getting transit info is as easy as dialing 511.


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