Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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Metropolitan Transport Commission

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Bay Area Rapid Transit Vehicle The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) supports the nine county San Francisco Bay Area in terms of transportation planning, financing and co-ordinating. Created in 1970 it is responsible for the Regional Transportation Plan, a comprehensive blueprint for the development of transit, highways, airport, seaport, railroad, bicycle and pedestrian facilities


Michael Berman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Oakland, California, kindly agreed to spare some time to talk about recent traveller information projects that the MTC had been involved in.

The TRAVINFO project had been developed and implemented to serve the San Francisco Bay Area with traveller information. It is principally a low tariff dial up phone system where the latest highway information, including delays, congestion and incidents, can be obtained along with transit information and alternative commute options. The aim is simply to optimise the highly pressured road and bridge systems of the Bay Area. Again, building new roads, and especially new bridges and tunnels, is geographically very difficult, not to mention phenomenally expensive.

Effective and easy access to real time highway information plus commuting options Effective and easy access to real time highway information plus commuting options Effective and easy access to real time highway information plus commuting options

The system was born out of ITS grant project funding and provides users touch-tone phone access to specific highway information. A two year test of TRAVINFO took place between 1993 and 1996 and then full-scale operation of the system began. Another year of operation continued with little development to allow room for more strategic thinking and planning. All that is required to access the system is the well publicised contact number and knowledge of the particular highway number. The highway information is collated and recorded at the Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) operations centre which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A demonstration of the system was provided and the ease of use was clearly apparent. This system, like the SmartRoute dial up system in Boston, has proved incredibly popular. This is in part due to the fact that the information is real time and also because you don't have to start up a computer and log on to the Internet, or other computer service, to gain the information required for their journey. In addition to this the service is, by definition, available on the move via cell phones, call boxes etc.

Out of an estimated Bay population of 6 million the call level is currently around 60,000 per month, some of these from the plethora of transit companies that operate in the area. Impressive looking as they are, these figures were seen as a little lower than expected but there did exist a positive trend in that the call level had doubled over the past 8 months! It was planned to develop TRAVINFO onto the web but there is little urgency because of the efforts of others to provide web access to San Francisco Bay highway data. This is the first indication of yet more data sharing as per Boston and Seattle. San Francisco Bay Area has a very healthy view towards data sharing with the existence of their open architecture data backbones similar to the self describing data backbones in the Puget Sound area. Any partners interested can access travel information and / or loop detector information, from the highways, to feed onto their web sites or any other information outlet they happen to have available. This kind of approach is said to have stimulated an interest in providing accurate and useful commuter information for the San Francisco Bay area. The TRAVINFO number itself (San Francisco 817 17 17) actually pre-dates the project as transit agencies already used it for their own information. San Francisco's Bay Area - looking across the bay to Berkeley The Bay Area's traveller information services are expected to expand soon to include both kiosks and WAP developments, as contracts are being drawn up to gather all traveller related information together and disseminate via various media. A 6 year contract had been drawn up, 18 months prior to my visit, on a design - build - maintain basis to "fuse" data and make it more readily available to commuters, transport companies etc. Michael Berman also identified Wireless devices as being a solid way forward for the most useful distribution of traveller information. This reinforces lessons already learned in both Boston and Seattle and would further increase the information audience in the Bay area.

Marketing of the system wasn't cheap with around $750,000 to $1,000,000 being invested in an attempt to raise the profile of theservice. This included radio advertisements and billboards over a ten month period. However, the colossal number of billboards around the area meant that this part of the campaign was massively diluted. As a result of this, the campaign was not deemed successful. Measures of success, knowledge and popularity of the system did come to light when seriously bad weather, in the shape of the 1998 flooding, caused the system to be greatly used. It was then obvious that the number had permeated the travelling society of San Francisco Bay. This was further backed up during the BART strike which greatly limited the major public transport connection across the bay.

A new approach to marketing was born in the shape of publishing the number on maps, getting it plugged alongside the radio broadcasts, and including it in an automobile association magazine. Also a new 3-digit cell phone access was developed to make the system even simpler to use. Other efforts at marketing have involved a San Francisco ad agency, on board to help, plus the private company Pacific Rim are involved to further enhance the marketing strategies. They themselves have had previous successful experience with similar projects.

In terms of the service including information further afield - MTC only has jurisdiction in the Bay Area so there are no plans to further the service this way, however another organisation was currently starting on a state-wide traveller information service.

Another large development, on a national scale, involves the utilisation of 511 as a new hotline to traveller information services. This project is just getting off the ground and no demonstration was available at the time of the visit. However, having the same number to dial for traffic information, regardless of Town, County or State is surely a positive development. Such systems are currently running with certain mobile phone companies in the U.K. such as BT Cellnet and Vodaphone.

Other projects currently under development include Transtar - an Internet or phone dial up "A - B" style journey planner. This will be able to cater for several travel options including minimum journey time, minimum number of changes etc. The current state of the project is a Beta Internet version, which incorporates information from the key 5 transit companies (although San Francisco Bay has many more!).

My sincere thanks to Michael Berman

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