Dr. Gridlock

May 20, 2013

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.

Welcome, travelers. Some folks are starting to ask questions about the Memorial Day weekend getaway, which I think we'll be talking about all this week. But there are many questions about recent events with our roads and transit.

Everyone knows that traffic to the OC/Rehobeth area can get very backed up, but do the same problems exist for those of us headed to VA beach. Is there an area we should have a backup plan to get around? I assume travel on Friday will be very congested?

I'm starting with this question, because it looked like one that could benefit from your comments during the chat.

My view is that the trip through Northern Virginia on I-95 is likely to be the most difficult of all the D.C. getaways -- not only this Friday afternoon and evening for the holiday getaway but throughout the summer.

Many of you know that this is normally a highly congested area. This summer will be special: Drivers will see the maximum impact from the 95 Express Lanes construction project. Most of the work is in the median, but it's still likely to have a big effect on the regular lanes.

Project managers are recommending that drivers consider alternatives. The two I can think of are Route 301 to the east, using the Nice Bridge over the Potomac, and a combination of Routes 28 and 17 to the west.

Others?

I've been seeing a bunch of grading work on 495 between Georgetown Pike and the Old Dominion bridge - now I see sound walls going up on the exit ramp to Georgetown Pike - are the 495 express lanes being extended up to Georgetown Pike? I seem to recall that the contractor wanted to extend them up to the GW Parkway but McLean opposition shut it down (when really it would relieve a lot of traffic on Georgetown Pike and their residential streets).

In its long-term plan, the Virginia Department of Transportation does have a project to extend the 495 Express Lanes farther north, but I'm not sure that's what you're seeing right now. I had not heard that any construction had begun, and thought it was still a ways off. But I'll check on what that road work is.

Your article on alternate routes was timely for me. I will be driving to Maine soon. I am looking for routes that avoid NYC. Three of the ones I have found all require a drive through the city in some way. Many of the alternate routes do not discuss going further than NYC. I would appreciate any suggestions you might have

Some possibilities: You can take I-287 in a wide loop to the west of the city and pick up I-87, the New York Thruway. From there, you can go west to the Tappan Zee Bridge and across Westchester County, NY, and either get onto I-95 or the Hutchinson River/Merritt Parkway, which would connect back with I-95 just west of New Haven, Conn.

Or you could go north on the NY Thruway to Albany, and take I-90, the Mass Pike, to I495, west of Boston, and on up to I-95 into Maine.

I don't suggest the following as a dodge around NYC, but it does beat a lot of that really bad traffic on I-95 through Connecticut: Drive to the eastern end of Long Island, NY, and take the Orient Point ferry to New London, Conn. (Make a reservation online.)

Other thoughts on the NYC dodge?

Thank you for addressing biking issues in your columns. I enjoyed bike to work day immensely but I'm also an every day bike commuter. I did want to address two issues in your online column Friday about BTW Day. First, I was dismayed you suggested there will be a "clash of cultures" on BTW day. I have been commuting for years and I find the vast majority of drivers are respectful and provide adequate berth. More bikes means fewer cars, and (sure there are exceptions but there are for all commuters) everyone gets along pretty well. No reason to foment difficulties. I want to thank the drivers on my route -- it's working pretty great. Second as for your observation that you "rarely see a cyclist stop for a stop sign or red light," from the ground I must disagree. I urge you to go outside the Post to 15th and L and observe those using the cycletrack. You'll see most sitting there waiting at the red lights and going only when it changes. I stop for every light on my 5 mile route and I wait more often than not with my fellow bike commuters. Sure there are exceptions (mostly novices who sort of glide through, and I don't condone it) but the people bike commuting each day are largely law-abiding. With more experience more riders will become more compliant. Now cars, I dare say, are mostly speeding, many on phones or even texting, and few use turn signals. Pedestrians most all seem to cross when the way is clear rather than waiting for the walk light. I'm not trying to excuse lawbreaking in the least, but it's hypocritical for drivers to point to bicyclists as fonts of dangerous behavior. And I can excuse the 150-200 lb bikers or walkers when compared to the two ton cars who can really hurt someone! In any case, thanks.

