August 25, 2005
REVIEW: Traffic Software Gives Radio a Run
EDISON, N.J. -- Long Island looked as if it were on fire. That's my view of the New York suburbs on the screen of a Treo Smartphone. A new piece of software gives me real-time traffic updates - flashing yellow, orange or red circles appear over a road map, depending on the level of hell they portend.
Meanwhile, my own turf - the much-maligned New Jersey - had never looked better.
With gas prices at eye-popping levels, Palm Inc. (PALM)'s Traffic for Treo Smartphones couldn't have come at a better time.
It costs $4.99 a month to get traffic updates for one city - a small price considering savings you'd get by dodging traffic jams and the stop-and-go nightmares that the radio reports euphemistically call "heavy volume." You can get two cities for $7.99 a month, or all 10 for $14.99.
So far, the software covers metropolitan areas for New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C./Baltimore. You can download it from Palm's Web site.
With Traffic, there's no need to wait 10 or 15 minutes for the next traffic update on the radio.
Plus, you avoid radio traffic reporters who have to cram so much information into so little time, they end up sounding like auctioneers on caffeine binges.
These reporters typically speak in an incomprehensible jargon, throwing around words like "spurs" and "interchanges" and bridges with names that only traffic reporters know. It's easy to miss something, then have to wait another 10 to 15 minutes for the next report, only to miss it again.
With Traffic, you can zoom into the part of the map that affects you most and bookmark spots of greatest interest.
Tap on one of the flashing circles for detailed written information. One recent example: "Garden State Parkway at Exit 145. There is an accident involving an overturned vehicle causing heavy delays on the northbound Garden State Parkway north of Exit 145 I-280-Central Avenue-East Orange-Newark."
The dots may also tell you if highway traffic is moving slow ("Miles per Hour: 35 - Southern State Parkway Exit 32") or if there are delays at major "chokepoints" ("Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan has 10 min delays").
Palm Inc. gets the traffic data from a company called Metrocommute, which takes sensor and accident data from local transportation officials. It also adds information obtained through its own cameras and speed detectors at bridges, tolls and other high-traffic areas. The traffic updates for some cities are also available for free on MetroCommute.com and as text messages.
The data refresh every 15 minutes by default, though you can set it to refresh as quickly as every 5 minutes or simply tap a button on the screen for an instant update.
I found the information from the software jived pretty will with the radio reports, which is not surprising considering Metrocommute provides traffic data to several New York area radio stations. The information is clear and concise and provides just the right amount of detail. And at rush hour or other high-traffic times, it generally was able to offer more information than the radio.
Of course, one disadvantage when compared to radio is that you can only use the Treo before you start driving or when you are stopped, unless you have a passenger.
The temptation to fire up the software while driving proved too strong to resist at times for me. So if you're like me, you'll need to work on your willpower in order to avoid ending up as the centerpiece of a rubbernecker delay yourself.
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