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Phone Service Aids Commuters

YOU'RE headed out the door on a typical weekday morning at rush hour. Suddenly, you're faced with the car commuter's dilemma: Which road should you take? The traffic gridlock could be anywhere. You need help and you need it fast.

So, who ya gonna call?

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A new Boston area travel information service introduced last month, SmarTraffic provides up-to-date traffic information by telephone to commuters all over eastern Massachusetts. Commuters need only dial the local number on a touch-tone telephone and they get instant information about all major Boston roadways as well as the city's commuter rail, bus, and subway systems.

The service, created by SmartRoute Systems of Cambridge, Mass., is a public/private partnership, which receives half its funding from the Federal Highway Administration. It is the nation's first operational test of Intelligent Vehicle Highway System (IVHS) technology for a large metropolitan area. SmartRoute hopes to expand its service to other US cities.

"What is really profound and unique about this service is that for the first time ever, traffic and transit information is now available over the phone, not just over the radio," says David Stein, executive vice president of SmartRoute.

To use the SmarTraveler service, commuters call the local telephone number and punch in a specific highway route. Besides up-to-date service, the system also includes "static" data such as ongoing construction projects and events that will slow traffic.

The SmarTraffic system relies on several sources for traffic information, including 30 live and slow-scan television cameras stationed along major highways, a team of commuters on contract who phone in traffic information regularly, two airplanes, and radio and telephone contact with state highway and public safety agencies.

Traffic data are then fed into the SmarTraffic's computers and audiotext equipment so that the information is continually updated.

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SmartRoute company founder John Liebesny, together with Micrologic Inc. of Watertown, Mass., developed the system's software. Mr. Liebesny, an electrical engineer, says he was inspired to design the service after enduring many grueling commutes in the Boston area. "The engineer in me said, `There ought to be a better way.' It really came from that, a frustrated commuter."

Stressed-out commuters may indeed find the service useful, but some traffic experts are nevertheless doubtful: Will commuters actually bother calling in when they can listen to radio and TV traffic broadcasts, they wonder. But Mr. Stein likens SmarTraveler to call-in weather and time information, two services also available on radio and TV.

"Forty-five million people in Greater Boston alone call time and weather over the course of the year," Stein says. "So the idea of calling for traffic is really like a pea in a pod. Time, weather, and traffic information really come together, we believe."

The federal government is especially interested in pursuing high technology to ease roadway congestion. And though other commuter-information services are offered in US cities, none is provided to the general public for such a large geographical area as Boston's SmarTraveler service.

"It's important that these experiments be performed because we have a lot to learn about how IVHS can be used in practice," says Joseph Sussman, co-director of the IVHS research program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

SmarTraveler is the first system in the nation to be funded by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act that was signed into law in 1991. Besides funding from the federal government, the $3 million project receives $250,000 from the state, plus private investment.

"We think it's a good experiment and we're hoping it will achieve the kind of results that we want, in that the public will dial that number and will listen carefully to this almost-up-to-the-minute information," says Norman Van Ness, director of the IVHS office of the Federal Highway Administration.

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