Dr. Gridlock: Your traffic and transit questions

May 24, 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. I see some topical issues in the mailbag: Several questions about holiday and vacation getaways, and several about what Metro should do regarding fares and service. (The Metro board is likely to vote on such things Thursday.) I'm going to post some of these things early on, and invite your followup comments.

My wife and I are headed down to the Outer Banks for Memorial Day weekend. Which do you think is a better idea: driving down early Saturday morning, or hitting the road at around 8 p.m. Friday night? I've heard that the Saturday morning drive to the OBX has become almost as bad as the Friday afternoon drive.

I hope we'll share lots of information this week in planning Memorial Day and summer getaways. We'll discuss them during today's chat, and I'll post some things on the Get There blog and this Sunday's Commuter page in The Post will have more advice.

OBX's concern reflects this holiday weekend trend: More and more drivers are spreading out their travels. It used to be a no-brainer to recommend Saturday morning over Friday night, but the advantages are lessening.

In this case, I'd go for after 8 p.m. Friday rather than Saturday morning. But what do others say.


Hello. I have a deep fear and loathing of summer vacation traffic. I am putting aside these emotions to treat my husband and daughter to a weekend at the beach next month. I've never driven to the DelMarVa beaches. A friend recommended driving late Friday evening but I want to maximize our time on vacation. How's the beach bound traffic during Friday morning rush hour? For the trip back to DC, is early Sunday morning better than late Sunday evening? Thanks in advance.

I think it's a great idea to go  Friday morning. You should be going against traffic out to the point where there isn't much traffic. Coming back, I think early Sunday morning will give you the least traffic, but you note you want to maximize the vacation time.

Here's the general guidance on best travel times offered by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the Bay Bridge:

  Thursday before 2 p.m.
-  Friday before noon and after 10 p.m.
-  Saturday before 7 a.m. and between 5 and 10 p.m.
-  Sunday between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

Dr. G, this may be WAY more trouble than it's worth, but has there ever been any talk of closing specific Metro stations on weekends to save money? I'd suggest Federal Triangle and Federal Center SW as two candidates, both of which are very close to neighboring stations and probably wouldn't be missed much on the weekend (weekdays are obviously another story).

I got to thinking about this recently when I was only one getting off a Blue line train at Fed Ctr SW at 11:30 on a Saturday morning.

Despite Metro's serious budget troubles, I think we're a long way from completely closing stations to save money. What we're more likely to see is the closing of certain entrances at off-peak times at the less-crowded stations. That would save on staffing costs.

Metro board members are reluctant to do even that. I remember board member Jim Graham of DC noting that the Metro plan for closing entrances had most of them in the District of Columbia, and he didn't like that.


I 'm attending a graduation at Constitution Hall on a Wed. at 10 am. I have no idea how much time to allow to get there from Shirlington. I'm thinking that taking rt. 50 into the city may be better than the 14th street bridge. If I leave around 8:30 am will I be allowing enough time? Any suggestions? (I need to get there around 9:30 so that I have time to park, etc.) Thanks for your help!

You mean go up 395 to 50, the across the Roosevelt Bridge onto Constitution Avenue? Yeah, I think that's the most convenient route anyway. And 8:30 sounds like enough time.

(Thanks for the reminder about this being graduation season. Extra traffic around Constitution Hall and some of the other popular venues.)

So we all want to know did the good doctor participate in Bike to Work Day? A second comment: Bike to Work Day highlighted some problems in the mix of traffic between motorists and bicycles and pedestrians. One problem area was the right hand turn from the I66 westbound offramp in Rosslyn and the Key Bridge. It is very difficult for motorists to see the bicycles and pedstrians enterring and exiting the bike trail on the right hand side. So a long long back up occured on the ramp.

I didn't bike on Friday. I had hoped at least to see the large gathering at the pit stop in Rosslyn. Chris Eatough of Bike Arlington had extended a kind invitation to me to join the group there.

My excuse: Friday is my deadline day for things that appear on the Sunday Commuter page in The Post. I focused the page on tips for people considering commuter cycling.

I do hope to be part of the biking group next year.

Dr. Gridlock, the situation at Bethesda has gone from bad to worse. Metro's latest update now has the escalator being back in service in early July. They started this repair in April - what is taking so long?! Last week there was a shouting match between the people waiting in line to walk up and the people coming off the trains cutting into the line. One time there was an employee stationed at the bottom of the escalator telling people to go to the back of the line - that was a godsend.

