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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 3 > 511 - It's Happening!

Nov/Dec 2003
Vol. 67 · No. 3

511 - It's Happening!

by William S. Jones and Bob Rupert

Here's an update about the three-digit dialing code for traveler information being implemented and gaining momentum around the country.

In July 2000, the Federal Commu nications Commission assigned 511 as the three-digit dialing code for traveler information. Nearly one year later, the first 511 system began operating in northern Kentucky and the Cincinnati, OH, metropolitan area. Since then, the number of 511 systems popping up around the country has continued to grow steadily.

Highway sign- Call 511 Travel Info

Highway signs like this one in California direct motorists and bus passengers to call 511 for travel information.
Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Seventeen locations had launched services as of June 2003, including 12 statewide systems, 4 in metropolitan areas, and 1 regional service. All told, the systems in operation today provide access to traveler information to more than 14 percent of the Nation's population. By the end of 2003, another 7 States and 1 metropolitan area expect to launch 511, extending the reach of the three-digit number to more than 25 percent of the country.

The launches in 2003 also expanded the reach of 511 to a larger proportion of rural America. As North Dakota Governor John Hoeven noted during his State's launch event, “You can pick up the telephone, hit 511, and find out all kinds of information that makes it safer for North Dakotans to travel.”

In another rural State, Michael Jackson, with the Iowa Department of Transportation, anticipates improved safety for motorists. He notes that “511 provides a safety net for those who travel on Iowa's interstate and U.S. highway routes.”

During the statewide launch of Kentucky's 511 services, Governor Paul Patton noted the range of motorists who will benefit, saying that the service “will assist commuters, vacationers, highway travelers, and the trucking industry in finding the quickest " and safest way to get from point "A' to point "B' in Kentucky.”

Governor Paul E. Patton speaking, highway sign in backgroun - Traffic & Travel Info Dial 511

Governor Paul E. Patton answers questions during a press conference on the statewide launch of 511 services in Kentucky.

Deployment Coalition

To assist States planning to implement 511 services, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provided $4.4 million to 43 States and the District of Columbia, starting in 2001. States used their grants to convene stakeholders, learn from the experiences of early deployers, acquire planning services from consultants, and develop plans for implementing 511 services.

In early 2001, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the American Public Transportation Association, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, and a number of other organizations formed the 511 Deployment Coalition. From the outset, the goal of the public-private coalition was “the timely establishment of a national 511 traveler information service that is sustainable and provides value to users.”

The national associations represented on the policy committee (the governing body of the program) intend to implement 511 nationally, using a bottom-up approach facilitated by information sharing and cooperative dialogue. By sponsoring strategic model deployments, developing and distributing marketing materials and deployment reports, and developing standards to facilitate nationwide interoperability, USDOT and the 511 Deployment Coalition are greasing the skids to help bring traveler information to a telephone near every single U.S. motorist.

Map of 511 Deployment Status as of June 20, 2003, Accessible to 14% of U.S. population

This map shows the extent of 511 deployment in the United States. As of June 2003, 14 percent of the population could access traveler information through 511. Source: FHWA

Operational Statistics

Current projections show that deployment coverage by 2005 will exceed the 511 Deployment Coalition's goal of reaching 25 States, 30 of the largest 60 metropolitan areas, and more than 50 percent of the Nation's population—roughly 145 million. With the launch of the new services, 511 usage is up as well. More than 8 million calls were made nationwide since June 2001, raising usage 200 to 400 percent compared with June 2000.

Although the number of monthly 511 calls varies due to changing weather and road conditions, call centers receive more than one-half million calls each month. The coalition expects 511 usage to show growth trends comparable to those of Web sites as the availability of service increases and marketing improves.

Deployers expect that 511 will show the greatest growth in metropolitan areas in 2004 and 2005. The largest metropolitan area to launch 511 services as of 2003 is the San Francisco Bay area, with a population of more than six million. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is responsible for 511 services in the Bay area, building on its successful TravInfo¨ traveler information system. The program in the San Francisco Bay area provides more transit information than any other 511 system in the country, with 28 public transit agencies participating. The Bay area also provides airport information through its service and plans to offer route-specific travel times as the system evolves.

