Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

Apr 26, 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.

Welcome, travelers. Thanks for joining me on this otherwise dreary day. A scroll through the questions and comments shows that we've got both traffic and transit problems to discuss. Some issues are perennials. Others look brand new. If I spot something that especially needs your comment, I'll try to present that early on, so you can chime in.

In his book "Stuck in Traffic", Anthony Downs said that the main causes of peak-hour traffic are deeply rooted in American desires and behaviour patterns. According to Katherine Shaver, the Starbucks Effect is one of them. Are there any new or future lifestyle trends that could affect our traffic patterns and worsen the congestion issue? Best.

This is a great question, and I hope it will provoke some discussion today. I must say that the first lifestyle trend that comes to my mind is a positive one: telecommuting. Many of us think telecommuting just saved us from potentially horrible traffic congestion during the nuclear summit in DC.

If bosses can slip the chains that bind us to them for even one day a week, the entire region would be spared a lot of commuting misery.

I remember Katie's excellent story from 2005 and commend it to all readers, because the issue is just as relevant today as then. Many people commuting with you are going to make several stops going to or from work. Many businesses know that, even to the point of considering whether they are most likely to attract people going to or coming from work, then picking which side of the commuter route they want to be on.

I think this is the same commuter phenomenon known as "trip chaining."

One bad social trend I can think of that will likely slow travel: Reading text messages.

Sorry if you've answered this before, Dr. G, but why isn't there an underground connection between the Red and Orange/Blue lines at Farragut Square? Other Metro systems have pedestrian connections between lines, why not ours?

Because it's expensive. But it's a great idea. Should have been done back in the 70s when the system was built. The other place we need such a pedestrian connection is between Metro Center and Gallery Place, the two big transfer stations. I think about this every time we talk about the serious crowding on the Shady Grove-bound platform at Gallery Place as Green and Yellow riders walk up from below to transfer.

Many riders also hope for a day when SmarTrip would be smart enough to allow people to walk between those stations and enter without paying a new fare.

Hi, I wrote you last week about this, and it's still missing. Any idea why?

Yes. There was a personnel shift in the office at Metro that posts the service reports and that week of reports (April 5-11) didn't get posted. Metro thanks us for calling it to the transit authority's attention and they'll try to double back and get those dates posted. (It's not an automatic feed.)

A lot of people, including the INRIX, are considering traffic congestion as an indicator of economic improvement and an evidence of social and economic vitality. Should we really consider a negative issue as an indicator of positiveness? How does the increasing gridlock affect the current economy? Thanks

Yes, that's one of those arguments that's a comfort on paper, but not so much if you're out there on the roads or rails in the DC region. Or, come to think of it, if you're sitting at home waiting for a service person to arrive within the promised four-hour window.

I do get what they're saying: We're such a rich area that our people have plenty of job opportunities. If you don't like one job, you can move to another -- even if it's 30 miles away across the region. That's the stuff traffic jams are made of.

I think part of our problem is that our public investment in transportation hasn't matched our the growth of our private wealth. That and the fact that we haven't been creative enough in pursuing alternatives like telecommuting.

Dr. G, I'm curious- do the airport authority police have jurisdiction to issue speeding tickets on state roads? I had previously thought they only monitored the Dulles airport access road (the toll free portion leading directly to Dulles). But recently I've seen them pull over cars in the Dulles Toll Road section. Yesterday, I saw a unit running a speed trap just past IAD on Rt. 28. Seems odd that you'd have the Va. State Police, Fairfax PD, and now the airport police trying to issue tickets on the same state roads...

The airports authority has taken over operation of the Toll Road. I know the airport police have been out there directing traffic around the Dulles Rail construction. Haven't seen them doing enforcement, but it wouldn't come as a surprise.  (And I'm one of those folks who has no problem with police enforcing the traffic laws.)

Dr. Grodlock - how do I convey to people that Montgomery County law says you must be 5 feet from a driveway when parking? I live close to a synagogue where my street is routinely used for parking. On Saturday I had to go over there and find the culprit who was hanging 2 feet into my driveway rendering it impossible for me to leave for an event I was attending. This happens frequently where I either can't get in/out or doing so involves lots of manuevering. I've chased people away when I see them but I can't monitor parking all the time. Some are nice about it, others are quite rude. I understand their frustration but at the same time I have a right to come and go my house without being blocked. If the cops enforced this 5 foot rule it could solve a lot of Montgomery County's budget problems. Any suggestions? Thanks for letting me vent!