15th and L is a great observation point to watch the behavior of all travelers, and I use that, as well as many other spots in downtown DC. (I've been writing recently about how drivers behave at Mass Ave and 12th Street NW.)

My general observation from watching intersections is this: Few travelers -- car drivers, cyclists, walkers -- obey any traffic law that don't believe they absolutely have to obey.

In other words, tend to obey traffic laws when they think they risk getting a ticket or might have a collision.

I don't see any type of travel behaving any better than any other type. (And I don't pick sides. I just want everyone to be safe.)

"Clash of cultures" comes from reading travelers letters for the past seven years, as they complain about each other's behavior.

I turn right onto H St NW every morning from 18th. This morning, a bicyclist with no helmet, riding on the sidewalk, rode straight into the crosswalk with the red hand - don't walk signal while flipping off the cars that were turning. Cars with the right of way correct? The light was green, but the walking signal stops so that the cars who have been waiting through the walk signal can take that right. Otherwise, cars would never be able to make that right turn.

I think that pedestrians and cyclists in crosswalks retain the right of way till the light turns red. (Anybody want to offer a specific citation from DC traffic law on this?)

My view is that bikers and pedestrians should not start crossing when the red hand shows, partly for the sake of allowing the cars to turn.

But I strongly believe that the main thing is for people to watch out for one another, even for the people who are misbehaving.

Do you have any predictions for the impact of summer vacations on the daily commute in the DC region? The past two weeks, I have seen longer than average commutes, so I am hopeful that as we approach the summer vacation season that I will see more days with shorter than average commutes. I know the economy is still bad and some people are facing sequestration, both of which might impact plans for vacations and the daily commute.

The summer traffic patterns in the DC region are really complicated. It depends on whether you're talking about local streets or highways, Mondays and Fridays vs other weekdays, and weather conditions.

For example, I-95 the East Coast Main Street, is likely to stay pretty busy. Traffic on secondary commuter routes will diminish once schools close and Congress leaves.

Commuters start to nice a gradual decline in congestion, till there's a sharp plunge in August.

Dr. Gridlock, Traffic seems to get backed up on the Dulles Toll Road in my commute from Tysons Corner/McLean to Silver Spring, MD...I live right off the Toll Road... Would it be quicker to go down International Drive or Route 7 (Leesberg Pike) to get to 495 North?

I spend a fair amount of time in that area because it's so congested and has so many big projects to study, but I'll bet others can contribute more than I can on your specific question.

However, I do have a couple of thoughts: Route 7 is difficult, with the traffic volume and the Silver Line construction.

If I'm visualizing your starting point correctly, I might try using the Jones Branch Drive access point to the 495 Express Lanes, just to see if that saves some time and hassle in the morning. You'll pay a toll, but it's not going to be much, and you might consider it worthwhile to ease at least part of a difficult commute.

Dr. G, Why doesn't Metro pre-record it's announcements like transit agencies in other cities like Atlanta, for instance. That would make sure the station names are always audibly announced (presuming the speaker's are working.) The driver could still jump on to make the now-standard "We'll be moving momentarily" announcements in between stations. They already recordings for the "Doors opening" an "Doors closing" announcements, so wouldn't not be too much of a leap to have the same person saying, "The next stop is Foggy Bottom?"

The history is this: Metro trains were built to operate automatically, so the person in the front cab was mostly a backup, under normal conditions. To keep the person engaged, Metro preferred to have the train operator make the station announcements.

But rider complaints about the fuzzy announcements have been so common over the years, that Metro decided the new generation of rail cars, the 7000 series, will have automated station announcements. Also, the interior of the cars will have signs showing the upcoming stations.

