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The new 511: How Maryland and Virginia convey traffic updates and video

May 24, 2012 - 10:00 AM
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(Photo: VDOT)

How's the traffic? Dial 511 and find out. No fuss, no confusion, no delays.

Both Maryland and Virginia offer versions of the 511 traffic information service, although Virginia's significantly ahead of the game with work beginning as early as 2002. The Federal Communications Commission established the three-digit number back in 1999, and states began deploying their own 511s with varying results in the years since. Virginia's latest 511 launched last Thursday, May 18, 2012 and promises easy tracking of road conditions via the web, a mobile application, video, and even, in a tourism-driven move, the best routes to Virginia Beach, and replaces the Commonwealth's 511 service launched in 2008.

"It's the first time we've been able to offer streaming video on our service," Scott Cowherd, program manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation, told a crowd at the Smart Transportation conference in National Harbor, Maryland, this week. He points to a display showing a map of traffic incidents. "It continues to upload while you're looking at it. That is live information ... There's over 700 cameras throughout the state."

What 511 promises is a new form of service from transportation departments across the country. Maryland has sought to engineer its own dynamic service, focused especially on sharing traffic information and video among many different organizations to maximize efficiency. Maryland kicked off its 511 in the last couple years, first with a procurement package in late 2009, then a notice to proceed in September of 2010, and a formal launch in August 2011. From then through the end of March, the Maryland 511 clocked 344,406 calls, 2.6 million pageviews, and more than 3,000 registered users. The older Virginia 511 has recorded about 200,000 calls a month, 11 million calls overall, and eight million website visits since first launching 10 years ago. Both states pull traffic information from prominent resources like software company INRIX to help travelers understand road conditions.

Maryland's goal, according to Maryland State Highway Administration Deputy Director Glenn McLaughlin, is to make this traffic information "actionable" to someone trying to figure out if they'll be trapped in gridlock for hours.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: MDOT)

"We want something available where people are, what they want," McLaughlin said in a Tuesday session on 511 innovations. "We need to take a more proactive role in recognizing the travelers as a partner in our roadways."

The development of these 511 services is relatively new in transportation, with a variety of jurisdictions struggling to articulate how they want to convey traffic information and the underlying philosophy. McLaughlin says that had Maryland started back in 2002 like Virginia, the state would be a lot further along. Virginia, to its credit, may have benefited for more time before its recent launch. Cowherd described the rush to launch the latest version last week as especially high pressure ... the government was "under the gun" to release the new 511. Our region is especially complicated by its sprawl and the fact that in the Washington, D.C. metro area, three jurisdictions dominate. The District of Columbia lacks a proper 511 service of its own, although its transportation department has made strides to coordinate video and traffic information in recent years and offer real-time updates. Its Twitter account is an especially critical and well-run resource, although Maryland, for what it's worth, sees Twitter as a poor resource for traffic updates. About 700 followers watch the Maryland 511 Twitter account — "Twitter is not the best way to convey travelers' information," McLaughlin remarked. DDOT has more than 10,000 followers despite no 511.

"We're trying to grow up like Maryland and Virginia and get our 511 running," explained James Cheeks, DDOT chief of traffic signals, safety, and standards, at the Smart Transportation conference. Cheeks acknowledges that D.C. has its own transportation priorities that would drive its version of 511, however, taking into account its myriad modes of transportation — only four in 10 D.C. residents commute by car, after all. What of Capital Bikeshare, streetcar, the rise of walking, the buses and trains? "We have our special things we'll want to do also," Cheeks said to his fellow transportation officials. "In the District we've got a lot of other modes of transportation."

The 511 service coincides with a broader technological revolution in how transportation departments let commuters know what's up on the roads. One key tool is the introduction and expansion of "dynamic message signs," which can feature any number of real-time updates for motorists. D.C. has 43 of these portable signs that can announce anything from road closures to the Cherry Blossom Festival, and Maryland's use of dynamic 511 signs caused the number of callers to increase ninefold. Money, as MDOT's CHART Systems Administrator Richard Dye emphasized, is a mounting challenge, especially as commuters expect more and more information and new information services. In that spirit, Virginia has set up 161 traffic signs promoting its 511 service and has sold premium and corporate sponsorships as a way of raising revenue for a fund intended to offset the program's annual operating costs of about $2.1 million. Virginia hopes to double the number of sponsorable signs to 300-350 within the next year or so and its long-term goal is to, at the least, break even. The state recently debuted six electronic signs around Hampton Roads, similar to travel time signs elsewhere in the Commonwealth, that alert people in real-time how many minutes it will take them to get to Virginia Beach. Virginia's new 511 is part of a five-year $10-million contract with Iteris, Inc. but the state may extend the contract to nine if all goes well. Other developments are on the horizon. Maryland foresees adding text and e-mail alerts this June. VDOT wants to add 200 traffic cameras on top of their current inventory of 750+. Overall, all three jurisdictions acknowledge the importance of sharing data and video and have attempted create robust networks in order to do so more easily.

One fascinating footnote to the emerging 511 services is semantic. Should jurisdictions announce service for "travel" or "traffic"? Virginia opted for the former for years and just switched to the latter, whereas Maryland prefers the former. "Travel" advocates like the word's receptivity to other modes of transportation, its freedom, whereas critics see the word and hear "tourism." That's why Virginia changed its name.

But next time you're stuck in traffic, whether in Virginia or Maryland, try 511. With all the travel of Memorial Day weekend, there's no better time to use it.

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