Information service could aid commuters with key details

Can three digits improve our daily commutes? Joining easy-to-remember phone numbers such as 911, the new 511 direct line will connect callers to traffic, transit and weather information.

Approved by the federal government just last week, we’ll have to wait as local authorities gradually launch the service throughout Canada. Initial options will be limited — but hopefully some day, with a few voice commands, we can find out when the next train or bus will arrive at our stop.

Canada is far behind the U.S., where half of all states now have some 511 service, but we can eventually expect real-time updates about subway or train delays as well as emergency road closures that disrupt transit service.


Suppose you needed directions to a restaurant on the other side of town — an automated service could give you the best route by car or transit, perhaps even accounting for current traffic conditions.

The Canada 511 Consortium is a partnership of government and private agencies including Environment Canada and the Canadian Urban Transit Association. CUTA President Michael Roschlau says the initiative will provide a “one-stop shop” for travellers.

The 511 service is to be “more accessible and easier for the public to remember,” he says. “Bingo — wherever you are — a three digit number can link you to the relevant transit system’s information service.” The next step for the consortium is to determine how and when the service will roll out, says Roschlau.

I say it’s time for our transit agencies to take their individual accomplishments — such as the TTC’s useful collaboration with the Yellow Pages, Mississauga Transit’s new online trip planner or GO’s popular e-mail updates — and willingly work together to help customers.

Riders can benefit from coordinating the way transit information is presented, whether by telephone, website or other technology — including station video monitors.

For example, compare bus schedules from various transit systems. Some are confusing, the designs range widely, and they’re listed in a different location on each transit website. Why make it so hard? The TTC even stopped distributing printed versions years ago.

Harmonizing transit and traffic info creates the opportunity to bridge language barriers, especially when combined with the Internet. With modern translation software and consistent options, you could find out how to get a bus from an airport in another city, all before leaving home.

Commuting updates are big business elsewhere in the world — especially in the United States. Two rival companies started online transit trip planners for commuters before the New York City transit system announced it would provide one of its own.

In Toronto, the TTC and other agencies are planning to supply schedules and other data to Google’s experimental transit directions service.

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