They really need to do this on a regular basis, otherwise someone will end up on the tracks as tempers flare. It's frustrating when I'm at the back of the line and 1 or 2 trains arrive and all the people cut in. And don't get me started on the people carrying their baby stroller up the escalator because the elevator line is long with people not wanting to deal with the wait to get up the escalator. Metro really needs to take a long hard look at this situation and get more employees in the station to keep things under control.



I certainly agree with you and have made the system-wide escalator problems a theme in recent columns. I get that this is a difficult situation for Metro. But Metro needs to get that this is a difficult, long-standing problem for riders. Could anything be plainer? The new general manager, Richard Sarles, seems to agree with this and has launched a new effort to address this. I think he wants to target certain chronic and high-profile problem stations. That would be great.

Dr. G, we WANT a flat fare...even if it's $4. We're wasting time and money debating ridiculous pricing schemes that we're going to waste on accountants to try and explain our tangled budgets to the bungling Board. Simplify. Cut expenses. Increase the minimum fare. Keep it graduated for distance if we must (New York at least doesn't have to deal with multiple jurisdictions) but the peak of the peak needs to go...as does the Board.

A letter writer and I talked about the flat fare issue in my Sunday column. I think that whatever the Metro board does to balance the budget through fare increases, it needs to be reasonably confident that riders will understand the fare structure. The peak of the peak may be a tier too far.

On the other hand, I don't believe there's any chance we'll go the opposite way to a flat fare. Metro would have to set it too high to please the shorter distance riders and the people who now ride at the off-peak hours.

Interesting about New York and its flat fare on the subway. I think the transit authority not only would have to deal with the conflicting interests of the five boroughs but also with the state and city governments if it though about making a change in the fare structure.

I have a question about the timing of the traffic light at the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Glebe. In the evenings, I exit the GW Parkway and travel north on Chain Bridge and then make a right onto Glebe Road to travel back to Arlington. The back-up at this light can be terrible. On a good day, it takes me about 10 minutes (3-4 light cycles) to make the right turn onto Glebe. However, about two days out of the week, it takes me 20-30 minutes to make the turn as the traffic can be backed up almost all the way to the GW Parkway exit.

The problem appears to be related to the timing of the light cycle-- the light is far too short and does not let enough cars turn right and left onto Glebe Road. Who has control over this light timing and how do I complain?

That light is controlled by Arlington County. Traffic at Glebe and Chain Bridge has been a very common complaint since the Chain Bridge rehab project took away one bridge lane last June.

I was hoping -- I know DDOT was hoping, too -- that the lane would be restored this morning. But the weekend rains slowed the work. It now seems likely that the third lane will be restored in the middle of this week. That should have a significant impact on the Chain Bridge/Glebe Road intersection.

Why at 8:30am today- were Orange Line trains 7 minutes between but this wasn't listed as a delay?! I get on at VA Square and had to throw myself on a train - people at Clarendon, well a few could squeak on and well poor Courthouse. But how can they raise rates and I can't even get on a metro car!!

I think the trains have to be at least five minutes off schedule for Metro to consider it a delay. (Really, if that weren't the case, we'd be getting those eAlert delay warnings every minute during rush hour.)

The Orange Line and Red Lines are particular problems. The schedules get thrown off as the trains move through downtown, so by later in the rush hour -- not too much later -- there are big gaps between some trains and very short gaps between others.

The crowding at some of those Arlington stations on the Orange Line is another, related issue. That's only going to get worse in coming years.


The fair increases will hurt Glenmont more than anywhere else--we go further (mileage increase), pay for parking (possible big increase), and still get only 50 percent of the service. The "turnaround" excuse may be valid but we shouldn't have to subsidize the rest of the Red Line.

I think it's tough to make a subsidy argument concerning Metro. Taxpayers who never get anywhere near a Metro line are subsidizing Metro riders. There are plenty of people who would say, Most people drive to work. Why isn't more money spent on road building?

Judging by what Metro board members have been saying, I think a parking fee increase is pretty unlikely. I still believe there hasn't been enough discussion by the public and the board about the peak of the peak surcharge, which I think is very likely to happen.