“We're giving control back to the people,” U.S. Representative Ellen Tauscher noted during the Bay area launch. “We're giving them good information in a timely and predictable way so that they can make good choices for themselves and their families.”

U.S. Representative Ellen Trauscher talks with reporters

U.S. Representative Ellen Trauscher talks with reporters at the December 2002 launch event for 511 services in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Model Deployments

In 2002, FHWA selected Arizona to develop a model deployment of
511 services. Arizona will enhance its early 511 service by adding state-of-the-art features such as information on route-specific weather and roadway conditions, voice-recognition telephone services, a trial of real-time transit arrival times, and a test of real-time arterial travel information. Arizona's enhanced deployment began in October 2003, and a 12-month national evaluation will follow. The results of the evaluation will provide valuable information for other locations that are designing and installing 511 services. One of the most useful results of the evaluation may be a consistent method for analyzing customer satisfaction.

Also, 511 services will receive a major boost from activities associated with the Surface Transportation Security and Reliability Information System Model Deployment that USDOT awarded to Florida in early 2003. One of the major aspects of the model deployment—known as iFlorida—is the development of statewide services tying together the local 511 services available in Orlando, Miami, and soon in Tampa.

Screenshot of www.511.org

The San Francisco Bay Area Web site for 511 (www.511.org) offers travelers information for getting around the Bay Area via transit, highway, bicycle, and carpool.

Marketing Materials

To help States and metropolitan areas organize and launch their own 511 services, the coalition developed guidelines on the information (content) and the degree of uniformity (consistency) that basic services should provide. To develop the Implementation Guidelines for Launching 511 Services, the working group of managers involved with the delivery of traveler information services studied existing telephone-based traveler information systems and projected technological, political, and economic factors pertinent to the services. The coalition released version 1.0 of the guidelines in November 2001 and version 1.1 in June 2002. The latest version, 2.0, was released in October 2003.

The coalition also assists implementers through reports, meetings, training, and marketing support. The coalition launched a Web site (www.deploy511.org) to provide a central location where implementers easily can find information developed by the coalition and specific locations that have launched 511 services.

The coalition developed a toolkit of marketing materials that local implementers can use to publicize the launch of their 511 services and promote them. By using these ready-made materials, States and metropolitan areas can avoid reinventing the wheel as they develop marketing campaigns for their services. Promotional materials developed by 511 implementers include brochures, press kits, public service announcements, videos, and roadside billboards. Implementers can access the official 511 logo and the promotional materials at www.deploy511.org/marketing.htm.

Billboard - Dial before you drive. 511 Montana Travel Info

A billboard produced by the Montana Department of Transportation recommends that motorists call 511 before traveling.

Deployment Assistance Reports

Among the most useful products published by the coalition are the deployment assistance reports. Developed by volunteers from the coalition's working group, the reports are available on the 511 Web site managed by USDOT at www.its.dot.gov/511/511.htm. Report topics include business models and cost considerations, transfer of 511 calls to 911, homeland security, regional interoperability issues, public transportation content, weather and environmental information, and quality of roadway content.

The first report, Deployment Assistance Report #1: Business Models and Cost Considerations, educates deployers on the issues involved in migrating a planned or existing traveler information service to the 511 dialing code. Business models and cost recovery are critical factors for determining the sustainability of the 511 service.

Considerable discussion between coalition members centered on the desirability and implications of enabling traveler information systems to transfer true emergency calls (that is, 911 calls) made to 511 in error. To transfer the call requires that certain capabilities exist within the 511 system. Deployment Assistance Report #2: Transfer of 511 Calls to 911 explains the steps involved in transferring emergency calls, the technical and cost implications, and the potential legal issues that might be involved.

