Region's road warriors battle-test new weapon

Service customizes traffic reports, suggests detours

January 04, 2000|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Daniel White is among a new breed of road warrior who makes his daily commute with the help of computer and cell phone.

He checks traffic conditions on a Web site before leaving on his Waldorf-to-Greenbelt drive. From the road, he phones a private traffic service in Washington to report tie-ups and check on potential snags. When problems happen, he can find out the quickest detour.

It helps White avoid jams and provides a sense of control, albeit slight, in a region where motorists increasingly feel none. "It's a way of coping," says the computer programmer, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Absent quick solutions to everyday traffic battles, some new weapons can help avoid them.

Motorists around Baltimore will be introduced to a similar system in the summer when SmarTraveler -- a rapidly growing private traffic service -- opens an office here.

Besides reporting traffic conditions by phone or computer, the company will soon offer custom options for drivers. A deal with PageNet, for instance, will notify subscribers of traffic problems on their commute routes during their drive times.

"Everyone recognizes the value of traffic information," says Michael Elder, the company's director of business development. "We're heading toward services where customers can really select not only what kind of information they want, but when they want it and where they want it."

The idea is expected to start hitting its groove in the next two years as more sophisticated pagers, cell phones, Palm Pilots and car computer services become linked with traffic monitoring systems. By then, many more fiber optic cables, electronic sensors and video cameras will be delivering information directly from the road. If there is a simple way out of a jam, motorists will be given specific directions and even maps.

"For the 9-to-5'ers, it's not good enough anymore to look at the TV or listen to the radio for traffic reports every 15 minutes -- things can happen too fast," says Paul Najarian of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, based in Washington.

"The goal is up-to-the-minute information," he says.

Through partnership with more than 20 police, government and other public agencies, SmarTraveler's office in downtown Washington is a clearinghouse for traffic conditions on major roads within a 30-mile radius of the city.

It opened two years ago as a $12.5 million public-private partnership and will be self-supporting by next month. Web site ads generate most of the income. As many as 1,000 people may phone in on a typical day, and the Web site (www.smartraveler.com) gets about 60,000 hits a day.

Using SmarTraveler costs motorists nothing. But custom options, such as the paging service, will have a price, the company says.

"We're just at the brink of that potential," says Michael Zezeski, head of traffic information for the State Highway Administration. "It's going to have a tremendous impact because it will make people more informed and give them better choices."

Among Zezeski's projects is a test to determine whether cell phone signals from cars might help track the flow of traffic. The joint project between Maryland and Virginia will be tested on a 10- to 15-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway over this year. If it works, speed and congestion could be monitored along roads not equipped with sensors or cameras. Traffic centers would then be far better equipped to advise motorists on their options.

But it remains a fledgling concept.

"The market is still young as to how much people are willing to pay, but it is becoming a popular idea," says Eileen Singleton of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. "The more detailed information people can get about the roads they drive, the better they can plan."

In SmarTraveler's office, dispatchers keep watch over a bank of 25 screens that offers live views from hundreds of traffic cameras. A cacophony of beeps, chirps and squawks beckons from pagers, two-way radios, computer screens and many-line phones. One second, it may be Montgomery County police about a fender-bender. Moments later, miles away, it may be worsening delays at a highway construction site. If trains or buses or subways are delayed, that's noted too.

Meanwhile, reports from the air and from about 350 volunteers, like Daniel White, add pieces to the complex puzzle.

Michelle Weinstein, a graduate student at the University of Baltimore, often works the Maryland desk -- absorbing this information, delivering bad news, suggesting next-best routes. Among a few dozen major roads mapped out on her computer screen, six might develop serious problems during an ordinary rush hour.

"The scanners going off, the phones ringing, 10 things happening at once. It's very fast-paced," she says.

That's a normal day. Then there was Nov. 4, when police blocked traffic from crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge because a man was threatening to jump. The result: regional gridlock.

Recalling it -- well, words fail her. If there was a single road unaffected, she can't remember it.

"It can get crazy," she says finally, grabbing a beeper that announces an accident scene is clear. Washington is, after all, the second most traffic-clogged city in the nation, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Yet even people as dedicated as White -- who makes about three calls per trip -- say the benefits won't be realized until more people use the system.

"It has the potential to be helpful to drivers, but it doesn't help the actual problems," he says. "There are just too many cars on the road."

If driving plans include Greater Washington, 202-863-1313 can be called for traffic status. Sprint Spectrum customers can make a free cell call to SmarTraveler by dialing #211. To check traffic conditions online: www.smartraveler.com

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