The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock: Metro brawl, your traffic and transit questions

Aug 09, 2010

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

Welcome, travelers. Let's talk traffic and transit. If I spot a question that could especially benefit from a group response, I'll post that early. I'll probably have to leave a little after 1 p.m. today, to get over to the meeting between the Metro board and the NTSB members, where they'll discuss the Red Line crash and Metro safety.

I am retired but routinely take Metro from Silver Spring to DC for movies, plays, concerts, events at the Verizon Center. Biggest problem has been rowdy schoolchildren getting on at RI Ave., but I don't think they are dangerous. However, late night agitators have definitely been increasing. Kennedy Center parking is now something like $23 so I have no option but to take Metro. It will be a sad day if I am no longer able to do this. I am disabled and walk with a cane, so non-working escalators are already a challenge. Roving gangs of troublemakers may push me over the edge.

There are many questions and comments today about safety and security on Metrorail, many following up on the Friday night brawl that ranged from Gallery Place to L'Enfant Plaza.

Incidents like the brawl, which apparently involved as many as 70 people, are very rare, but everybody's attention -- rightly so. More common, according to my experience and what other riders tell me, are incidents involving rowdy behavior among school kids, both in the morning and afternoon.

This is a chronic problem that hasn't been solved by chats between transit police and school officials.

Dr. G: In New York City, a jurisdiction which once experienced subway mayhem as a matter of course, there is no longer any such thing as the "New York City Transit Police."

In 1995, the NYCTP was integrated by Giuliani into the New York Police Department. Now, if there is an incident on the New York City subways, there are no chain of command issues, no jurisdictional issues, it is simply radioed in and NYPD responds. Why, 15 years later, has the District of Columbia (and surrounding jurisdictions) not done the same thing?

It seems, quite frankly, asinine, that an overmatched and underfunded Metro Transit Police could possibly respond to a 70-person brawl in the same way that the MPD could. Oh by the way, New York subways still experience some disorder at the end of the school day when the schools let out, but there is constant police presence inside all major stations and police presence on trains and every few stations on the outskirts of transit lines. It doesn't seem to be too much to ask.

When we're talking about U.S. subways, there's New York, and then there's everything else. Even though the DC region has the second largest subway system in the nation, it's still tiny compared to the New York subway.

In NY, there are enough officers assigned to the Transit Bureau to conquer a small nation. So far, we haven't had the same needs here. Lucky for us.

Still, I think our transit force needs to be much larger. Riders need to see officers.

On the jurisdictional issue: The NY subway is completely within the borders of the city. It made sense to integrate the NYPD and the transit police. Our subway passes through many jurisdictions. We can't make the transit police part of all the law enforcement agencies -- federal, state, county, city, village -- through which the subway passes. I think we need to focus on making the transit police stronger.

MBTA recently arrested one man via twitter user and one whose photo was taken by a rider using her cell phone. Meanwhile a few weeks ago I called Metro Police from L'Enfant about a deranged man roaming the platform telling riders to "Shut up." After an 8 minute wait we got on the Yellow Line and rode to Pentagon City. I never saw a uniform respond, though I called twice. We pay more, get less service, less safety...although now we get more violence. Sarles hasn't helped.

Metro's top managers have been wrapped up in the big safety issues of preventing crashes and preventing terror attacks. That's great. But the day to day experiences of riders don't involve those horrible events. If they did, no one would get on the trains.

No, I find riders more concerned about relatively mundane incidents that have a big impact on their experience with the transit system.

On police response time: Many incidents are going to be handled by a relatively small force of transit police. It's going to take them time to reach any given station. The more officers we have, the shorter the response time will be. That's a reason I think we need more transit officers.

There is a good deal of road work half done on Independence Ave between the Botanical Gardens and the Library of Congress. The lines are not painted on the road and cars heading east are taking 3 lanes instead of 2 going up the hill even though that traffic pattern applies only to rush hour. Someone is going to get into a head-on collision if the District does not fix the lines soon!

Hadn't heard about that problem. Most commuters I'm hearing from these days who mention Independence Avenue want to talk about the congestion down toward the west side, because of the National Park Service's Ohio Drive reconstruction.

Hi Doc. This is less of a question and more of a concern. I walk to work every day, pushing my child in a stroller, and I cross the intersection of 2nd St NE, Constitution, and Maryland Ave. The walk signs on the north and southbound crosswalks do a very strange and unsafe thing. Unpredictably, the countdown timer will suddenly skip several seconds -- usually from 10 or 12 seconds down to 4 or 5 seconds, just like that. It's a wide crossing and I have seen this anomaly cause panic in pedestrians (such as me). I asked one of the Capitol Police guys always stationed there and he basically shrugged. Why would they do this and how can we get it fixed?

