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Starts & Stops

511 users, say bye to the voice on the other end of the line

MBTA General Manager Rich Davey prepared to throw the first pitch at Friday’s game in Fenway Park between the Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey prepared to throw the first pitch at Friday’s game in Fenway Park between the Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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It may not be John Henry battling the steam drill, but two 511 traveler information systems — one human-powered, the other computer-driven — have competed in Massachusetts over the past week, with the manned one doomed to expire and the computerized system set to take over for good tomorrow night at the end of this busy holiday travel weekend.

State transportation officials say that’s something to celebrate. The outgoing SmartRoute Systems (also known as “smartroutes’’) cost taxpayers $1.2 million a year. The new 511 program, run by the high-tech marketing company Sendza, costs taxpayers nothing. Cellphone providers began switching 511 callers from one to the other in recent days, in advance of a full June 1 turnover.

But even as Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan was holding a press conference at a Route 128 service plaza and tweeting the news, SmartRoute’s shrinking but loyal band of devotees were startled and upset.

“The 511 service is new but not improved. To be honest it is terrible,’’ a commuter wrote, voicing displeasure in a comment on the state Department of Transportation’s blog. I received several e-mails along the same lines. “It is amazing that the state took a really useful service and screwed it up so badly,’’ wrote another reader.

If you’re not familiar with 511, here’s how it worked — or works, until tomorrow — under SmartRoute. (And if you’re not familiar, you’re not alone; fewer than 1 in 100 motorists take advantage of it.) After dialing, you enter numbers for a particular highway or route and hear a freshly recorded update that sounds like a tailored version of reports you might hear on WBZ radio. Push more buttons and you connect with a live operator who can provide extra details, answer questions, or take input from you — if you’re stuck in traffic they don’t yet know about.

SmartRoute’s Boston staff of 13 updates those real-time phone reports — and a companion website — by consulting sources such as police scanners, traffic cameras, and two-way radio contact with Logan Express and CaresVan highway assistance drivers.

The service began in 1993, predating the federal creation of 511 a decade ago as a universal number for travel information. The federal government left it up to states to design and implement their own programs.

There are no specific requirements, but the federal government “strongly encouraged’’ Massachusetts to put its 511 service out to bid, recommending a voice-activated and automated phone service that would cost less, said Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the state DOT.

Five companies bid late last year, including SmartRoute, which hoped to keep the contract, though it would have billed the state $4 million in one-time costs to implement a voice-activated feature, Durrant said.

The winner was Sendza, which offered to do everything for free. The new service is also statewide, while SmartRoute focused on the world inside Interstate 495.

Sendza, a Marlborough digital-messaging company that also provides notification services for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, does not monitor roads itself. Instead, it harnesses traffic information and predictions from a Washington company called INRIX — whose tools include measuring traffic congestion by the number and placement of working cellphones along a route — and converts that data into computerized phone recordings, text messages, and e-mails. The company has lower overhead without a desk of traffic reporters and makes money on the contract by selling advertising to Safety Insurance.

“These new 511 services will save Massachusetts millions, while providing a higher level of service,’’ Mullan said in a statement. Governor Deval Patrick called it a “perfect example of our new transportation reform approach, working to deliver better statewide service to travelers at a reduced cost.’’

Not so fast, say SmartRoute users — a group that has shrunk to about 10,000 a day, down from more than twice that number five years ago, according to the state. SmartRoute may have had its shortcomings, but it provided useful details that the new system lacks, users say.

A SmartRoute caller interested in, say, Route 9 westbound, would get a recording that noted backups at particular stoplights, like Elliot Street in Newton; explained the cause; and offered advice about which lane to stay in or where and when to detour.

Callers to the new Sendza system get messages about “heavy congestion’’ between broad points, like Route 9 between Interstates 95 and 495, along with average travel times and speeds. The system also lacks operators who can take reports from motorists.

Durrant acknowledged the lost features, but said the state prefers to spend money on road and bridge improvements rather than live operators who are helping a small percentage of motorists. He predicted that complaints would subside as people adjust to Sendza and learn the new system’s features.

Meanwhile, Westwood One — the radio giant that is SmartRoute’s parent company — is laying off its local traffic team after handling 77 million calls.

Matt Smialek, a Danvers resident who spent the past decade studying local traffic and providing updates, said he has received some job-search assistance from 511 dialers who became fans.

“We have some loyal callers,’’ Smialek said. If none of the leads materialize, he said, he may heed the automated writing on the wall. “I’m thinking about going back to school for information technology.’’

$22m rehab slated for Science Park T station
■ On Thursday, MBTA general manager Rich Davey gathered with city and state officials and local civic associations to announce a $22 million improvement project planned for the Green Line’s Science Park Station — or, rather, “Science Park/West End Station,’’ as the T renamed it on selected documents and signage (albeit not maps) last year, in tribute to the vibrant, crowded neighborhood nearby that was razed in the name of urban renewal shortly after the station went up.

The work on the 56-year-old elevated station is expected to last two years and will include two elevators, new lobbies with automated fare collection devices, new platforms and canopies, and new stairs. The station is not currently wheelchair accessible.

According to the T, 2,100 customers use Science Park/West End station each day. The T’s last information bible, the 2009 Blue Book, ranked the station second to last in the MBTA system for average daily boardings, trailing only Suffolk Downs. (The rankings included all of the Blue, Orange, and Red Line stations but only those Green Line stops between Lechmere and Kenmore.)

Part of the station’s lack of popularity may stem from its proximity to the busier Lechmere and North Station stops, half a mile away and four-tenths of a mile away in opposite directions, respectively.

■ With Bike Week over, the MassCommuter Challenge celebrated with a Bike Bash in Kendall Square last week. The Challenge encouraged workers to swap their cars for bicycles as part of Bay State Bike Week and pledge their peddling miles. This year, 3,741 commuters pledged 222,146 bike miles for the week, nearly double last year.

The leading institution was Massachusetts General Hospital, whose employees biked 7,696 miles to and from work during the week, encouraged by the secure bike cage and showering/changing facilities MGH provides its bikers.

The challenge was organized by the state’s Transportation Management Associations, regional nonprofits that work with businesses and municipal governments to encourage carpooling, public transportation, and other alternatives to single-occupancy car commuting.

■ Friday night’s Red Sox-Royals game brought an MBTA theme to Fenway Park, which already leads the league in the percentage of ticket holders who take public transportation to games. General manager Rich Davey threw out the first pitch, the honor guard unit of the MBTA Transit Police Department presented the colors, and Orange Line train operator Charice Lewis and inspector Jacqueline Osorio were recognized for their quick action last fall in bringing the subway to a screeching halt just inches from a woman who fell into the train pit at North Station.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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