Last month, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) announced that their 511 service is now available for Android phones and tablets and Apple's iPhones and iPads as a free app. The service was previously available via phone calls to the 511 number and on the web at www.511virginia.org.
As we all too well know, summertime travel on Virginia roads can be unpredictable. There are of course some known knowns, to paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, such as I-95 South will be a parking lot every Friday from 2 p.m. onward. But when you encounter stalled traffic on a late evening mid-week as you try to run errands or when you find out too late that there are going to be periodic lane closures on the beltway to accommodate construction, the frustration level of living in our fair commonwealth can be difficult to tolerate.
With the 511 service on the Web and via the app you can see maps with real-time incident lists, construction projects, video from traffic cameras, weather conditions and access the text on the highway information boards which give approximate travel times and other information. There is also a "Reach the Beach" service which gives approximate travel times at decision points between alternate routes to the beach destinations.
I've found that the approximate travel times on the digital overhead signs have been accurate and have helped me adjust expectations when I see the times to get to the various points up ahead and my experience has shown the times to be pretty accurate. Something about knowing what you are in for allows you to let go some of the stress or at least exit and take another route. Now all of those signs can be accessed before you go so you don't have to dive into the mess to find out there is a problem.
If you sign into the Web site or install the app you can set traffic alerts for your particular route and your usual schedule. The interactive voice recognition (IVR) in the app is meant to be Siri-like according to Tom Phillips, VDOT’s operations and security division administrator in an interview in at the Governing.com website. He says that the location information is not as specific as it could be with the available technology due to privacy concerns.
“There are companies out there that will provide us with what cell tower you are at, which is a little ‘Big Brother-ish,' so then we can have the IVR ask you: ‘Are you on I-81?’ That’s where we’re headed with this.”
Besides privacy concerns, the app reminds you upon launch "Please do not use this application while driving." It has some information available only in passenger mode. The last thing we need is someone driving down the road watching traffic video on a phone screen. If you don't have a passenger handy, it is probably a bit safer to use the phone version via a hands-free device. The phone IVR will ask you which services you need and your location information.
In the Governing.com article, Phillips also explains that more enhancements to the 511 system in Virginia over the next few months. More roads will be covered, the current system focuses only on major routes, and information such as road surface temperatures should be available in time for winter driving.
In our region we do tend to be traffic-obsessed. This is a fact of life that comes as part of the package of living near our nation's capital. Many of us have our radios tuned to stations that promise traffic every 10 minutes but as the listening area is far larger than our immediate trip sometimes the information can be both more than we need and not individualized enough. The availability of real-time traffic tools particular to our personal route is a valuable public service that can keep us informed.
If you can't bike or walk to work or to the beach, cars will play a necessary part of our lives. Proper planning using tools like these can at least help you mitigate the pain and help steer you around trouble spots.