I've seen countdown signals jump in odd ways. Very troubling if you're half way across a wide street.

I believe the ones you're concerned about are the responsibility of the District Department of Transportation. The usual way to submit a request for a fix is to contact the Mayor's 311 Service Request Center. See if the information on this page helps:

Perhaps this has been asked before, but I was traveling up to Jersey on Saturday, and I noticed that on I95 in Maryland they now have mile markers every 10th mile. Weren't they every mile before, and what are they for? Perhaps narrow down stranded cars locations?

Yes, exactly. I believe this initiative has been going on for at least a few years, and you should see the same style mile-marker on Interstates in other states. For example, you would have seen them on the New Jersey Turnpike.

So many of us have cell phones. One of the first questions a trooper is going to ask a driver calling in an emergency is to give the mile marker.

You've probably also noticed that many state are renumbering their highway exits to match the mile markers.

I see that the new increase in fares isn't going to keep us safer on Metro. Maybe they should call the peak of the peak, a non-fighting fee.

I think the higher fares may contribute to some safety improvements, though most of the improvements I'm thinking of are in the capital budget, rather than the operating budget where the fare money is going.

Through all those months of budget hearings, Metro officials never promised that the fare increases would make service better. They always said the money was needed to prevent things from getting much worse.

Hi Dr. Gridlock - I drive south on Georgia Avenue from Silver Spring into the District every afternoon. On the 7800-7900 block, just north of the District line, there is supposed to be no parking during afternoon rush hour.

Unfortunately this rule is routinely ignored and there are a few cars parked there almost every day. Who should I contact to ask about getting this rule enforced consistently? The cars who park there cause some unnecessary delay for commuters wh oare forced to merge lanes to get around them. Thanks for any help!

Montgomery County police: 301-279-8000 (the non-emergency number)

From time to time, I do hear this complaint about parked cars on GA Ave in Silver Spring. Not as much, though, as I hear from drivers in downtown DC about parked cars, double parked cars and delivery trucks at rush hour.

While I understand the need for weekend track work and resulting delays, I cannot understand why the single tracking cannot be competently managed. This weekend's delays on the Red Line were wose than I have seen in all my years of riding the system.

They seem to have made a fairly recent decision to send three trains through the single tracking area, which I find completely inexplicable as it only seems to worsen the situation. Do you know why this is? Also, is there any word on when the ceiling work at Farragut North will be finished, which has been sitting for months?

I'll check on the ceiling. It's been like that since last fall, right? The ceiling structure was deteriorating, so Metro put up barriers around it. This makes the platform very narrow for people using the exit at Conn and L.

On the single tracking: Metro says you're going to get a faster trip if several trains in a row go through the work zone in one direction before switching directions.

Think of the parallel situation on a two-lane road. When one lane is blocked for construction, the flagger is going to send a long string of cars through the work zone before halting traffic and allowing the cars from the other side through. If the flagger instead alternated cars from each direction one at a time, it would take forever to get through.

This weekend's Red Line work was unusual in that it brought the Red Line rehabilitation project into the downtown area. The project is underway most weekends, but we normally see the single tracking out toward the ends of the line.

Why are westbound trains running at very slow speeds between East Falls Church and West Falls Church during evening rush hours? Eastbound trains seem to be running at normal speeds but westbound trains seem to be going less than 25 mph and sometimes stop briefly.

There wouldn't be any track work there during the evening rush. And there haven't been any slowdowns for track circuit monitoring out that way in a while.

I think most likely it's the trains getting bunched up in the outbound direction, just as they do inbound in the morning.

Also some afternoon trains stop at West Falls Church and head back downtown, to ease congestion on the downtown platforms. Turning a train back is likely to slowdown the trains behind it, in the neighborhood of East Falls Church. 

The operator should be telling the riders why the train is stopping.


Last week a man was begging for money and he walked the entire car but no one gave him money ...  suddenly he became very agitaged and was very biligerent while pacing back and forth and claimed we all are "lying" and he knew we had money. Next, he said "I'll cap everybody on this train" and he showed a gun. This happened between Union Station and Brookland.

A woman nervously gave him money and others threw money at him. He snatched the money violently from the woman and called her a word that rhymes with "itch". After he collected the money, he took a roll of money from his pocket and added the "new" money. He was standing directly in front of me most of the time and I was frozen in my seat. I didn't look at him directly or open my purse and I had my iPod in my hand as I was speaking to my husband just before the craziness began. He stood by the door and upon stopping at Brookland ran to the next car of the same train.

