511 is the Answer to Your Bay Area Transit and Travel Questions

Bay Area residents can now find out practically everything about how to get from one place to another with the knowledge of just three numbers: 511. By dialing 511 on a telephone or accessing www.511.org with your web browser, you can find out about current traffic conditions; how to use public transit to reach your destination; carpool and vanpool information; bicycling information; and more.

We'll take a look at how to use these different resources as well as how each of them can make your commute - or, for that matter, any journey within the region - faster and easier.

Transit Information

Those unfamiliar with local transit systems will be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to use transit to get to and from work each day or to and from many popular destinations. The Bay Area has a robust system of public transit and usually asking a few simple questions will allow potential riders to determine just how simple it is to use these resources.

511's Take Transit Trip Planner is a perfect example. Available only online at www.511.org , the Take Transit Trip Planner allows users to enter information on the beginning and end points of their trip and when their trip will occur, whether it's immediately or a few days in advance. To use the planner, go to www.511.org and select "Take Transit Trip Planner" from under the "Transit" heading on the main menu. Enter the starting and ending points of your trip, the day of your trip, and the time of your trip (either departure time or planned arrival time). You can have the planner search for the fastest itinerary, the fewest transfers, or the lowest overall fare. Then, the planner will provide you with a detailed itinerary which shows how to use transit to make your trip, including transfers, fares, and arrival and departure times for each segment (if applicable). In years past, this sort of information would only have been available by contacting each transit agency directly, but today it can be done in moments.

Best of all, the planner currently includes information from over 20 different transit agencies. These agencies serve seven counties in the Bay Area, which means that chances are good that there is a transit connection no matter where you want to go. Schedules and route information for these agencies are available via the web, telephone, and even PDAs, so it's easy to access the information wherever you are. 511 also has fare information, information on disabled and senior services, and service announcements regarding all their transit partners.

Coming soon is "My Transit," a feature which will allow registered users to create a custom transit page which could include selected schedules, pairs of origin and destination locations for automated trip itineraries, selected popular destinations and route maps, and more.

Rideshare Information

The 511 Regional Rideshare Program provides the most comprehensive ride-matching service in Northern California and is accessible via both telephone and the web. The program maintains a database which in many cases allows instant matching, so it's easy to find an existing carpool or vanpool or create a new one with someone who lives in your area and works where you do.

To use this service via telephone, simply dial 511 from anywhere in the Bay Area and say "ridesharing" when prompted at the main menu. A live rideshare operator can then provide information on carpools, vanpools, and park and ride lots throughout the region.

The 511.org web site provides information on ridesharing in even greater detail. The 511 Regional Rideshare Program is described in all its detail, complete with an online Commute Calculator that allows users to determine the true cost of their commute and how alternative forms of transportation can save them money, even if they are only used occasionally. Details on other financial incentives are available as well, including a current offer of $300 to $900 in gas cards for those interested in starting a new vanpool. 511's fine ridematching service is available online as well. Simply access the home page at www.511.org and then click on "Rideshare" in the main menu for all the information.

Bicycling Information

At first glance, a bicycle commute might seem a challenge. However, sunshine, exercise, and no daily costs equal a great way to get around. Even for those who are unsure whether they live within comfortable bicycling range of their work, it's surprisingly easy to incorporate bicycling into a commute, though, and 511.org has lots of information available on how to do just that.

The latest addition to the web site's features on bicycling is the 511 BikeMapper, an interactive map which allows riders to enter the starting and end points of a trip. The BikeMapper then produces a customized map showing the best route available, including off-street shared use paths (Class I), roads with bike lanes (Class II), and on-street bike routes (Class III).

The web site also offers information about taking your bicycle with you on buses, ferries, and trains operated by over 20 different regional transit providers, including the following agencies which serve or provide connections to Hacienda: AC Transit, Altamont Commuter Express, BART, County Connection, Tri-Delta Transit, and LAVTA (WHEELS).

The 511.org web site also has information about where to find bike lockers and bike racks, how to get your bike across Bay Area toll bridges, selecting a bike, and other bicycling resources. There's even a Bike Buddy matching service which allows novice riders to contact experienced riders for information and, in many cases, as a riding companion on a commute route.

Bicycling information is also available via the 511 telephone service. Simply say "511" when prompted and you'll be connected to a live operator who can provide all of the information listed above, with the exception of the BikeMapper customized maps.

Traffic Conditions and Driving Times

Another amazing feature is 511's real-time information on traffic conditions and driving times. In times past, even with traffic reporting, it was often impossible to know about the occurrence of a traffic tie-up and its impact on your commute until you were already ensnared in it. Now, however, it's possible to check traffic conditions ahead of time, so you can pick an alternate route or find another rider so you can make use of the carpool lanes if one of your possible routes is congested. This information is available both online and by calling 511, although there are some additional features available online. For example, if you click on "Traffic and Driving Times Map," you'll see an interactive map that's color-coded according to the speed of the traffic traveling through each area at that time as well as icons on each map for incidents or construction which may be affecting traffic. By clicking on those icons, you can see the details of each situation, including the estimated time at which it will be cleared. The latest addition to these maps is a camera icon - click on that and you can see real-time streaming video of the freeway in that area.

Additional Information and Services

There is even more information available through 511. Both the phone service and the web site can provide information about FasTrak, the automated toll payment system that allows drivers to cruise through Bay Area toll plazas at up to 25 miles per hour. 511 has information about regional paratransit services and connections to Bay Area airports. It's also one of the best places around to find information about incentives offered to commuters and employers, including first-time rider programs and pre-tax benefits like Commuter Check.

All in all, it's an amazing resource. Whatever your question about Bay Area transit and travel, chances are that the answer is 511.

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