Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Apr 19, 2010

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Hello, travelers. Thanks for joining me.

Last weekend was another in the seemingly endless series of Red Line single-tracking and delays. To add insult to injury, in most stations, the next train arrival signs on the Shady Grove bound side listed trains that were terminating at Friendship Heights as bound to "Med Center". This has been very common over the last 6 months of weekend Red Line crippling. A few stations get this right but most don't. Why cant Metro get even something this stupid correct?

Yes, I've heard that complaint about the Med Center/Friendship Heights signs./ I'll ask about that. The work will continue next weekend, and there will be the same setup with the turnaround trains.

Hello, Two things are bugging me this morning and please indulge my venting. 1. Walkers in DC--please walk as if you were a car--stay on the right side or left side. Do not walk on my side. Just walk over the grids, seriously. 2. Tourists and riders with children: you probably will not read this but morning and afternoon metro commutes are normally quiet time for the riders. We are not chatty people and we do not want to listen to your children talk for 30 minutes straight nor watch them use the limited space as a playground. Thanks and have a good Monday.

I had a letter from a reader this spring who also complained about how people walk in the Washington area. The reader wanted everyone to stay to the right on the sidewalks.  Doesn't happen much here, does it? Seems to be a source of anger each spring as the sidewalks get more crowded.

Dr Gridlock - I appreciate your Sunday column about WMATA's budget but still don't get why labor costs are not part of the equation? Neither your column nor the "poll" that WMATA conducted mention labor costs. But labor costs are 72% of WMATA's budget and that number is actually going to increase under the current budget proposal because at a time of near zero inflation all WMATA staff are slated to get 2.5% raises! Is it not true that the 2.5% raise is the single largest year over year budget increase in WMATA's budget? Everyone is being asked to sacrifice here - riders thru higher fares and reduced service and local tax payers via higher local contributions. But Union workers who still get the unprecedented benefit of overtime while on vacation are not even being asked to forego raises in this economy? Does WMATA serve its riders or its employees and where is the board in all of this?

I think Metro doesn't include reducing employee salaries as an option for public hearings because it's not something the board is going to vote on between now and the new fiscal year. Metro management already has decided to cut staffing and has made more positions "at will."

Of course, many of the proposed service cuts amount to cuts in labor costs. If station entrances are closed or the entire rail system opens an hour late or shuts an hour early, or if bus routes are cut, much of the money savings involves labor costs.

I was trying to exit the Prince George's Plaza metro station late last week, and the only escalator that was working was going DOWN, not up. I trundled up the stairs and hurt my leg. Here's two questions: how do Metro managers decide not to have an up-going escalator in this kind of situation? And second: where's my $54 million? If some judge can game the system over a pair of pants, what's a disability worth?

Very common complaint -- about the escalators, I mean. If there's just one escalator working, it should be going up. Bring it to the attention of the station manager.

(Although, I've had riders tell me that walking down on a stopped escalator is difficult enough. They're not meant for walking. Real solution would be to get the escalators working. I don't see why this problem -- a problem Metro has known about for years with the escalators breaking down -- can't be solved.)

Good morning Dr. G! My question deals with all the road grit thrown down over the winter - in case you forgot we had a few snow storms! In my residential neighborhood in Arlington on a county maintained road- there is still TONS of sand/grit etc on the road- a lot of it has been swept against the curb but some of it make almost a solid line between where cars parallel park and drive. Whose responsibility is it to clean that up? Its slowly starting to create secondary problems- when it rains for example there's so much blocking drainage routes that huge puddles form. Thanks for any info you might have!

Yeah, same in my neighborhood in Montgomery County, and I see the sand on plenty of streets as I drive around the region. It's certainly more noticeable this year because so much sand was dumped to ease our pain during the massive storms.

I believe the cleanup varies among the jurisdiction.

I had wanted to check a report for a specififc date in April when I was delayed. Their web site lists April 1, 2, 3, 4, and then jumps to April 12, 13, 14, and 15. So what happened to a whole week of reports?

I see what you mean. That's very unusual. I'll ask about it. For those who aren't familiar with it, Metro posts reports about the causes of daily disruptions, like a train taken out of service, or a report of smoke on the tracks. The disruption reports are on this page on Metro's Web site:

http://www.wmata.com/rail/disruption_reports/archived_service_reports.cfm

I'm seriously considering moving from Leesburg to Alexandria this summer. I'm a teacher in Ashburn, and while it's possible that I could find a job in one of the closer suburbs, it's just as likely that there won't be any openings, so I'd be facing a reverse commute, to the extent that that even exists anymore. Do you or the chatters have any advice on routes including ones that don't involve the toll road or greenway? And am I completely nuts for considering this?

