A few years ago, whenever I was stuck in traffic, I used to try to call a traffic alert line that my cellphone provider used to offer. Too often the answer I would get from that service was that what I was experiencing was 'normal slowing'. It dawned on me then that that answer wasn't really the most useful -- it was too little information, too late. I wished there was something more that I could have accessed sooner. It seems now there is. Several things, in fact.
Although still in beta, TrafficLand is a one-stop shopping for those interested in checking in on traffic cameras around the regions and in other cities too. That could be very useful to folks when planning trips or before heading out on their daily commutes. It's a window on what lies on the road ahead. For a fee, TrafficLand wireless access is available for folks, so even on route, it's possible to actually see what current traffic looks like.
But it's just one of several ways to get traffic information to commuters in a timely, efficient and comprehendable way. What works for some might not work for others (I'm lost when it comes to radio and television traffic reports --"What did they just say?") and it seems to me that there are increasingly more and varied ways to get the heads-up on daily traffic. For our transient communities, that's very important because it's really hard to get to know the ins-and-outs of what to expect on our roads.
Another service called Traffic.com hosts traffic webcams, too, but also has taken the novel approach of rating traffic at various points on a 1-to-10 scale called a JamFactor. Traffic.com allows for users to set up email or SMS alerts when traffic problems occur at specific times or places that they want to know about. What I like are the RSS feeds that I get. When my wife was expecting, every morning and evening I glanced at the feed on my desktop to see the JamFactor on the 14th Street bridge, so I knew which way my wife should take. (My Traffic.com feed is right next to my WMATA Metro service disruption alert feed.)
And the options go on and on. Just last week, Google added traffic information to Google Maps, so here's an example of what you can find there. Google's free Mobile Maps application shows the same information, so I even run this on my cellphone. Both of these are similar to what Yahoo! Maps also does (here's Yahoo's version of the same map). These maps provide another source of readily understandable traffic info. And it doesn't stop there, even the WashingtonPost.com has devoted space to traffic info. I'm sure there are others.
But my point is this: lots of folks are working on lots of ways to figure out how to get the right info to those who are looking for it. And I'm sure that it's not a matter of finding the 'best' way; it's about different strokes for different folks. What works for some won't work for others. But what I'm hopeful about is that new technologies are here for almost everyone to use. And if there not here for you yet, just wait. The folks out there developing Google Gadgets and Apple Widgets and Microsoft Gadgets and Yahoo Widgets will probably have something for you soon enough. But that's a whole other story for another day.
Kevin Beekman is a resident of the City of Alexandria