Hi, I pay $7.20 for my daily ride. I would be willing to pay $10 a day in order to have less congested cars on the red line and not be already packed when I get on at White Flint. I also dread getting on at Farragut North these days because the trains are delayed, packed from Metro Center already, and I stand waiting 20 minutes for a car. I'll up my daily fare to $12 to get rid of these issues. Any one else? Thanks.

You're going to pay more to ride starting June 27, and it isn't going to make any difference in how crowded the trains are.

One thing that might possibly make a difference is Metro's plan to adjust the train schedule on the Red Line. Metro plans to decrease the number of trains operating on the line during the rush, then take those extra cars and make more of the trains eight cars long. Metro thinks that by slightly increasing the scheduled gap between trains and adding more cars to the remaining trains, it can ease the crowding somewhat. But that's got nothing to do with the fare increases.

If I was going from Shirlington into DC via Rt 50, I would just go north on George Mason Drive to get to 50. This avoids any backups on 395.

Even better. Thank you.

I would strongly urge the OP not to take Rt. 50 into DC in the morning. I travel that every day and get off at Washington Blvd to take 395 in. I tried to do Rt 50 instead and it has always been a horrible experience. The lanes go down to only 2 and the traffic never moves. While 395 is a pain, it moves more quickly and once you are over the 14th street bridge, the SE/SW freeway is usually free flowing. If you don't want to be a raving lunatic by the time you get to the graduation, I'd avoid Rt. 50 into DC at all costs.

I thought taking 50 might make it easier for the driver between the bridge and Constitution Hall.

I know that Metro is underfunded. However the concept of peak of peak seems unfair. We will not get better service. People with more flexibility can travel other times. People who are poor and have jobs with set times are subsidizing the powerful and wealthy. By the way I hate the new format but it is a way to force advertising down our throats so I am sure it will stay.

No, you won't get better service. People who now board a train at 7:40 might well decide to board 15 minutes earlier to save themselves on the surcharge, but plenty of others with 9-5  jobs would likely be stuck paying the surcharge. I doubt we're talking about very many poor people among those with 9-5 jobs riding Metrorail.

Lately, the income argument has been coming up a lot more regarding proposed increases in the Metrobus fares.

(You mean the new format for the online chats? If this should turn out to give The Post more revenue opportunities, I think that would be swell, says this employee.)

Dr. G:

Does Metro give train drivers elocution lessons? Some drivers provide political opinion (several weeks ago, on successive days one Blue Line driver repeatedly announced our arrival in "Rosslyn, the first stop in the Commonwealth of NORTHERN Virginia), others advise passengers which way to turn at National Airport to check in for speciific airlines, other drivers provide weather and arrival times to upcoming stations. Some provide lists of tourist attractions reachable from a particular station. But all provide some personality to otherwise monotonous drives.

Then you have the mumblers who are barely audible, and the sullen types who bark out one or two word announcements and who's tone suggests that they wish they had other day jobs. Once upon a time, I thought that most of Metro's PA systems in trains were broken. Now I think that it's the drivers.

So, does Metro give its drivers training in making announcements?

Yes, but we're not talking private lessons with Professor Henry Higgins.

I  have a discussion on this coming up in my Thursday column. Like you, I think the biggest factor in the clarity of announcements is the operator, not the technology -- though I do think the system is better in the newer cars.

I also enjoy the variety of  messages from the different operators and would not change this in favor of recorded messages.

N George Mason is a good option, but maybe the solution is to just go early, park the car, and go read a good book at a Starbucks while you enjoy a morning latte, before the commencement begins.

That's always my preferred solution when I'm trying to reach an event -- or an airport. I don't like to rush the drive, it can lead to bad decisions.

On the other hand, I understand the frustration many drivers feel about the growing need to add buffer time into their travel planning. What used to be one latte of waiting time has become two lattes.

You note: "I remember board member Jim Graham of DC noting that the Metro plan for closing entrances had most of them in the District of Columbia, and he didn't like that." But aren't most of the multiple entrance stations in the District? If memory serves, most of the subruban stations are single entrances. Sounds like Mr. Graham is chasing an at best, misinformed, at worst, specious, argument.

Graham, the longest serving board member, is a strong defender of the District's interests. He looks for bargaining chips in the city-suburb battles. This might be one.

They're not "official," but only about half of the federal highway funds are covered from user fees. The rest comes from everyone else. The cost of the gulf clean-up, the military cost to secure petroleum sorces, and the massive tax breaks given to oil companies are not priced into what you see posted at the pump.