I'd like to ask for advice from other travelers on this one. As you note, the concept of a reverse commute has less and less meaning each year. I-66, Route 7 and the toll road can get pretty crowded at various points in the reverse direction.

Is there any chance that Montgomery County or the state will do something to fix University Blvd between 29 and Georgia Avenue? It's difficult to say the road surface has potholes when it feels, when driving this stretch, as though you've arrived in a warzone where bombs have dessimated the roadway. It's been this way for years and is only getting worse!

I thought there was a resurfacing project underway in that area, but I'll double check.  That's a very busy stretch of road, heavily used by drivers seeking an alternative to a very congested segment of the Beltway.

 

Why would any rational person think people are going to pay the ridiculously high tolls on these stupid lanes? This is going to fail miserably and then we'll be stuck with the bag. Do the right thing and get the VA legislature to start sending Northern Virginia its fair share of tax dollars. Seriously, Richmond gets the 295 bypass and we get snot lanes? Yeesh.

I do think Northern Virginia needs more money from Richmond because -- given its population -- it has greater needs than many other parts of the Commonwealth. But please keep in mind also that the state has a lot less money to spend on transportation improvements now. After these big projects -- like the HOT lanes and the Metrorail construction and the widening of 95 and the extension of the Fairfax County Parkway -- get done, there's really not much else in the pipeline.

The HOT lanes aren't a new concept. There's plenty of evidence on several continents -- including ours -- that they can be operated successfully.

 

It strikes me that the fracas over the possibility of overhead streetcar wires "marring" downtown "vistas" is right up there in the hypocrisy scale with the residents of Martha's Vineyard not wanting energy-tapping windmills faintly visible from their beaches....... they want the plus of mass transit and "pollution free" transport (which only relocates the pollution to another smokestack), but "not in MY back yard"...........

For all: The overhead lines issue has to do with running streetcars in central Washington, or what's sometimes refered to as  the monumental core of the capital.

Just about every transportation project engenders opposition from the people who live right along the route.  It was that way with the Intercounty Connector. It's been that way with the Purple Line. It's going to be that way with the streetcars in DC.

 

Dear Dr. Gridlock, Are real-time traffic signs helping or hurting the commuters? Do you agree with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley who asks to stop the new program that displays real-time travel information to drivers if studies reveal that the program is really causing traffic problems more than solving them? Best Regards

I think WTOP has a problem with the travel time information that now appears on the overhead signs on Maryland highways. I think it's one of the best uses of the highway signs and am all for expanding this. I've driven around plenty and have not seen any problem among drivers as they approach the signs.

This is not some great cutting edge use of traffic signs, some far out experiment. Many state transportation departments use their highway signs to display travel time information.

Anybody really have a problem driving near these signs?

I've seen a lot about the three foot rule for bicycles in the news lately. I drive up and down the Fairfax County parkway every day . At least once a week I see a someone on their bike riding on the actual road despite the fact that 20 feet away is a perfectly fine bike trail that goes along the parkway. This is early in the morning when there are very few people using the trail. Is this an illegal thing for cyclists to do? I fear for their safety for speeding is a big problem on this road. Traffic on the parkway can get so bad at times I wish I wasn't driving on it in my car, I can't imagine riding a bike on it. I don't get it.

It does seem like a crazy thing to do. It's the first time I've heard this type of comment in regard to the  Fairfax County Parkway. I've heard about it regarding the southern portion of the George Washington Parkway and Rock Creek Parkway. When we've discussed this in my newspaper column or online, cyclists write in to say that the pathways are inadequate for cyclists. They either have too many walkers spread out across the paths or too many potholes, all of which are dangers to cyclists. But I can't believe they'd consider it safer to be sharing lanes with speeding traffic.

I'm a long-time Federal worker who has dumped the Red line for my car, prefering the cost of driving to the stress of using Metro. Given the very large number of Metro riders who work for the Federal government, has there been any concrete action by Congress to address Metro's increasing dysfunctional nature (more than Sen. Mikulski's statement, which doesn't seem to have gone anywhere). Thanks.