That's certainly annoying and, as you say, you can't be out there all the time shooing people away from your driveway. This is a common problem around religious institutions, among other local traffic draws. One suggestion: Visit the institution and see if an announcement can be made to the congregation. Otherwise, I think you could call it to the attention of your Montgomery County police district. An officer could pay a visit to the street.

One that I hope becomes a national priority soon -- disparities in housing costs in different parts of the country motivate companies to move to places where their employees can live cheap. A $100,000 difference in housing costs amounts to a $7,000/year raise in terms of mortgage savings. If we can get people out of the crowded coasts and into the ex-Rust Belt, we'd all benefit. Another I hope we work out soon is how to reduce the overhead cost of car operatorship, so that the only two viable models aren't drive every day to take transit every day. The cost structures of the two competing modes are such that it doesn't make a lot of sense to try to mix the two alternately.

I'm thinking of one other trend I've noticed, just because I get invited to speak to retiree groups in senior communities on the perimeter of our region:

Many retirees are staying in the Washington area, rather than moving to Florida or Arizona, etc. But they move from the region's core out to the new retirement communities on the region's edge. Yet their friends, their churches and their doctors are back in the center of the region. So they wind up doing a lot of extra driving to maintain their links.


I've noticed your blog items about the Ohio Drive rebuild and I appreciate the warning since I use that road en route to Caps games (which HOPEFULLY will be continuing through June....). I'm wondering what exactly the "rebuild" will entail. Repaving, surely, but what (if anything) else?

Bill Line, the spokesman for the park service, gave us this summary of the work that will continue till the fall: "Work activities include total reconstruction of the road and storm drainage system and minor shifting of the road alignment."

The time period for the work isn't out of line with other projects I'm familiar with in which the agency had to maintain commuter access to the road in question. I remember asking about such things at the start of the park service reconstruction of the Humpback Bridge on the GW Parkway. Sure, they said, we could get it done much faster if we shut the road down and worked round the clock, but nobody's going to let us spend that much money on construction or disrupt a commuter route for that long.


Why are the PDF's of the WMATA bus schedules so hard to download on the WMATA Web site? I've tried on multiple computers, and it it works at all, it usually takes multiple attempts. It just seems so shoddy on WMATA's part that this doesn't work smoothly

Some of those bus schedule pdfs are mighty long. I haven't had any trouble downloading them using Internet Explorer, but this is with the benefit of a high speed line. Meanwhile, I have no luck whatsoever when I try to use Foxfire.

So, Doc, when is the work on the bridge now scheduled to be completed? It's been a pain in the neck for long enough already! Thx.

The Chain Bridge rehab draws a lot of complaints from commuters. More so than, say, the rehab of the 14th Street Bridge, which is used by a lot more drivers. There's a few things about the Chain Bridge work: Drivers can't see much going on because most of the rehab is under the bridge. The need for a construction staging area took away a third of the bridge's capacity. The scheduled restoration of the missing lane has been delayed several times, because of severe weather and other issues (including easing the congestion.

The new date for restoration of the third lane is May 31.

What is Metro's plan for equipping those underground stations without (non-Verizon) cell service? Metro has promised full availability as of October, but does that mean that they will "flip the switch" for all stations then, or might certain stations receive service before then?

Metro announced last October that users of phones from AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile had gained service on the platforms of 20 stations. (Just the platforms.)

The announcement said that service would be expanded from there, and that the entire underground transit system would be accessible for those non-Verizon customers by October 2012.

I have a T-Mobile BlackBerry. I've noticed that the e-mail is starting to work at more stations, but there are definitely still limits.


Can you please convince Virginia to install a camera on Glebe Road South East of the big curve just before Chaing Bridge so we can tell how backed up the approach to Chain Bridge is before leaving home? The camera ON Chain Bridge (which I could not access) doesn't tell you the amount of backup on Glebe Road approaching the bridge. Please help! The construction on the bridge is really holding things up.

I'd love to see plenty more cameras throughout the region -- especially on the eastern side of the region, which I think is the most underserved.