The report on homeland security, Deployment Assistance Report #3: 511 and Homeland Security, examines the role that 511 can play in assisting in homeland security efforts and the impact that emergency preparedness could have on 511 services. This report discusses the challenges and opportunities for 511 systems, their designers, and operators arising from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.ÊNeither New York City nor the Washington, DC, metropolitan area had a 511 system, but authorities learned many relevant lessons.ÊAlthough the report does not provide solutions, it does highlight the issues and suggests related guidelines.

The report on regional interoperability, Deployment Assistance Report #4: 511 Regional Interoperability Issues, offers implementers technical advice on how to deal with callers who want information on transportation facilities and services outside of the area served by their 511 system.ÊCallers may not know which jurisdiction they are in, or where the boundary for the next jurisdiction is, but they want information about the travel conditions ahead of them. This report can help deployers integrate and improve the operation of services between State borders and within States where metropolitan and statewide systems overlap.

The goal of 511 is to provide multimodal travel information, so transit properties are key stakeholders. Deployment Assistance Report #5: Public Transportation Content on 511 Systems shares implementation experience and lessons learned related to providing content on public transportation and transit through 511 services.

Whether traveling by car, rail, bus, bike, or foot, travelers need prioritized information on current and anticipated weather and road-weather conditions. Deployment Assistance Report #6: Weather and Environmental Content on 511 Services explains how deployers can gather and disseminate information on current and future forecasts and travel conditions that are likely to affect travel. To ensure consistency across 511 systems, the report recommends providing weather forecasts from the National Weather Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plus mobile and stationary data gathered by maintenance and operations personnel.

For many traveler information services, the preponderance of callers are interested in roadway conditions, so the quality of roadway-related content will in many cases dictate overall satisfaction with the service. Deployment Assistance Report #7: Roadway Content Quality on 511 Services provides the most up-to-date guidelines, state-of-the-practice implementation experience, and lessons learned related to gathering and providing quality roadway content.

Newspaper articles about 511 launch in Virginia

Statewide news coverage followed the February 15, 2002, launch of the 511 system along the I-81 corridor in Virginia.

Marketing flyer produced by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet produced this marketing flyer to inform motorists about the 511 dialing code.

Emphasis on Interoperability

Based on the experiences of early deployers and ensuing technical discussions among coalition members, national interoperability—the ability of 511 services to work seamlessly across the country—is a significant issue. It first arose in 1998 when Congress requested that USDOT provide a report on the standards the Department considered “critical” to national interoperability. That report, Intelligent Transportation Systems: Critical Standards, issued in June 1999, included standards for Advanced Traveler Information Systems (ATIS) among those critical to national interoperability.

Discussions among coalition members about the fundamental nature of abbreviated dialing codes like 511 triggered increased interest in interoperability. Codes like 511 and 911 are not national numbers. That is, a caller cannot dial an area code with 911 and get the emergency services within that area code. The public-switched telephone network is not wired to recognize that dialing sequence; therefore, 511 is a local service. Although the definition of local may be extended to include a large metropolitan area or an entire State depending on how the system is designed, ultimately when the customer moves from one 511 service area to another, the challenge is to ensure a seamless transition of 511 services. Deployment Assistance Report #7, discussed above, deals with this issue in some depth.

The issue of national interoperability highlights a real and immediate operational need: If 511 service providers in adjacent areas are going to exchange data, then a national standard for data must be established. Toward this end, as part of the new reauthorization proposal, USDOT proposed legislation that would require the Department “to establish a national data exchange format.” In parallel with this legislative initiative, the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Joint Program Office at USDOT is finalizing a new ATIS standard, known as the Society of Automotive Engineers' standard 2354. The new standard uses Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is the language of choice among 511 deployers and public agencies offering traveler information on the Internet.

Although some 511 deployments use formats other than the ATIS standard, USDOT is committed to working with these deployers to achieve compatibility. Additionally, USDOT encourages public agencies not yet operating 511 to use the ATIS standard. The purpose of all these efforts is to achieve national interoperability.