Congress did attach strings to the extra money it's giving Metro. Two federal representatives have been appointed to the Metro board. Also, there are plenty of federal investigations of the recent Metrorail incidents, including -- still -- the June 22 crash on the Red Line.

But I do think that most of the complaining you hear from Congress goes nowhere. For example, there was some rumbling that the feds could take over Metro. I think there's virtually zero chance of that.

Often when I'm at the Vienna metro station I see huge sparks flying from underneath trains as they pull out of the station. What is this? It's normal right, not an indication that something is wrong?

I've had a couple of questions about sparking lately. Some of that's going to be normal -- you'd see it on any form of transit connected to a third rail or an overhead wire.

Metro does have a problem with trash getting on the tracks and getting zapped by the trains. That's usually what leads to the reports of smoke in the tunnels and a suspension of service. Metro has been trying harder to clear the tracks of trash, and I think we're getting fewer reports of smoke or fire.

Hi Doc - What is it going to take for DC to add more traffic control and enforcement personnel to the commuting corridors? Their use is erratic, at best. And there is virtually no enforcement of parking restrictions on 14th Street along the Mall (Not hapless tourists, either. Many VA tags among the offenders). Control and enforcement is most visibly absent every Friday evening when getting out of the city is most difficult. The message to commuters seems to be "We don't care if you can't get out on a Friday because we know you won't be back until Monday to spend money here." And you know what? They are right! I love DC and am glad I work here but if I have a rough time getting out of the city it makes me not want to schlep in again on the weekend for dining, shopping and cultural events. Everyone's loss. I would happily pay a commuter tax if I could be guaranteed open lanes and no gridlock. Thanks

One of my top wishes for our regional transportation system is that the District Department of Transportation should be able to hire more traffic control officers. Where I see them, I think they do a great job. But there aren't enough of them to handle a rush hour every place they are needed downtown.

But I also don't understand why so many drivers move out into the intersections before they have a clear shot at reaching the other side on a green light. If you were smart enough to pass the driving test, you ought to be smart enough not to block the box.

I have a teenage son about to obtain his driver's license and in one of your previous columns you had recommended two places where one could do a course on defensive driving. Can you provide that information again?

I've never done that. My predecessor, Ron Shaffer, who retired in 2006, did. If you send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com, I can look up the ones Ron recommended and send those names to you. (Can't recall them offhand.)

Not sure how current this is, but here's a guide to driving schools in the area.

 

Speak for yourself, not all Washingtonians are the same. Sure, it can be annoying sometimes, but I have been quite amused by hearing some kids' conversations. Can we please not dampen their enthusiasm at being in our great city? There is no rule on the subway that people aren't allowed to talk to each other. If it bugs you that much, please think of getting some earplugs or headphones. When you visit other cities and you are with a companion do you refrain from speaking in public so as not to bother those around you?

I don't mind the kids, or anybody else talking on Metro. But why is it the cellphone conversations bother me so much? Is it that those people seem to shout into their phones? Is it that I'm listening to only half the conversation?

It's not so bad if it's an emergency, or even arranging for a pickup at a station. But so many conversations seem to start with "So .... what's going on?"

 

Don't assume that walking on the right is the correct etiquette. I was running in front of the Monument early in the morning last week like I've done for the past few years. I was hugging the right side of the sidewalk and a biker was headed toward me on the same side (his left). I didn't know which way he was going to go so I moved over slightly so there was room on both sides of me to pass. Apparently, I didn't move over enough to his liking and he intentionally hit me with his shoulder. What is wrong with people?!?!?

Yeah, there's no excuse for that. But in ordinary walking on the sidewalks, I can think of one thing in defense of the oncoming people: They can see the crowd behind me, and I can't. I don't know whether there's a solid phalanx of walkers behind me that the oncoming person will need to get around by moving far over to my side.

There's flat out bad behavior, such as you describe. Then there's people just trying to do the best they can.

In response to Venting, I don't think it's fair to ask people to respect your request to be quiet on the metro. Metro caters to everyone, not just commuters. It's your "quiet time," but for someone else, it is vacation or a social outing. I recommend earplugs or an ipod.

I rode in this morning listening to Rachel Carson's "Under the Sea Wind" on my pod. Listening to audiobooks is a great way to spend a Metrorail trip, except when the train goes around a curve and the wheels creech.