I just checked TrafficLand.com for the cameras on either side of Chain Bridge. Neither is working at the moment, despite their value to commuters heading in both directions across the bridge.

But the District Department of Transportation has made an adjustment to that traffic signal on the DC side of the bridge in hope of easing some of the congestion, which many drivers say has gotten worse in recent weeks.

I have noticed in the last two years, since the ecomony has gotten worse, that my commute has gotten MUCH easier. I think traffic is an indicator of economic improvement in an area that isn't doing a lot of extra transit options. My commute used to be 20 minutes if I left at 7:15 and an hour if I left at 7:45. Now, if I leave at 7:40 it never tops 30 mn. The only explanation I can think of is fewer people have jobs and are out driving during commute times.

It's a bit tough to tell. I've heard from drivers and Metrorail users who say they've seen no downturn on their routes. Then I've heard from others, such as yourself, who say things have gotten easier. So I''m thinking conditions vary by route. (I always invite comment on this to help fill in the overall picture. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.)

I haven't seen anything that amounts to a difinitive study. There's a regional transportation planning board study that comes out every three years. The one released last spring showed that traffic on some highways around here had eased somewhat and there was no obvious explanation -- no nearby road or ramp improvements. The study suggested some of that might have been the economic downturn.

Meanwhile, Metro officials are talking about how the rail ridership numbers are bouncing back after a slight downturn.


I appologize if this has come up before, as I am an infrequent reader. I have noticed on my drives around the Mall during the day, especially evening rush hour, that there seem to be more of these bike rickshaw/carriages--a single rider (never with a helmet on) pulling two people carriage style. They are often on major roads--Independence Ave, for instance--going barely at the rate of a brisk walk despite significant traffic. With all the huge tour busese, SUVs, and other commuters, simply spotting these things is difficult. It's a serious disaster waiting to happen. I can't belive the city actually allows this to happen, it's so obviously dangerous. Thoughts?

I'm glad to have you with us today. Take a look at the link I'll paste in below and see about the new rules for pedicabs that the District Department of  Transportation is proposing. They could take effect in 30 days:


I am a security specialist working for the Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel. In my office the department counsels and adminstrative judges all get to telecommute. Our Chicago office is actually the judge's home. Problem is my boss a lawyer doesn't trust the security specialists so we can't telecommute. I bet if you asked the AMerican public who they trust more govt lawyers or security specialists security specialists would win a landslide. the problem with telecommuting is the bosses

So many of our problems can be traced to bosses. On telecommuting, they've just got to learn to let go. Yes, we are capable of working, even though they can't see us.

This problem is often mentioned in regard to federal offices here in the DC area.


Why do I feel like Metro is on the cusp of something, but I am not sure which direcetion it will take. Bad cusp - Metro issues not addressed and Congress relegates it to inside the beltway. Good cusp - Metro gets a dedicated funding source and it grows into a regional/local hybrid that makes more connections with local buses and streetcars as well as with reginoal rail.

Yeah, I like good cusp a lot better. But I'm really worried. Metro has a problem with its operating budget and with its capital budget, and there's no good-looking solution for either. It's probably going to take money from the capital budget to plug the gap in the operating budget.

I do see money for now and for long-term investment as the big problem, but I also think Metro needs a variety of internal reforms to regain the confidence of its riders, which has been sliding.

When will all the "switch to Metro" suggestions to car commuters end? I ride Metro and it is already overcrowded during the same periods of traffic rush hour. It takes me longer to commute by rail/bus than if I drove, and I don't even get a comfortable bucket seat or a cupholder for my coffee. It is time to start recommending some other alternative to Metro! Metro is full, please find somewhere else to send commuters.

I'm not into transportation ideology. I don't advise people to take a certain mode of transportation because it's the right thing to do. People should do what works for them.

As a region, we'd all be better off giving people some better transit options -- especially bus transit options, since it's so expensive to build rail lines. Some express bus lanes would take plenty of cars off the road and help ease traffic congestion.

When I commuted using the toll road (and even after the construction started), there were hardly any cops. Is it possible they stepped up efforts to collect more fines? I always found it strange that the toll road was pretty clear of cops and maybe the toll commission had a secret deal to keep drivers driving.

