Dr. Gridlock

Jan 06, 2014

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, to our first chat of 2014. It's going to be an interesting year, with the opening of the Silver Line and the DC streetcar, and the Metro fare increase.

But let's start with your concerns about the here and now.

We all know how poorly Metro performs in any kind of unusual weather. Should we expect lengthy delays tomorrow in the extreme cold?

Metro's rush hour problems in late 2013 didn't seem to need any help from the weather. Many of those Red Line delays occurred in decent weather, and underground.

But yes, the cold weather that commuters will encounter on Tuesday can create extra problems for Metro's equipment. It's just hard to predict.

What riders can do is prepare themselves to handle temperatures lower than what we've seen for many years. Those who know they will be waiting on outdoor platforms and at bus shelters really need to think about how they'll dress for the morning.

This is the first paragraph on the Capital Weather Gang's most recent post:

"Temperatures may struggle to surpass 15 degrees in Washington tomorrow. Readings that cold or colder — if they occur — have been unseen since Jan. 19, 1994 when the high was 8 degrees."

I was waiting for the Red Line at Gallery Place-Chinatown this morning. an 8-car train was coming, a pregnant woman walks along the granite edge. No one should be doing that.

I see people standing on the edge and staring down the tunnel, waiting for lights. This makes me cringe. Yes, those moments go by very slowly -- even when the trains are running on time -- but it won't come any faster if you lean out to look.

Once a person falls from the platform, it's difficult to get back  up.

I understand that when the weather is bad we need snow plows and salt trucks to be out on the street... however, this weekend, I felt trapped behind a pair of trucks. I was on a divided highway with two lanes heading east. There were a pair of trucks salting the street. When I first approached, they were both in the right lane going about 20 miles below the speed limit. But, any time I was in a position where I could pass, the front truck would start to snake back and forth between the right and left lanes. The back truck kept going straight in the right lane. I couldn't understand the actions of the front driver. I don't know why he couldn't just pick one lane and drive in it or allow drivers behind to pass. The conditions were NOT bad enough to justify driving 20 mph below speed limit.

I can't tell what the truck drivers were doing in this particular situation. But it doesn't make sense to tangle with a couple of plows.

Attempting to pass plows is one of the biggest safety problems that our highway departments report.

But I just can't see the logic of passing the vehicles that are making the road surface better for you so you can advance into an area that they haven't gotten to yet.

How much longer until Metro posts its 6 month preview of major weekend track work on its website?

Metro puts out its track work calendar in six month increments at the start of the year and in the middle, so we're do for a new one, but I haven't seen it yet.

I expect the weekend work schedule to be just as busy as it was in 2013, though I think work will shift away from its concentration on the Red Line. Also, the work on the west side of the Orange Line where the Silver Line will come in should be done.

Agree or disagree? http://www.wtop.com/654/3533519/The-worst-rush-hours-of-2013 Although it doesn't mention the huge backups on the Beltway from the fire engine crash in PG County. Thx.

I thought WTOP had a very interesting list, and that putting out a "Worst Rush Hours" list was a clever thing to do.

It's a bit of a subjective thing. I find travelers rate rush hours based on their personal experience. They may have had a great commute on a day when there was a major incident. Also, it's tough to rate rush hours without considering delays on Metrorail.

But I think the main point of the WTOP exercise was to remind us that an incident in one place has a ripple effect that can spread across the entire region.

The opponents of this project have switched from complaining about the loss of extra parking for guests and parties to complaining that bike lanes will be dangerous for cyclists. Are you aware of any real-world case studies that demonstrate this? Or is this merely an odd public relations tactic?

Alexandria's transportation department decided late last month to go ahead with the new lanes on each side of King Street.

I know there have been a variety of complaints from the neighborhoods along the King Street route. All that is typical of disputes over new bike lanes -- doesn't matter what community we're talking about.

Compromises often get made before the lanes are installed. It's happening in DC on M Street NW, between 15th and 16th streets, because the Metropolitan AME Church wanted to protect Sunday parking.

No, I'm not aware of any studies demonstrating dangers to cyclists from bike lanes. If there are such studies, they might provide interesting tips, but I don't see how we could come to any broad conclusions about bike lanes based on what would have to be a limited amount of data.


When will train service start out here? I work one block from the Tysons Corner station, and would love to be able to take advantage of Metro service.

No date set yet. My guess -- and it's just a guess -- is early spring.

At this point, I can understand why no exact date has been set by Metro. Metro doesn't control the rail line yet, and hasn't had a chance to start its own testing. Also, the feds have to sign off on the safety of the line before passengers can board.

The opening of the new service is a big story -- I'd say the top transportation story of 2014 -- and we'll be following it very closely.

Many of you will have questions we haven't thought of yet, so please write to me with them at drgridlock@washpost.com.


It occurred to me that maybe the driver of the second snowplow was intentionally weaving into the left lane to prevent cars from passing the first plow. I would find that annoying as well, even though I understand that the plows are making the road surface better, and therefore safer. I was on I-95 on the way to New York on Thursday night (yeah, I know -- REALLY bad timing!), and I saw a few instances of plows with mile-long backups behind them. That can't be good either, but I have no idea what the solution is.