I've been pleased to see that Metro has stationed workers on the platform at Gallery Place. However, except for one man who stands at the end of the platform and helps direct traffic up towards the front (I've seen him twice, and he is helpful and courteous), most of the employees just stand with their backs against the wall chatting with each other and ignoring customers. So while I give Metro a bit of credit for trying, it would be nice if they would actually train their employees to be of assistance, not to just treat this posting as social hour.

Yes, I know what you mean: You can tell right away who's really helping on the crowded platforms -- especially the Red Line's Gallery Place platform in the direction of Shady Grove. An active Metro staffer can bring sanity to a bad situation by helping the crowd get organized. Others are just taking up space.

 

When is VDOT going to wake up and realize the following: 1. Rush hour doesn't exist anymore. They should keep the shoulder lanes open from 6 am until 10 pm. 2. They shouldn't have the red X show up just around the corner coming from the beltway. People panic and try and move over too soon and basically stop in the lane. Get rid of the red X until you are past the nutley street exit to give enough time for the brain dead idiots to figure out they need to move over in the next mile.

I'm not crazy about opening up the shoulders to traffic. I know the pressure on the Virginia Department of Transportation to do so and also the frustrations drivers feel -- 66 just gets worse and worse. But hate to take away the safety of the shoulders.

Is there no elevator at this station?

Sure, but Metro tells us to leave the elevator for people in  need, and the more the elevator gets used, the more likely it is to break down. When that happens, people in need are going to have to get off at another station and request a Metro shuttle to the station they wanted.

This tool seems worthless unless you know exactly which bus or train you are planning on taking. My husband and I are thinking of moving so I tried to use the trip planner to get an idea about my new commute. The tool had me taking two buses from Shirlington to Ballston. And then the orange line to Metro Center. I'm not too familiar with that area, but I'm pretty sure there's a better way. BTW - the estimated commute time was 1 hour and 19 minutes!

I think Trip Planner is pretty good for figuring out transit routes.  Sometimes, the results will show you that you'd be better off driving. Especially if it's an off-peak trip.

For folks who are doing the sensible thing of trying to calculate their travel times before moving, why not test a couple of routes -- transit or driving -- before making the investment in a new residence?

While I am a big proponent of walkers staying to the right, there are plenty of times when the configuration of DC sidewalks makes that all but impossible. The "grids" over Metro do not accomodate many heels of women's shoes, so they must be avoided, usually by veering to the left. Sometimes there are restaurants that have liberally interpreted their allocation of space for outside dining, sometimes there is garbage, sometimes an unsavory character...the list goes on and on. Finally, as a skin cancer survivor, I walk in the shade, even if that means walking on the left. (A lot of others do this to avoid glare on their phone/b'berry screens). So it is a complicated calculus. As usual, tolerance is the key.

I agree completely, and thanks for pointing out the variety of  reasons a person might not follow a rigid course. (One thing: I can't endorse the idea of staring at a screen while walking. We don't usually discuss distracted walking, but there sure is plenty of it.)

On the escalators...WMATA is rehabilitating one of the escalators between the platform and the turnstiles in the Bethesda Metro forcing the hoardes in each direction to walk up or down the escalator. This will continue through June. Here are my questions...Since this isn't a critical fix, why can't this be done outside of tourist season? It's an interior escalator so weather is not a factor. Why do they have to erect a giant wall so that you can't see people coming up the escalator until you are right at the top of the steps?

The Bethesda escalators -- all of them -- are a source of concern to many people who write to me. And some of them always seem to be out of action. I'm not sure about your question on timing. Is there any season when Bethesda Metro is uncrowded?

 

As the beltway is reconfigured with more lanes, can you tell me if the left-lane entrance from I66 east to 495 north will be moved to the right lane? The left entrance is the cause huge bottlenecks every week day. All it takes is a couple of semis entering at 25 mph into the fast lane, or a few cars crossing 3 lanes to get to the Tyson's exit to slow down traffic to where it never recovers until after 10am. BTW I'm not talking about the recent reconfigurations of that entrance; this problem existed long before construction began. Thanks!

I should double check this and report back to you, but what I thought was going to happen is that the left lane ramp will become a HOT lane entrance and the right lane ramp will remain for regular traffic heading onto the inner loop. But that right lane ramp would go over the Beltway and enter from the right side of the outer loop, rather than from the left side of the loop, as is the case now.