Last Tues., 5/14, I was nearly an hour late for work because of some kind of delay on the Blue line. Every time the train operator communicated w/the riders, the microphone transmitted very scratchy, or staticy hard-to-hear info about what was going on. Can mechanics fix these microphones and test them before train operators start their shift? Thanks.

Thought this would make a good follow up to the previous comment. I think sometimes the issue is with the operator and sometimes with the equipment.

And I think Metro has proven to all of us beyond a reasonable doubt that it can't fix the equipment.

Part of the problem is the age of the rail cars, and then there's the fact that Metro combines different generations of rail cars to make up trains. Some of the rail car systems don't work that well with each other.

It doesn't seem to matter what time of day it is or whether it's a weekday or weekend, the southbound lanes back up from Virginia Ave. almost up to P Street! There is no obvious obstruction and everything clears up as soon as I pass Virginia Ave. It is driving me crazy. I'd so much rather take the parkway in the afternoon than go through the City but it is no longer a faster option. Do you know what is happening and when will it stop? Thank you!

I think the main issue is simply the volume of traffic in that southern portion of the parkway. Then at Virginia Avenue, drivers peel off in different directions after clearing the traffic signal.

Most of the work on the parkway in recent years has been maintenance, and I'm not aware of any plans to add lanes or expand interchanges.

 

Dr. Gridlock, do you happen to know whether traffic in the District is lighter on Mondays or Fridays? I need to pick a telework day, and I'd like to pick the one (either Friday or Monday) which has the worse traffic. My route is from NW DC to the NoMa area, taking Military, Missouri and then North Capitol. Have you noticed greater traffic on Friday as opposed to Monday? Thanks.

Fridays and Mondays are generally the lightest days of the week, so I think you wouldn't be doing too badly with either choice. But I think Friday afternoons can be problematic as people leave town for the weekend. So I'd vote for taking Friday as the telework day.

We have to leave Bethany beach and return to Arlington at some point Sunday. What time do you suggest leaving to be least torturous? We tried 4pm last year and that didn't work well at all, 6pm the year before was also rough (4am on Tuesday morning was amazing, but the husband vetoed it). We were thinking trying 8pm. Do you have any suggestions?

To address this question, but also to expand on it for other Eastern Shore travelers, I'm going to paste in what I wrote for my summer getaway guide regarding the Bay Bridge:

 

The best Bay Bridge travel times for summer weekend getaways are Thursday and Friday before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.; Saturday before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m.; and Sunday before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m. The regular car toll for the bridge is $4, paid eastbound. On July 1, it will rise to $6.

New lane markings and rumble strips have been installed on the westbound span. Lane changes between the left and center lanes are prohibited for the entire span.

Here's a link to the getaway guide:

http://wapo.st/10F4A3G

Dear Dr. Gridlock, I have tickets to Monday's Nationals game. I live in Gaithersburg and was hoping to take Metro in . . . but will my ride be delayed by track work, and how much time should I allow to get there (1:05 p.m. game). Or should I try driving in? Thanks!

To address this one, I'd like to give you the overall picture on this weekend's major track work.

Two big projects are scheduled for the upcoming holiday weekend, starting at 10 p.m. Friday and continuing through the midnight closing next Monday.

Orange Line. Buses will replace trains between Ballston and Vienna for a switch replacement. The East Falls Church, West Falls Church, Dunn Loring and Vienna stations will be closed.

Red Line. Buses replace trains between Twinbrook and Shady Grove for communications upgrades and for rail tie and fastener maintenance. The Shady Grove and Rockville stations will be closed.

(There's no work on the Blue, Yellow or Green lines.)

So for this fan, I might drive farther south than normal and pick up the Red Line at Twinbrook or Grosvenor or Bethesda, getting pass the shuttle bus zone.

While there is plenty more parking around Nationals Park than there was in the first few years, I still find Metro more convenient.

No need to use 287 and make the circle wider than you need to, you can just take the Garden State Parkway to the Tappan Zee Bridge. And there is always the option of taking 81 to 84 to the Boston area.