What should I have done? I recall thinking I should call the Police but he was in front of me and I didn't want to get hurt. I ran off the train past him and then saw him run onto the next car.

I reported the crime to the Metro rep at the station along with another passenger. I was really frightened for my well being; I thought at least he would punch me. The Metro rep was very responsive asking for a description of the incident and the criminal while calling for security. In light of the big fight on Metro last Friday, I think Metro needs more police on the cars. I would bet that more crime happens than we actually hear about on the trains. Thanks for any comments you may have.

That man's actions sound like they meet the definition of armed robbery, don't you think? The more people calling 911 as soon as they can, the better. (But if I'm on that train, I'm not holding up a cell phone right in front of the guy and calling anybody.)

I'm so glad to hear you reported the incident, and I hope lots of other people did, too. There are plenty of situations where the behavior of a passenger is ambiguous. Is it just annoying, or is it dangerous? There's no ambiguity about the situation you described.

Same with the incident Friday night: I hope plenty of people were reporting trouble as the train was moving between Gallery Place, through Archives and onto L'Enfant Plaza.

I was on the Orange line to Vienna on last Tuesday at 5:30ish in the afternoon. A Metro employee got on with a massive Starbucks drink. I ask you, why should anyone follow the rules if the uniformed employees won't?

I think people should follow the rules because that's the right thing to do. A rider's response shouldn't depend on whether a Metro employee or anybody else is breaking the rule against eating or drinking. They shouldn't do it and neither should the rest of us.

I love that Gallery Place has become a destination spot. I'm all for people coming downtown more to shop, and having an "urban mall" like the confluence of 7th and H Streets is just wonderful. But lawbreakers and fights that spill out and are that dangerous are unacceptable.

And it sounds like Metro was unprepared to handle that. How do you solve it? What do you do to solve it? And why are Metro Police not already patrolling these trains?

Metro transit police do patrol the trains and the stations. Trouble is, they have a bigger jurisdiction than any of our other local forces, and it includes the trains, buses, rail stations, bus stops, parking lots and garages, rail yards and bus garages.

There aren't enough of them for that. Also, the more officers you put on the trains during one shift, the slower their response time is going to be to an incident, like a fight, that breaks out suddenly on another line a few stations away.

Good morning Dr. Gridlock, I am not an alarmist about the social causes of the fight on metro or on violence in DC in general, but rather someone who is a bit concerned about Metro Transit Police's response.

By my count this is the third brawl on Metro this summer (Union Station, Bethesda, and L'Enfant). In all three cases we are talking about police response times in the tens of minutes. While vague comments about extending curfew hours are a nice political sentiment, it doesn't solve the immediate problem.

That Metro is becoming unsafe outside of rush hour (to say nothing of barely functioning outside of rush hour). I have two questions that I haven't seen answered yet. Why do non-transit police not respond to these instances? In the case of Bethesda, the Montgomery County police barracks are a block away, yet response time was in excess of a half hour by Metro police. In the case of L'Enfant, there are multiple DC police stations within 6 blocks of the station.

Metro police have shown a demonstrated inability to respond to situations in a timely manner. Which leads me to my second question: Outside of pre-planned scenarios where everyone is well notified in advance, what is Transit police response actually going to be in a terrorist situation? Terrorists have targeted transit systems in Tokyo, Barcelona, London, and Moscow amongst others. These attacks need not be at rush hour when Metro police are present to be effective- an attack on a crowd leaving the Kennedy Center at 10 or 11 p.m. on a weekend would do the same trick. Is it now time to question whether Metro Transit has the resources to respond to an actual emergency situation?

I'm a little concerned about the degree to which Metro police and local enforcement officials talk about transit safety in terms of preventing a terror attack. I sure think that's important and I very much appreciate their efforts to keep us safe.

But riders express far more concern about the day to day experiences with unruly people. Crime rates on Metro are extremely low. But that's clearly not much comfort to riders who have been describing incidents here.

Riders must be safe. They also must feel safe. Both those things are important to the health of the transit system. Otherwise, people won't ride.

Response times: I think there's not enough communication between local police and transit police. When there is communication, I think the inclination is to let the transit police respond first, even though they're a relatively small force and not necessarily the closest to the scene.

I once witnessed a group of about 20 large teenaged boys acting rowdy, running and pushing at a transfer station. It was not a brawl yet, but it certainly had the potential to become one.