That also comes from the general public. Remember the uproar when they announced what the ICC tolls would have be to recover its cost? Non-drivers and infrequent users are subsidizing heavy road users to a much greater extent.

Sure. My point on subsidies is that we can almost always come up with several ways in which we are subsidizing other travelers. We in the DC area are subsidizing road construction in California. Residents of Northern Virginia are subsidizing transportation projects in Southside. Residents of Baltimore are subsidizing construction of the Intercounty Connector.

I think we have to get used to the fact that we're subsidizing each other.

Traffic circles are a big part of our travel in the district. Why is it that so many people fail to obey the basic law of yielding to traffic in the circle. My biggest frustration is the Conn. Ave circle in Chevy Chase. I travel each day through here and could probably get into an accident almost everyday if I was not a defensive driver. Vehicles traveling southbound on Conn. Ave generaly do not stop for me while I am in the circle. Twice I've almost been hit by a metro bus. The 2nd time the driver acted as if it was my fault. Am I doing something wrong?

It's a common problem. Proponents of the new-style roundabouts used at some locations in Maryland and Virginia are usually careful to refer to them as "modern" traffic circles to distinguish them from the free-for-all type so many people are used to, such as Chevy Chase Circle.

There are too many lanes and not enough guidance for drivers at such places. Drivers in the circles have the right of way, but many drivers approaching circles on wide roadways seem to believe that they constitute the through traffic and therefore have the right of way, which is not the case.

Go Friday. It may be bad, but it will be brutal on Saturday!!

Another thing about Saturdays at this time of year is that you have a lot of really long distance traffic on I-95 on weekends -- I mean long distance like New England-Florida -- mixing in with people on a weekend trip.

Too many people depend on Metro to get around. It's like increasing the price of milk--a lot of people would hate it, but they'd mostly just cut back spending on other things to keep buying the milk. Don't be fooled into thinking rate hikes will equal you being able to get a seat during rush hour at Metro Center.

Last time Metro raised fares, ridership went up. Part of the reason is that many people still prefer Metro to driving. Another factor is that the federal government is subsidizing its employees' transit trips.

I don't understand this. If they run fewer trains, but those trains have 8 cars, how does that result in better service than more trains with 6 cars? It's the same number of cars, carrying the same finite number of passengers.

Metro says it puts all the trains on the Red Line at rush hour that the line can safely accommodate. And you see the results of that. The lead train takes on a big crowd at some platform and spends more time than the schedule allows at that station. The train behind starts to catch up. When it arrives at the platform, there aren't as many people waiting, so it spends less time at the platform and gets even closer to the train ahead. Behind that train, a gap starts to build.

The Metro theory -- untested at this point -- is that if you slightly lengthen the scheduled gaps between the trains, they will be spaced out better -- and stay spaced out better through the rush hour. Meanwhile, if you take the extra cars and add them to the remaining trains, you'll help with the crowding.

It doesn't mean we'll all get seats. I certainly wouldn't look for anything that dramatic.

Hi Doc - although I am no longer a daily Metro rider, my recollection is that rush hour fares apply no matter how much of your ride is during the affected time. So if you get on before the am rush offically starts, and get off a minute or two after it offically starts, you get charged the full rush hour fare even though your ride was mostly in non-rush hour. Won't the same be true for peak of the peak fares?

I asked this of the Metro staff a couple of weeks ago, because I wasn't sure. (I've been riding Metro for 22 years.) The staff says that whether you pay peak or off-peak is determined by when you enter the system, not when you leave. If you start your trip before the peak, then you pay the off-peak fare.

Hi, My sister and I are planning on going down to Colonial Williamsburg next month and I want to know the best way to get down there. We plan on leaving on Monday morning. Thanks.

The basic route is I-95 down to Richmond and then pick up I-64. But a lot of people like to vary that by getting off I-95 south of Fredricksburg and taking Route 17 down to the point where they can pick up I-64. That's longer in distance, and probably time, too. But many people find the drive more pleasant.

When I lived in Fairlington, I used to come in 395, then Washington Blvd by the Pentagon and over the Memorial Bridge. Drops you right onto Constitution. This is some time ago and I haven't done that drive in years, but it was busy, but very bearable.

Thanks for all the feedback to day on our routing questions. I always find the comments of travelers very helpful and readers tell me they do, too.