After crossing the Tappan Zee, take I-684 to I-84 East, which will take you through Connecticut into MA, and hooks up with I-90 just southwest of Worcester. Avoid the Hutch and I-95 at all costs!!

The Hutchinson River Parkway/Merritt Parkway is a pretty ride. The trouble is that it doesn't take much to get it really congested.

On the I-684/84 route, watch for congestion around Danbury and Hartford, Conn.

I would add that you could take the Tappan Zee Bridge (I hate the GW bridge; 287 is a much easier drive) and take 287 to 684 and then 84 in Connecticut. From 84, you could connect with the Mass pike (i.e. the northern route instead of the southern route in CT)

The Grid Spouse and I usually make our route decision while we're in New Jersey, based on the radio traffic reports and on the live traffic on Google Maps and the INRIX app.

If traffic looks okay, she prefers to take the George Washington Bridge and the Cross Bronx Expressway -- as long as I'm driving. You'd never catch her behind the wheel for the Cross Bronx Expressway.

The Tappan Zee route is the one we've most often taken over the years. I don't like the congestion around White Plains, where the highway is being rebuilt. Then you're either going to plunge back into I-95 in western Conn., which is almost always horrible, or take the Hutchinson Parkway to the Merritt, or get on I-684 North to I-84.

One other choice, come to think of it, is to get on the Teconic Parkway in Westchester for the northbound trip up to the Berkshires and the Mass Pike. Anybody like that one?

I have been traveling the northeast corridor for over 40 years. I had always used the Tappan Zee and have watch it get more congested.95 through Connecticut is always a mess. I usually take the Merritt and sometime don't get off in Milford but use Whalley Ave to go through New Haven. If I am not going to the coast sometimes the Beacon Newburgh bridge and then picking up 84 in CT works. Easy answer there is no easy way.

I hate driving through New Haven, especially with all that construction on I-95. Vacation never starts till we're past New Haven.

I'll keep this pithy and snarky. Metro and its drivers need to come up with a word other than "momentary" to describe what is obviously going to be a major delay. A dictionary might help. They also might remove the "any" from "regretting any inconvenience" as, by definition, any kind of delay on a train is inconvenient. Thanks for letting me vent.

I -- and I'm sure many others -- agree on "momentary" and "any."

Some Metro language has gotten better. Do you folks remember when the operators used to say something like, "Please be advised at this time ..." Totally useless words, I thought. Just tell us. But I haven't heard that phrase in a long time.

Metro's communication during that incident at Silver Spring was terrible. Why did they claim delays were due to "Fire Department Activity"? Its not the Fire Department's fault their trains caught on fire.

Another language issue for us to discuss. I think Metro uses such bureaucratic short-hand because -- well, partly because it's a bureaucracy -- and partly because there are limits on the number of lines or characters that can be contained in the various forms of electronic alerts.

A few thoughts about communications in Metro emergencies:

In the early moments of an emergency, it's very common for a lot of misinformation to be floating around. (We saw that very dramatically with the Red Line crash in 2009. For a few moments, some Metro officials thought the two trains had collided head on.)

So I think they're right to be conservative about the initial information, till they're sure they've got it right.

Also, the short alerts should be limited to practical information for riders caught up in whatever the current mess is.

Things I'd like to see more of: The alerts should be realistic about the difficulties involved in setting up the shuttle bus systems, and they should offer as many possible alternatives for riders as they can pack into the messages. 

 

I'm planning on taking a short weekend trip to Dewey Beach in early June. I work in downtown DC near the White House- when would be the best time to try and leave town? I can't leave work until 5pm on Friday. Is it best to just go home for a few hours and wait until the evening traffic dies down?

Yes. Otherwise, you're likely to be in a pretty bad mood when you finally reach Dewey Beach. ("Rush" is such an odd term for what happens on that route on a Friday night, though we all use the word.)

