Like most commuters, Salt Lake City's Doug Murray will do anything to avoid traffic jams. So last December, during the city's preparations for the Winter Olympics, Murray, president of NoWalls Inc., called Utah's 511 traveler-information service to find out if a certain road was closed. Within seconds of navigating the automated menu, Murray was pleased to hear that there were no obstructions, and traffic was normal.
What the hell is 511? It is the 411 of travel, without the charge. Two years ago, the FCC designated 511 as a traveler-information phone number. But only five states have launched it so far, and the service isn't necessarily statewide — even for those early adopters.
"The goal is to provide information to the traveling public," says Bill Jones, technical director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems program at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of course, up-to-the-minute service doesn't come naturally to government. "This is not about asphalt and bridges," says Todd Kell, who manages the program for the Virginia DOT. "511 is about customer service."
So what's the 411 on the state of 511? "The navigation itself was very simple and quick," Murray says of the voice-activated service created by Tellme Networks for Utah's DOT. "But the problem was that the report was wrong. When I drove up to the street, it was closed. I had to make a six-block detour."
Learn more about 511 here.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.