The 411 on 511
A little-known tool exists that can help untangle the perpetual traffic gridlock that threatens communities’ growth and prosperity. Since July 2000 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated a dialing code to provide current travel information, 511 systems have been giving locals and visitors the scoop on traffic accidents and delays, road construction and conditions, and mass transit.
For transportation officials, 511 systems promise improvements in transportation efficiency and roadway safety and unprecedented reach for messages such as American Message Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alerts and severe weather warnings. Driver safety is enhanced with voice-activated prompts for travelers calling from their vehicles. The federal government did not set standards or financing requirements for the traffic information systems. Instead, a 511 Deployment Coalition was organized to help communities get them up and running (see “Helping create 511 systems” on page 41).
Currently, approximately 25 percent of the nation’s population has access to 511 information by phone or the Internet. In addition to the many statewide systems, regional 511 operations exist in metropolitan areas, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Cincinnati and in many Florida cities.
The public is becoming more aware of 511, although it is not as popular as the ubiquitous 411 for information or 911 for emergencies. Where 511 is established, however, users report they are pleased with the system’s performance. Most of Minnesota’s 511 users were satisfied with their system (93 percent in late 2002), as were southeast Florida’s (96 percent as of late 2003).
Where it works
Two of the best examples of 511 systems can be found in North Carolina and Virginia. North Carolina’s statewide 511 system launched in August 2004. Its biggest test occurred almost immediately. “We went through three hurricanes right after the service launched, and we were able to get information out quickly so that people could access it,” says Jo Ann Oerter, 511 project manager for North Carolina’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT).
In addition to updates about traffic and roadway conditions, information about weather, the ferry and rail system, and tourism is accessible through the state’s 511 phone number and Web site (www.ncsmartlink.org). Because travelers can use 511, calls to NCDOT’s older 800 numbers, staffed by live operators, have decreased. In most cases, callers can be re-directed to the 511 system for the information they need.
While some states and metropolitan areas operate their own systems, and others rely on vendors, North Carolina uses both NCDOT highway information and the National 511 Alliance, which operates and maintains the system. The Alliance includes Cambridge, Mass.-based SRS/Westwood One; Menlo Park, Calif.-based Tele Atlas; Minneapolis-based Meteorlogix and Miami-based PBS&J. SRS/Westwood One delivers traffic information, news, sports and weather using wireless services, in-vehicle navigation systems and voice portals. Tele Atlas provides digital maps and current traffic information, and Meteorlogix offers weather information as it affects travel. PBS&J manages the team.
Unique features of NCDOT’s service include additional local incident information in the Triad Area (Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point); weather alerts and travel impact forecasts for specific road segments; a call overflow system and a feature that allows callers to reconnect to the system in the same place they were when the call was interrupted or a cell signal was lost.
While a few bugs were encountered during the system’s setup, Oerter reports that far more problems were anticipated for bringing the new, statewide system online. Like most transportation agencies, NCDOT already offered traveler information such as road conditions, roadway closures, construction and regional weather. Creating a 511 system required converting that existing travel information to the new dialing code as well as integrating weather, mapping and other systems to provide current travel data.
North Carolina’s two-year 511 contract with the National 511 Alliance totals $2.5 million, with options for three more years. The federal government funds most of the project (80 percent), and the state picks up the remainder. NCDOT made one-time payments to telephone carriers to route calls from landline and wireless customers to the 511 system prior to launching the service.
Oerter advises others looking into 511 systems to get all stakeholders in their area on board early. “Ask if any regulatory agencies need to be involved. Know the path you have to take,” Oerter says.
In North Carolina’s case, its Public Utilities Commission required that NCDOT be responsible for the 511 system. The agency also mandated that the state’s Information Resource Management Commission would oversee the system.
From regional to statewide
Virginia’s travel information has evolved from the “Travel Shenandoah” 800 number in 2000 to a regional 511 system in 2002 to a statewide system launching next month. Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT) tested 511 for travelers along a busy stretch of I-81. Now, the state is expanding 511 service statewide. “VDOT decided that 511 is the cutting edge of technology. It meets our needs for safety and incident management,” says Scott Cowherd, the state’s 511 travel information program manager.
Like North Carolina’s system, Virginia’s provides news on traffic incidents as well as weather, road conditions, transit and tourism. Virginia also offers information on roadside gasoline stations, hotels, restaurants and attractions. The system can report AMBER Alerts or homeland security warnings across the entire state or to a particular region.
Educating travelers about 511 can be challenging, as the VDOT discovered. For the I-81 application, the agency installed dozens of 511 signs on both sides of the interstate. In hosting focus groups to evaluate the test and create a program to promote the statewide rollout, though, VDOT learned that the new signs simply blended in with the existing blue highway signs. Modifications were made, and more signs are in place for the statewide launch.
Set to premier its expanded 511 systems in February, VDOT has developed a media campaign and series of public service announcements. The governor will officially launch the system at the state’s capital. But the best advertising for a 511 system, according to Cowherd, is a positive user experience and accurate information. “If we don’t have reliable, real-time information, we lose credibility,” Cowherd says. “We feel travelers will give us two chances. If we’re not right, they won’t call again. Then we might as well hang it up.”
System users can give feedback at the end of a 511 call or by e-mail when accessing the Web site. VDOT already has revised the statewide system based on comments by made travelers on their experiences using the field-tested I-81 operation.
Coordination and costs
Cowherd points out that implementing a 511 system can require DOT staff to work with a few unfamiliar agencies or companies. For example, VDOT staff had to coordinate its activities with tourism information sites, transit providers and phone companies.
VDOT is evaluating all travel-related resources in the state with the goal of making 511 the main information source. Over time, the state anticipates eliminating or reducing its other information lines, primarily the 800 numbers. Existing staff likely will be used to help the remaining systems operate more efficiently.
VDOT has contracted with the National 511 Alliance to expand 511 statewide for $6.5 million over three years, which includes approximately $2 million annually for operations and maintenance. The bulk of VDOT’s program has been federally funded.
Cowherd serves on a national peer-to-peer group helping other states and metropolitan areas create 511 systems. He is enthusiastic about the technology, primarily in the way transportation agencies can tailor its application. “There’s no set way of doing things, so it’s open,” Cowherd says. “511 grows with technology.”
Pete Costello is a project manager with PBS&J’s Orlando office.
Helping create 511 systems
The 511 Deployment Coalition was formed in 2001 to help states and local governments create travel information systems. Its goal is to establish sustainable 511 services reaching 50 percent of the country’s population and a 25 percent brand awareness by the end of 2005.
Coalition members include several Washington-based groups: the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, the American Public Transportation Association, Intelligent Transportation Society of America, the U.S. Department of Transportation and other public and private organizations. The group develops guidelines and educational material for those interested in creating 511 systems.