You also can take NJ Turnpike to the Garden State Parkway or the Pallisades Parkway and pick up I-87 north of the City from either of them. Once across Westchester county, I would take the Hutch-Merritt combination to I-91, take I-91 north towards Hartford and pick up I-86 towards Boston and the Mass Pike. No reason to get back on I-95 in CT. (I have driven NYC to eastern Maine each of the last 7 summers.)

18th and H NW is within the downtown exclusion zone where cyclists can't ride on the sidewalk, so that cyclist shouldn't have been behaving like a pedestrian at all there. Completely unlawful behavior in addition to rudeness and unfairness. That said, it should be noted that there's nowhere in the DC metro area where adult cyclists are required to wear helmets. So while people may feel his helmetlessness is a bad idea, he wasn't breaking any law by not wearing one, despite what many people seem to believe.

Cyclists are banned from sidewalks in the Central Business District of DC, though I've never seen a sign warning of that. I'm not sure the ban applies to cyclists using crosswalks. I've never seen a reference to that in traffic law.

It's insane not to where a helmet while cycling. The Grid Sis works with head-injured people in California. Lives altered drastically by contact with pavement.

She'd prefer I wear a helmet while driving my car, let alone while cycling.

Jersey Turnpike to the Garden State Parkway - all tolls - west of the city and pick up I-87, the New York Thruway. From there, you can go west to the Tappan Zee Bridge. Follow Dr. G's directions from there.

About an hour ago this intersection--and 1-2 blocks beyond it--were roped off due to a suspicious package. By the time I got back about 40 minutes later it had been cleared. Kudos to the DC police for a quick, organized response, and to the very funny cop in front of the CVS at the intersection who used good humor to keep people away.

Is there any way to get to the Eastern Shore without using the Bay Bridge at all? Some folks are terrified of it. Ferry service anyway?

I think you'd have to swing way north and go around Chesapeake Bay by highway. No ferry service that I'm aware of.

My uncle worked for a trucking company and was based in NJ. When I talked to him about the Tappan Zee route, he said - the trucks go straight up 95. You can bet that they're more worried about time and efficiency than you are.

There are plenty of times when taking the biggest, widest, shortest highway route is best. But vacationers have many different motives. Some write to me and say, Just give me something that gets me off I-95, or any other Interstate if possible.

That's why I've taken to mentioning the Cape May ferry or the Orient Point ferry for some travelers.

I think a key thing is to study up before the trip so that you are at least aware of alternatives in certain congested zones, such as NYC and western Conn.

And use the new electronic tools on your smartphones to get real-time traffic information -- as long as you're not staring at those things while driving.

For the poster about getting onto 495 north in the morning: He / she is experiencing the issue of more lanes hitting the already-restricted capacity of the beltway going into MD. The driver does not say where off the tollroad they live - getting from 267 onto route 7 is a bear in the morning, but exiting spring hill is not too bad (hence your jones branch suggestion is a good one). The anti-tollers can make a left onto spring hill then get up to g'town pike to access the beltway north, but that is no picnic either (spring hill, swinks mill or lewinsville / old dominion / balls hill).

I also take exception to your comment that you rarely see bikers stop at signs or red lights. I NEVER see bikers stop for them, and this from a daily MD-DC commuter.

I used to head up to the Berkshires all the time for school, and my route invariably would be Garden State Parkway to 87 and then over. I found that 87 was always faster than the Taconic, which is pretty but which has a lot of hills and curves that mean you have to slow down (this was in my college days). If I were going as far as Maine, I would take the route that people have suggested of the Garden State Parkway to 87 to 84 and to the Mass Pike, then up. My few times driving through Connecticut were hellacious.

About the Teconic: Yes, it's very pretty, but an old route that requires extra caution in many zones. I'd give it a try in very good weather.

