Transit Timesavers

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The toy department for travelers has more and more goodies. Transit users and drivers can play around with transportation tools designed to get you where you're going -- or at least tell you how much trouble you've gotten yourself into. Here are some of my favorite online calculators and real-time information displays. Tell us what you think of them, and what others you like, by writing to commuter@washpost.com.

Trip Planner

This is the Monopoly, or Clue, of the transit toy department. Metro's online calculator, which has been around for a few years but was recently upgraded, gets people across the region by bus or train, or both. Start from Metro's home page, http://www.wmata.com. Tell the calculator where you're coming from and going to. Use an exact address, an intersection or a landmark. Plug in when you want to go and how you want to get there. Trip Planner will come up with several options, which could include Metrorail, Metrobus, VRE, MARC and most public bus services. It also will show you maps for the areas around the starting point and destination.

What Trip Planner can't do is account for rail service disruptions and bus detours. So if there's an emergency -- such as the slowdowns on the Red Line after the June 22 crash, scheduled weekend track maintenance or a marathon that prompted some street closures -- the Trip Planner's little computer brain won't be able to adjust.

NextBus

This new GPS-based service provides some real-time information for Metrobus riders that Trip Planner can't. There are several ways to make it work. At about 12,000 bus stops, passengers will see a red-white-and-blue shield with the stop's number and a phone number. Call the phone number, follow the automated instructions and get the predicted arrival times for the closest buses. This information also is available on the Metro Web site. The next-bus information can be displayed on a chart or a map. The system also works from a mobile device.

This is a real breakthrough, because it takes a lot of the uncertainty out of bus travel. (Nobody trusts the printed schedules.) But don't expect to set your watch by the bus arrival. Although it's using a GPS tracker, NextBus also is making a calculation about the local traffic conditions in predicting the arrival time. That's not so bad if the bus is late, but it also could come earlier than you timed your own arrival at the stop.

Next Train

The same block at the top of Metro's home page that guides travelers to NextBus also opens access to current information about train arrivals. Click on a station name and see the arrival times for the next trains on any line in any direction serving that station. If a train is on the platform and boarding, the display will flash "BRD" at you, but then, you'll probably never get there in time.

iTrans DC Metro

If these really were transportation toys, you would have gotten this one at a Sharper Image store. It's an easy-to-use application for iPhones that provides information about Metrorail, starting with the familiar map of the system, with all stations marked. From the touchable map, a user can get directions between stations, see train schedules and find service advisories, among other things. There's a small charge for the app. Of course, you've got to buy the iTouch or iPhone first. For more information, go to http://itrans.info.

DC Circulator

Not to be outdone by Metro, the District has developed a tracking system for its five-route Circulator bus system. It's very simple to use either from desktops or mobile devices. Just go to http://circulator.dc.gov. Pick your route and direction of travel. You'll see a display of the stops, which is helpful in itself. Click on a stop name and you'll see the locations of the three closest buses, plus the hours of operation on that line. Note that the Circulator is scheduled to arrive about every 10 minutes, so don't run out to buy a smartphone just for this.

MARCTracker

This one is for MARC commuter train riders. Go to http://www.marctracker.com to see a map of the Brunswick, Camden and Penn lines with little boxes containing the numbers of the trains at their locations along the lines. The boxes are color-coded to indicate whether the train is on time or behind schedule. (There is no color for ahead of schedule.) There are tabs on this display that show the status as a graphic or display the lines' timetables.

VRE's 'Rail Time'

The Virginia Railway Express display, at http://www.vre.org, is very similar to the MARCTracker concept. The VRE map shows the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines, with all the stops along the way. Train numbers appear in circles to represent their position on the lines. The color code indicates trains that are on-time, delayed or unable to connect with the communications system.

Traffic Alerts

It's common now for traffic-information providers to take travelers beyond the basic map that has links to camera views or color-coded roads indicating the degree of congestion. http://Trafficland.com, for example, allows registered users to receive up to 10 cameras per e-mail. Traffic.com, The Post's Traffic page at http://www.washingtonpost.com/traffic, online sites for WTOP radio at http://www.wtop.com and NBC TV in Washington at http://www.nbcwashington.com are among those that offer customized route planners for commuters.

CHART Highway Signs

Sometimes, I find the big traffic maps hard to absorb at a glance. There's too much information. As an alternative, I might look at an online page provided by the Maryland Department of Transportation that shows the message displayed on highway signs across the state. One on I-95 south is telling me to look for a traffic pattern at I-895 as of 8 a.m. today. Another useful page that also is part of Maryland's CHART system of highway information zooms in on lane closures and traffic congestion on state highways. On this page, I can see which lanes are closed at the I-95 toll plaza past the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

Virginia's 511 Control Room

The Virginia Department of Transportation offers a customizable gadget that sets up specific traffic cameras, weather reports and transportation information for any number of personalized destinations. It also allows users to receive e-mail alerts on traffic incidents, bridge openings, construction projects and other obstacles along their routes. This is part of the commonwealth's 511 traffic information system, which can be found online at http://511virginia.org.

Once you set up your 511 Control Room, it will be your one-stop shop to get immediate, updated information for the route you're about to take -- to work, home or anyplace else you choose!



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