I went and told the station manager. He did ... nothing. Didn't notify metro police, didn't observe them, didn't watch them on his monitors (as near as I could tell).

That would be a problem. I hope that people with cell phones that work in the rail system will call 202-962-2121. Or if you're aboard a train, hit the intercom button and talk to the operator.

Lots of times, people aren't sure whether they're dealing with a true emergency and they're reluctant to call 911. Contacting the operator or calling the transit police number is something of a middle ground.

(Station manager training and supervision is an issue here, too, but it's a much broader issue.)

Good Doctor, I hope you or my fellow Gridlockers can help me out. I need to be at the baseball stadium in Waldorf on Tuesday morning by 7:30 a.m. at the absolute latest (my arrival time to give myself extra time). I'm leaving from Herndon and plan on taking DTR to the Beltway, but where do I go from there? Get on the Beltway and if so which way around? Do I cut through the city on 66, around the Pentagon then out 50 to Rte. 301? Is there another way? And most importantly, when should I leave? Please help, I've been a long-time reader and in-frequent asker who just needs a little help.

Hope you're not going to be waiting for the game to start. I'd leave two hours for the trip. It shouldn't take that long, but that's real long trip across one of the nation's most congested regions. Lots of things can happen.

I'd do Dulles Toll Road to the Beltway outer loop around to the Wilson Bridge and then down Route 5 -- in other words, the standard route.

I don't like to get fancy: Use the fewest roads, with the most lanes, and the lowest number of turns.

WMATA's stock response whenever there is a rowdy teenager incident like Saturdays is that the transit police cannot be everywhere at once. Which is true. Except that they don't have to be. Regular riders, unlike WMATA management, know where most of the problems originate and even at what times. Gallery Place, Union Station and Silver Spring from my experience are the main hopping on and off points for troublemaking teens with Wheaton, Pentagon City, FT Totten and Tenleytown contributing lessor numbers.

I would even go so far as to say that the first three stations have so many problems that WMATA should have permanently stationed proactive (as opposed to chatting with the kiosk attendants all day) police officers there years ago. This stuff isn't rocket science and many of these problems should be completely avoidable on the trains. But it requires WMATA managers to actually umm manage.

So far, it's been a little difficult to follow the descriptions of this incident. There are many things I'd still like to know: Where did the big fight start, on the street, in Gallery Place Station, on the train, at L'Enfant Plaza? What exactly was the response of DC police and Metro transit police? To what point did the officers respond?

Were Metro riders calling in on 911 or to transit police?

What, if anything, happened when the train reached Archives Station, between Gallery Place and L'Enfant?

I have tried to embrace the new parking meter prices and hours but I even bought rolls and rolls of quarters, but more than half the meters are always out of service where I park (west of the Ellipse). I generally have to park around 6 pm when available parking is very limited due to rush hour restrictions and about 2/3rds of the meters have out of service no parking symbols blinking on them. Do you know if they are ticketing for this? I cannot spend 40 minutes driving from spot to spot trying to find a working meter.

Who can I/should I be contacting about this?

I would absolutely not park at an out of service meter. I think you're very likely to get a parking ticket.

I was on the train at Union Station in June when a fight broke out, and it was terrifying -- teenagers running and screaming everywhere, people screaming about guns, etc. I felt really helpless given the onslaught of out-of-control kids. I know the incident this past weekend took place in the later evening (the incident in June took place around lunchtime).

Does Metro have the resources to add extra security presence in the metro stations? After my Union Station experience, I felt like I had PTSD just thinking about going back down into the train station and potentially being stuck in the middle of a fight. Things really need to improve!

On resources, let me just quote to you quickly from Chief Michael Taborn's description of the transit police department as it appears on the Metro Web site. It's just the generic, official version, but I think it will give you the idea of how spread out the transit police are now (remember, the officers aren't all on duty at the same times or days):

"The MTPD has an authorized strength of 420 sworn police officers, 106 security special police, and 24 civilian personnel. Officers provide a variety of law enforcement and public safety services on the Metrorail and Metrobus systems in the Washington Metropolitan Area.

"MTPD police officers have jurisdiction and arrest powers throughout the 1,500 square mile Transit Zone that includes Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia for crimes that occur in or against Transit Authority facilities. It is the only tri-jurisdictional police agency in the country and serves a population of 3.2 million."

Travelers, I need to break away, because I want to get to the meeting in downtown DC between the Metro board and the NTSB members to talk about the NTSB safety report. I plan to blog from there if I have a decent signal -- usually do -- so please look for that later this afternoon.

Hope to be back with you here next Monday. 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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