Someone just submitted a tip saying to take I-86 towards Boston. Just to be clear for someone unfamiliar with the area, that road has not been numbered I-86 since 1983 or 1984. If you use the route that person suggested, and it's a pretty good one, you take the Merritt/Wilbur Cross Parkways to I-91, I-91 north to Hartford, then follow the signs for Interstate 84 (it's not a direct exit, you use a state route for a short time, I think Route 15).

The parkway can be a pleasant drive, but if you're in a hurry to go to the Mass Pike, I'd take I-87 to I-90. The speed limit on the Taconic is 55, which is a reasonable number considering how winding the road is, plus the troopers actually enforce it. Also, there are no services on the parkway, which could cost more time if you need to stop.

The one that drives me nuts is: "We hope to have the problem resolved as soon as possible." Either say we hope to have the problem resolved shortly or we will have the problem resolved as soon as possible. By putting both in 1 sentence it basically says we hope to fix it quickly but we might not.

I'd say we could stipulate that they're at least hoping to have the problem resolved as soon as possible, so they can drop the phrase in favor of actual information.

So when is the capital improvement plan going to end? When are we going to start seeing the improvements? That's what hardest to stomach about these rebuilds. I get that they have to happen, I get that we will be inconvenienced but that the work has to get done (My anger at those who let the system get here is for another time). But when will we see improvements? If the answer is never, that's good to know. If it's soon, that's great too. But all I'm seeing, and I ride just about every day, is a more rundown system, with no improvements. Can you ask around and do a real piece on when improvement is coming and what to expect for the future?

I hope the capital improvement program never ends -- meaning that Metro always should be spending money on projects that could make the ride better.

But I think what you're asking if when this intensive level of disruption is going to abate. And that's about four more years.

One of the most frustrating things for riders is that they experience all these disruptions and then don't feel like they're seeing the benefits.

I ask about this a lot, and find that Metro managers approach the repair program more as engineers than as riders. They focus more on moving equipment than on moving customers.

The improvements -- like a smoother ride, fewer train breakdowns, better lighting in stations --  will show up very gradually. One place I'm seeing improvement: Many of the outdoor platforms on the Red Line are starting to look better because of the tile replacement.

I don't necessarily understand the talk of using I-95 in Connecticut if you're going to Maine. It seems like a lot of headache that's not needed because it's out of the way. Either the Merritt Parkway or I-84 is much more direct if you're headed all the way to Maine (as the original questioner was) because I-95 puts you too far south and east in Massachusetts unless you take I-395 up to Worcester (and if you do that, why wouldn't you just go I-84 instead?). Now, if you needed to make a stop in Providence that'd be a different story! BTW, I-84 has a very nice HOV lane northeast of Hartford.

I figure many people who are reading our discussion about dodging NYC aren't necessarily going all the way to Maine. But for those who are, yes, I completely agree with this commenter that there's no point in taking I-95 through Conn. It's a big swing south on a highway that's almost always congested. Take one of the northern routes, such as those this commenter is suggesting.

I assume that this person is in the DC area. I would suggest the I-287 to the Tappan Zee Bridge and from there pick up the I-684 to I-84 through Connecticut. It goes diagonally through Conn. to the Mass Pike (I-90). and should have less traffic. To go to Albany, you then go south to get to the Mass Pike. Western Mass Pike goes through the mountains.

Right about the Albany route. Many times during these discussions, I hear from people who have plenty of time on their hands for these trips. They're simply looking for something different from what they've done year after year. Going through the Berkshires on the Mass Pike ("The Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston," as James Taylor sings) can be really pretty.

We're in more of a hurry on our way to Maine each year, so we usually take 684, 84 to the Mass Pike, but we do encounter traffic in Danbury, Hartford and Sturbridge.

Travelers, it's getting late, so I must sign off with you now. I'm planning to do a couple of blog postings this week for those looking for summer getaway information, and many of these comments today will be helpful.

We won't have a chat next Monday, because it's the Memorial Day holiday. I hope your travels near or far are 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 his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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