If they have stepped up traffic enforcement to collect more money, I think that's swell. Catching speeders and other aggressive drivers is a great way to raise money while improving traffic safety.

I had heard a while back that there was approval of a ramp from southbound DC 295 over to Pennsylvania Avenue or a ramp from southbound DC 295 to I-295 (SE/SW Freeway) that would eventually take you over to 395. Is there any truth to this rumor that something like this will come to shape soon? And if so, when? They're doing a lot of work on the eastern side of 295 on Penn. Ave to improve the area but getting there is tough from the north.

No mere ramp. You're getting three new bridges across the Anacostia. Two of them will be for highway traffic and the third for local traffic. The highway bridges will fill in that missing link for interstate traffic. They're scheduled to be done in 2013.


I'd try putting up a sign that says "Please don't block my Driveway". Put it out on Saturday mornings and leave it up. If that doesn't help, I'd talk to the police department about how quickly they can get a car towed.

Good thought. I have a feeling our person with the blocked driveway could get a few neighbors involved in the sign-posting, too. Make it more effective.

This issue has probably been raised before, but what's with the ridiculous/inefficient toll practices on the Dulles Toll Road? I'm from New Jersey, where we know how to move cars and get people through fairly-priced tolls (side eye to Delaware, but that's another issue). The Dulles road is just strange. Why do the toll takers have to put a coin in the basket for each driver when that driver pays with paper money or needs change? Why is there a $1 toll on the main road to slow everyone down and then 75 cents for each exit? Wouldn't it make more sense to just keep the tolls on the exits & on-ramps? (like the NJ Turnpike). It takes a lot of people to staff these on ramp tolls too - who reviewed this process?? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills each time I drive that road.

I'm not sure turnpike-toll road are exactly comparable. Turnpike, running the length of the state, involves getting a ticket at the entrance and paying where you get off. On the toll road, we're paying cash or using E-ZPass. (Sounds like you might have a reason for wanting to go E-ZPass and avoid the cash issue?)

According to Zachary Schrag's book about the construction of Metro, the original design for the two Farragut area stations would have place them right close to each other in a "v" configuration. However, they ran into several problems, including the Park Service's refusal to allow them to tear up Farragut Square and remove the statue for a few years during construction, so the stations wound up being located further apart, with no connection.

Great book, The Great Society Subway. Explains a lot about decisions made in the 50s, 60s and 70s that affect how we get around today. (Busts the legend about why there's no Metrorail station in Georgetown.)

Are people allowed to call tow companies directly to have an offender's vehicle removed, or does one have to call the police first? I don't see why the towing company can see that the vehicle is in violation and have it towed.

You sure you want private towing companies to have that kind of power over street parking?

just downloaded a bus timetable with Firefox (mac). downloaded in a second or two. might be the way user's browser is configured to handle pdfs, not WMATA's site.

Thanks, I'll take a look at my own computer settings for Firefox as well.

One basic thing it might be useful for travelers to know: The Metro Web site does do a lot to take the mystery out of bus riding. You can find route maps by jurisdiction -- DC, Maryland and Virginia -- or you can get an electronic version of a particular route containing a route map and a schedule. Our beef here is that it's sometimes difficult to download the pdf file with the schedule.

I noticed on the green and the red lines this morning that the train operators were not allowing some passengers to get onto the train in a timely manner at their stops -- the doors were being closed while the friendly voice was saying, "When boarding ...." and it was being cut off with the door slamming shut. What's the operators' hurry? Can't they let people board the train? Or in some cases, let people off???

I've had this experience, too. The doors start closing before everyone's gotten off, let alone gotten on. But the train operators are under pressure to limit the "dwell time" at stations, especially at rush hour. Waiting longer than the scheduled time bunches up some trains while increasing the gap between others, and that really annoys commuters, too.

I used to live near a university football field. People going to the games would park in my yard, on my grass! I'm so glad I don't have to deal with that anymore.

Maybe a little bit of optimism here for our commenter with the blocked driveway in Montgomery. Things could be worse.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I see a few questions and comments in the mail bag that I'd still like to address but must break away now.

I see if I can post some of these on the Get There blog over the next couple of days. And keep on writing in with questions and comments to drgridlock@washpost.com. (If you'd like me to publish them in my newspaper column, please include your full name and identify your home community.) See you here next week.

Stay safe.

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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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