No we do not want a flat fare. I made a conscious choice to live in D.C., to pay more in housing costs, to commute shorter distances, to reduce my contribution to traffic, pollution etc.

Why should I have to subsidize those who made a conscious decision to live further out? I am all in favor of paying more than my fair share of transit costs - a well-run metro is good for everyone. But a $4 flat fare for my 4 - stop commute? I don't think so.

You know I think the subisidy issue is too complicated to deal with in making transportation decisions, but we can certainly talk about fairness. People in the DC area are used to a system that charges by time and distance. People in New York are used to a flat fare. To change either, you'd have to make a pretty good case to riders -- all riders -- that this was an improvement.

The argument that charging by distance is a long-standing encouragement to people to live closer to work is a pretty good one. It would be very difficult to upend that expectation now.

Close-in riders ought to consider the peak of the peak surcharge in that light: This is an extra charge that would apply to all types of riders, whether they live in the region's core or not. Do they think it's fair to apply that charge to everyone?

The lone escalator at Twinbrook works but for many months it has had such a loud very high pitched noise emanating from it that I don't know how the Metro staff keeps its sanity. It is so loud the noise can be heard in the neighborhood blocks from the station. It sounds like metal is rubbing against metal. I don't understand why it hasn't been fixed. Is there a shortage of oil? Also the idea of replacing tiles at Twinbrook at this time makes no sense. From what the community has been told the station is to undergo renovations later in connection with the Twinbrook development (housing, retail) that is in progress.

My colleague, Lena Sun, who used to cover Metro, wanted to do a story -- with online audio -- about the different noises that Metro escalators make. She thought some sounded like migrating whales.

I'm not sure riders who use Twinbrook would want to encourage any delay in Metro's plans to fix the station platforms along that stretch of the Red Line.

Are Metro's escalator outages comparable with other large transit agencies in the country? It seems like the problems Metro has with theirs is worse ... or is this just my impression?

There's no transit escalator system comparable to Metro's. That's one of our problems. Back when the system was being planned in the 60s and early 70s, I think the planners had no idea what the maintenance consequences would be of having a system so dependent on all these moving parts.


Just as an FYI, one of the Judiciary Square entrances is closed weekends and holidays (like Veterans Day) so this is not a totally new idea.

Thank you. No, not a new idea. I think out of all the service cut proposals, this idea of closing some little-used station entrances is pretty easy to swallow.

Surprise ... the Dulles Toll Road folks removed the damaged booth last week! I guess somebody just had to ask ...

Glad to hear that.

When is Metro going to announce the final fare increases? Changes to transit benefits need to be in by the 10th of June (and that is for August benefits, we already missed July)...

I think the Metro board is very likely to decide Thursday.

What are the current times for increased rush-hour fares? Wmata.com tells you "Regular Fare" and "Reduced Fare" but not when either of those applies.

Rush hour fares, which Metro refers to as the regular fares, are charged from 5 to 9:30 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. The other hours are off-peak, what Metro refers to as the reduced fare.

The proposal for a peak of the peak surcharge would apply to rides between 7:30  and 9 a.m. and between 4:30 and 6 p.m.

Monday morning shouldn't be too bad to take 95 to Richmond (then I-295S around Richmond) & 64, which is by far the fastest way.

However, I second the 17 option as a back-up ... much more pleasant if you are ok with a somewhat slower trip.

Once again, thanks to all who are contributing to our knowledge base.

My husband and I looked at riding metro. But frankly, it was more expensive and took more time. Its a lofty goal to take cars off the roads, but when its neither cheaper or faster, why would anyone do it? I'm all for subsidizing the metro, particularly if it means more frequent trains that run faster.

I'm not into transportation ideology. I always suggest that people use the transportation option that works best for them. If we, as a community, want people to make certain choices about how they get around, we should create incentives for them to do so. Money, of course, isn't the only incentive. There are plenty of us who find it more convenient to ride a train or bus, or bike or walk.

Travelers, we've been talking for two hours, and I'd better stop now, even though there are plenty of your questions and comments left. I'll look back and see if I can address some of them on the Get There blog this week.

I do feel reinforced in my plan to continue discussing getaway travel and the Metro fare increase this week. A lot of the questions and comments today focused on those topics.

Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com. We won't have a chat next Monday, Memorial Day, but please do join me in two weeks. Have a safe holiday.

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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