Published May 18, 2004
Volume 12, Number 5

511 Offers One-Stop Shopping for Commuters with Transit Info, Driving Times, Ridesharing and More
The lives of Bay Area commuters just got easier! Expanded services available over the phone by dialing 511 or on the web at 511.org now make it possible to answer almost any transit or commuting question at any time of the day or night. Whether you’re looking for route maps and schedules for nearly any local or regional transit service, real-time traffic conditions or driving time estimates, a carpool or vanpool to join, a FasTrak application, or even a buddy to bicycle to work with, 511 has the information you need.

What’s 511? The FCC assigned 511 as the national telephone number for travel information in July of 2000 with the goal of creating a seamless, nationwide service for travel information. The Bay Area’s 511 system was launched 17 months ago through a partnership between the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, and dozens of transit and paratransit operators and is leading the country in facilitating the use of this new resource. Over 20 percent of 511 calls nationally are made on the Bay Area’s system.

Leading in Innovation
The latest addition to 511’s services is 511 Driving Times, a resource which offers real-time traffic information on most Bay Area highways and bridges. “The most frustrating part about being stuck in traffic is not knowing how long you’ll be there,” explains MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler. “If you want to know how late you’re going to be for work or when you’re going to get home, you can just call 511 anytime, day or night. It’s easy and it’s free.”

Accessing 511 Driving Times via telephone is easier than you might guess. To begin with, 511 is a toll-free call throughout the Bay Area and on most wireless networks. To add to the appeal, 511’s state-of-the-art voice activation system means that you can get information about driving times and current road conditions by simply speaking into your telephone.

Here’s how it works: Dial 511 on your telephone and ask for “driving times” at the main menu. Next, speak the name of the starting point – a city, a landmark like SBC Park or the Caldecott Tunnel, or a bridge – and the 511 system will first confirm that it heard you correctly and then ask you for your trip’s end point. 511 will reply with the current driving time between those two locations, including any incidents or slowdowns which might affect it, and then list the location and effect of those incidents.

Right now, 511 Driving Times are available along Interstate 680 from Highway 4 to the Interstate 580 interchange in Pleasanton; the Interstate 80 corridor from San Francisco to Highway 12 near Suisun, including the Bay and Carquinez bridges; and Interstate 880 from the MacArthur Maze to Fremont. By early 2005, the service will be expanded to cover all major Bay Area highways and bridges.

“We’re continuing to install equipment on more routes,” says 511 project manager Michael Berman. “The next phase will include U.S. 101 from San Francisco to Santa Rosa; U.S. 101 and Interstate 280 on the Peninsula; the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges, and Interstate 580 from Albany to San Rafael.” The MTC expects these expansions to come online starting in mid-summer.

For larger cities such as Oakland or San Francisco, the 511 system will prompt callers to refine their starting and ending points for a more accurate estimate of their travel times. 511 is tied into the CHP’s accident reporting system, which means you’ll have all the information available about accidents and other police activity the moment it’s available.

Another popular feature of the MTC’s system is the 511 TakeTransit Trip Planner, a service available at www.511.org which allows you to specify departure and destination points within the nine-county Bay Area and then tells you how to get from one to the other using public transit, even if more than one transit agency is involved. For example, if you use the site to determine a public transit route between Hacienda and Golden Gate Park, it will recommend that you take WHEELS to the East Dublin/Pleasanton BART station, ride BART to the Montgomery Street station in San Francisco, and then take the Muni N Judah line to the intersection of Irving Street and 9th Avenue, a block away from the park. In the past, that may have taken phone calls to three different transit agencies, but now it’s available in one place with a few clicks of your mouse.

511 Has Even More to Offer
Whether accessed via telephone or on the web, 511 has even more to offer than ever before. 511 provides comprehensive, easy-to-access information on every commute mode as well as other commuting resources.

511 Logo

Transit — 511 has information on virtually every transit provider in the Bay Area. Those represented include 25 different bus systems, 15 shuttles, six rail systems, and seven ferry systems in addition to commercial bus lines, dial-a-ride services, and 11 out-of-region transit providers from Sacramento to Salinas. The transit section of the 511.org web site also contains all the local transit news, so you’ll be informed when routes are added or changed.

Ridesharing — Interested in finding a car or van pool? Use the 511 Ridematch tool and you’ll be connected automatically to the RIDES for Bay Area Commuters ridematching database so you can instantly find a neighbor or existing carpool with a commute similar to your own. 511 also offers a database showing existing vanpool routes with available seats. Still not enough? 511 also has information on commute incentives applicable to your area, including Alameda County’s Guaranteed Ride Home program.

Bicycling — Cyclists can find all sorts of information on 511, including Bay Area bicycle maps, information on taking bikes on buses, trains, and ferries, and even Bike Buddy Matching if you’d prefer to pedal with a friend.

FasTrak — FasTrak is an automated toll collection system that allows users to pay tolls automatically while driving through the toll plaza at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. 511 has more information on the system and you can even apply online.  

TransLink — TransLink passes allow commuters to use a single card to pay for travel on many of the Bay Area’s transit systems, including AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, Muni, and Santa Clara VTA. Currently operating as a pilot program, TransLink cards are expected to be offered to the general public in late 2004.

Racking Up the Awards
The Bay Area’s 511 Traveler Information Service has been met with great enthusiasm in the 17 months since its launch. As of March, the system was receiving 45,000 calls per week but that number has been eclipsed since the introduction of the 511 Driving Times service, which has received as many as 30,000 calls in one day.

511 has also received a number of awards, the most recent coming in April as the Intelligent Transportation Society of America bestowed their award for Best New Product, Service, or Application. Other awards include the California Transportation Foundation Award for Excellence, the American Public Transportation Association’s Award for Innovation, and awards from the California Alliance for Advanced Transportation Systems for Best Public Innovation and Best Partnership.  


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