Another key element of the reauthorization proposal is a requirement for all States to “establish a statewide incident reporting system.” More than simply reporting traffic incidents, a statewide system should provide data on all constraints that impede traffic. This would include crashes, disabled vehicles, weather-related constraints, maintenance activities that result in the closure of road segments or lanes, and special events that impair the transportation network. Further, the incident data should be in near real time, that is, within a couple minutes of an event. This definition of incident reporting likely will require coordination between transportation agencies and the State police, at a minimum. Coupled with the requirement for a standard data exchange format, a statewide system for incident reporting will help national interoperability become a reality.

New ATIS Standard

Taking advantage of the lessons learned from existing deployments will make the initial ATIS standard more robust and, hopefully, more meaningful. Arizona, selected by USDOT as a 511 model deployment State, is using the standard to implement its statewide incident reporting system in XML. Other deployers will benefit from this experience, which will be fed back into the development of the ATIS standard.

The standard contains all the messages and data elements likely to be required for a 511 system or other delivery mechanism for traveler information. The standard contains four principal message types:

  1. Requests for traveler information pertaining to a specific route or location
  2. Requests for driving instructions and/or transit routing information
  3. Responses to information or route requests
  4. Advisory broadcast messages containing traveler information

These four message types contain all the information that will be valuable to travelers. Supporting the messages are all the data elements that operators need to define the specific information being requested or provided in response to a request.

The Society of Automotive Engineers also is developing a user's guide for implementing 511, and a training seminar now is available to assist deployers.

Operator at the Regional Traffic Management Center in Orlando, FL

An operator at the Regional Traffic Management Center in Orlando, FL, monitors cameras on I-4 and updates thes 511 traffic advisories.

Filling the Information Gap

A traveler information system is only as good as the data available on the transportation network. Traditional surveillance of the network is unlikely to provide the real-time data necessary to support either traveler information systems or the effective real-time management of the network. Therefore, a major thrust of the iFlorida project is to use innovative techniques to obtain real-time data on all freeways and major arterials. The iFlorida project will provide travel times by road segment by employing vehicle probes, such as toll tags and license plate readers, extensively throughout the Orlando area to gather travel times.

In the long run, using vehicles as probes to provide information on the real-time status of the transportation network is the most likely approach to gathering the desired data. USDOT, therefore, continues to explore new technologies that offer the potential to use vehicles as probes. The Department is evaluating two different approaches that involve obtaining data using cell phones. In addition, USDOT expects that further research could lead to the holy grail of traveler information—travel times for specific road segments.

The coalition expects that additional probe technologies will be implemented and evaluated during the iFlorida project. As vehicles contain more information technology capabilities, and with the deployment of other communications technologies, such as Dedicated Short Range Communications and third generation cellular, multiple approaches for probe purposes may become feasible.

“Good data are the key to effective traveler information,” says Jeff Paniati, associate administrator for operations at FHWA and acting director of the ITS Joint Program Office at USDOT, “whether it be for 511, the Internet, or other means of communicating with the traveling public.”


William S. Jones oversees all technical activities in the ITS Joint Program Office. Prior to joining USDOT in 1995, he spent 34 years with Westinghouse Electric Corporation in the defense and commercial electronics business. Jones has a master's degree in electrical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and an MBA from The George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is a registered engineer in Maryland.

Bob Rupert is the technical programs coordinator for the Office of Transportation Management in FHWA's Office of Operations. He currently manages the traveler information program and serves as program manager for the 511 telephone number. Previously, Rupert managed the TravTek operational test of in-vehicle navigation in Orlando, FL, and led several other ITS projects dealing with traveler information.

For more information, visit www.deploy511.org or www.its.dot.gov/511/511.htm, or contact Bill Jones at 202-366-2128, william.s.jones@fhwa.dot.gov, or Bob Rupert at 202-366-2194, robert.rupert@fhwa.dot.gov.

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