A new 511 traffic information system and mobile app is making travel a bit more predictable for Virginia commuters.
Launched by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) on Wednesday, May 23, the upgrades to the state’s 511 platform include access to real-time traffic cameras, estimated travel times to locations, electronic message signs and real-time streaming video. The features are available online or via an app available for iOS or Android devices.
Users access the system through a customizable and interactive Google-based map, which displays various icons to indicate traffic alerts, roadway speeds, incidents, construction, bridge closures, weather and other events. So if a person’s primary route is congested, they can use the information to evaluate driving conditions and plot an alternative way to their destination.
Text and email alerts can be enabled for a specific route and a voice feature is available on the mobile app to update drivers about incidents and closures ahead.
The department had some of the system’s data elements on a previous version of its 511 website. But Tom Phillips, VDOT’s operations and security division administrator, said adjustments were been made to make the application more user-friendly.
For example, the prior version of traffic video that was available to users refreshed at a rate of one frame every three seconds. Now video is available at 15 frames per second, both on the website and on the mobile app.
In addition, the department expanded its use of electronic signs to display travel times to various destinations. VDOT put up electronic signs on Interstate 66 last year as a pilot project and expanded it along the I-95 corridor in December.
The data to calculate travel times is gathered by Inrix Inc., a traffic information provider. Inrix combines data from road sensors, anonymous signals from commercial vehicles and information from embedded in-car communications systems, such as Ford Motor Co.’s SYNC. The average vehicle speed and travel times are then sent to VDOT for uploading to its 511 system.
Virginia officials hope that providing the travel times will reduce bumper-to-bumper traffic on mayor roadways.
“The whole system is tied into roadside times,” Phillips said. “We’re showing differential travel times between two locations. Some states put that on the Web; we’re the first we know of to put it on a mobile platform. We’ve taken the whole state, and wherever you are your [mobile device] will give you travel times and speeds on the major roads around you.”
Other new features include an improved 511 phone integrated voice response (IVR) service with better voice recognition and a “Reach the Beach” function that spotlights the popular areas of the Virginian shore. Drivers can get a heads up on the commute times at key “decision points” along the roadways in case they want to change their route.
The department isn’t done tinkering with the 511 system. Right now, the functionality is used primarily for interstates and major roadways. But Phillips said a Phase 2 is planned for rollout in approximately six months, and will include traffic data about surface streets add options such as road temperatures.
IPhone users may find the IVR service in the next system upgrade is “Siri-like”, a nod to the smartphone’s virtual assistant that takes voice commands.
“There are companies out there that will provide us with what cell tower you are at, which is a little ‘Big Brother-ish,’ Phillips said, adding that the state wouldn’t receive specific location information about each car. “So then we can have the IVR ask you: ‘Are you on I-81?’ That’s where we’re headed with this.”
In regard to the Android version of the current Virginia 511 app, at least one downloader has expressed security concerns. One of the app’s reviewers on the Google Play store reported that the current app requires connectivity with a person’s contacts.
Phillips said that wasn’t planned by the department. He said according to the Android app developer, the actual software has no capability to access a person’s contacts. Instead, when uploading the app to the Google Play store, access to contact information is a default setting and was simply an oversight.
VDOT will upload a fixed version of Virginia 511 to the Google Play store next week with the access to contacts requirement disabled.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.