(I'd like to hear from drivers about whether the reconfiguration of the ramps this spring has helped ease the bottleneck. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.)

 

If you've got knee problems like I do, walking down is actually much more difficult than walking up an escalator or stairs. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing I have to balance more of my body weight on the knee when stepping down for whatever reason. When the escalators at Dupont Circle are out I have to take the elevator down - much to the obvious disapproval of the elderly elevator passengers who can't see my disability. I feel like I should wear a button that says "you can't see my knee pain, but it's there."

Thanks, your explanation is similar to what I've heard from many people about the difficulties of walking down. Escalators just weren't designed to be used as stairs. Dupont Circle, Bethesda, Rosslyn ... all the long ones ... are especially difficult to walk down when they're stopped.

I'm annoyed by the cell phone conversations, too, but not the in-person talkers. I think it's for all the reasons you listed, plus the repetition. The talker will often have to repeat themself over and over for the other person to get what they said. A lot of times it's something that could just wait until they see each other. Like, "did you think he was cute..."

Yes, somehow a silly conversation among seatmates on a train doesn't rile  the way a silly cellphone conversation does. (Then there's that other type of cellphone talk I'm sure you've heard: The one with intimate details about some personal medical problem. Maybe it's annoying bacause you just can't escape it on a crowded train?)

Hi, To clarify, I was wearing headphones, volume turned up pretty high, and I still heard the chatters. Most people on the red line are zoned out on the metro...sleeping, eyes closed, or looking half asleep. These are the same type of people who let their kids run around in restaurants-- which is a comment for Tom's food blog. I hate tourist season. Thanks again.

That's a good comparison between parental behavior in a restaurant and on a train.  (And let's not get started on the people who use the train as a restaurant.)

Doc, what is a diplomatic but effective way to let tourists know they should stand to the right and walk on the left when they are on escalators? In the morning, I have one objective: get to work. And tourists like to crowd on the escalator, and they don't seem to get the hint when I say, "excuse me." What to do? I think in most cases I am very welcoming to tourists - I help them with directions, help them get their metro cards, and I even give museum information if they want some. But the escalator situation hits me during my busiest times - morning and afternoon rush hour. It's even worse when it's on some of the much longer escalators, like the ones at Gallery Place. What to do without being offputting or rude?

I've never experienced the problem in quite this way. Of course, I've seen plenty of people blocking movement on the escalator, but "Excuse me" has always worked." (I have to admit that on a really crowded escalator, I just give up and don't try to pass. I've got a one "Excuse me" limit.

ICC planning When the ICC begins to open and the high tolls keep drivers away, should I expect the state (or MoCo) to step in and start "buying down" the tolls? What we going to be the hook for? $100 million per year? $200 million?

I think people will be a bit slow to start using the Intercounty Connector when it begins to open this fall. But I think that's true with any brand new transportation artery. I think we'll see it with the HOT lanes, too. Won't be too long, though, before they're all crowded and we start talking about what we need to do next.

This link leads to a schematic of how the interchange will look when completed. The HOT lanes are shown in yellow and the HOT ramps in orange. Tysons is to the right and DC is to the bottom.

Thank you! (The HOT lanes project is fascinating. It's one of the biggest transportation projects in the nation.)

When the trip planner gives me mumbo jumbo it's usually when I'm attempting a multi-transfer trip. So I break my trip down into possible stages. Can I get a bus to the Vienna Metro from my starting point? No? Okay, let's try a bus to the Pentagon. Yes? Okay, so I see what time the bus should put me at the Pentagon and use the trip planner with Pentagon as the starting point. It works much better that way, for multi-transfer trips.

Thanks, that's a good suggestion, going back to our earlier exchange about the utility of Metro's Trip Planner.

As annoying as it may be, it's PUBLIC transportation, so you're going to have to deal with the public whether you like it or not.

Yes, a totally fair point. And I'd extend it to all sorts of transportation -- driving, walking, biking -- there's very little traveling we do in isolation, where there's no need to be tolerant of other travelers.

Travelers, thanks for joining me again this week. We spent a lot of time on what I consider the "social" aspects of getting around the region. Also, there are a few questions of fact -- both published and unpublished -- that I'll try to research and answer later this week on the Get There blog. If I fail to get to them, remind me again next Monday during our chat. And write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on the Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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