Again, I don't know what was going on in that particular situation, but I doubt the one driver was intentionally weaving to to block traffic.

That may be a legitimate tactic in the Daytona 500, but I doubt that any highway department would recommend it on a snowy road.

I just can't work up any anger or annoyance at plow drivers. They're doing a job that makes us safer. Leave 'em be.

Hi Dr. G.: This morning on the train, I guy I've seen do this before was standing up in the train and said something like "Could I have your attention ladies and gentlemen?". He then started singing quite loudly. We were a captive audience on a crowded train. This seems rude and disruptive to me. It was in the front car so I know the train operator heard it. Is there anything that can be done in this situation? Anyone I can report him to? I don't want to directly confront someone who is already weird enough to do something like this. Fellow riders did not seem happy to be subjected to this. He doesn't ask for money, but I find it pretty obnoxious.

There are a lot worse things that happen on Metro than a guy singing to you for free.

If it was annoying -- and I do understand that it could be -- then I'd move to another car at the next station.

But for those of you wondering about how to report an incident aboard a train, let me repeat something I wrote in October:

"The Metro Transit Police have set up a text communications system that riders with cellphones can use to make reports that do not involve emergencies.

"For an emergency in the transit system, call 911 or the transit police, 202-962-2121. But many riders puzzle over what to do when they see a problem that they consider less urgent. Metrorail passengers could use the operator call boxes in each car, however, sometimes they don’t want to be so obvious.

"The new system may help them out: Text information to MYMTPD from a smartphone or to 696873 from any cellphone. Police Chief Ron Pavlik suggested that people err on the side of caution when deciding whether to make reports.

"The transit police used these examples of non-emergencies worth reporting: unattended packages, suspicious activity, panhandling, solicitation, vending without a license, parking complaints and tips about investigations."

It was my understanding that the ICC was to have been completed to Rte 1 by late 2013 or early 2014. What is it status?

That last segment is scheduled to open in the spring. It's possible that at some point the target was late 2013, but I've been hearing spring for a long time now.

Amen to your praise of snowplow drivers -- they're the best! Who's worst? The idiots I saw on the way to NYC driving 25 mph on I-95 with their hazard flashers on. Hazard flashers are for when you are stopped or, very rarely, as a short-term attention-getting device -- for example, in case of a sudden traffic slowdown. Driving along with flashers on accomplishes nothing in terms of safety. And it's even worse when the aforementioned idiots moved from the far right to the far left, directly in front of overtaking traffic, when there was no reason to change "lanes."

There was a time a year or so ago when readers and I had a lengthy debate in my column about the use of flashers. I tend toward your camp. When some drivers declare a personal emergency for a lengthy trip along a major highway, this can be distracting to other drivers.

When I said that, many drivers wrote in and defended the use of flashers.

I'd restrict their use to certain emergencies -- real emergencies -- and to trucks going slowly uphill in the right lane.

Out driving in and post winter weather, it still amazes me to see multi-car pile-ups and bad accidents where you can tell people simply lost control of the vehicle. In many cases, even watching traffic, it is incredulous to watch drivers continue to drive at or well above the posted speed limit when roads can't be guaranteed to be 100% clear. Do you think this is simply a product of living in the Washington, DC Metro area and the drivers who live and commute/travel here?

I have relatives in Minnesota who tell me they frequently see cars stuck in ditches on the sides of roads where they've swerved in the snow. I have frequent opportunities to drive in Massachusetts in winter weather.

No, I don't believe that lack of caution is a product of living in the DC area.

I think the answer is more like the one that Tom Vanderbilt gave in his terrific book called "Traffic." Most drivers think their skills are above average. They take the fact that they got home without crashing as confirmation of their positive self-assessment. So they continue to drive in a manner that would get them a fail on a driving test.

I got stuck in a single-tracking Metro delay at Reagan-National last Thursday - ok, so stuff happens. But Metro really screwed up by not communicating what was going on. People waiting on the platform were not told that southbound trains were using the northbound platform. The station manager said no one at headquarters had communicated with him. If they can't manage this "one-car funeral," are they prepared for bigger problems?

Metro has gotten much better at its electronic communications with riders during emergencies, yet it still seems to have difficulty getting information to its station managers so they can do their jobs and keep riders informed.

And this despite the fact that Metro officials have been talking about that issue for many years.

I've seen him. I don't think he's panhandling, like the legendary bad saxophone player in New York. Unfortunately, I do think he has his problems. He's not a danger, but a nuisance.

I've also had musical accompaniment on several rides -- Red Line, I think -- but don't know if this is the same person. Our sax players tend to hang out at station entrances, so they don't have a captive audience.

Dr. G, Post's reporting of Metro's plans for a "beltway" inside DC make a lot of sense from a transportation perspective. First question: Where's the money coming from to pay for this? But what about other, equally worthy, projects like extending the Yellow Line to Ft. Belvoir where the base has been greatly expanded, a huge new hospital built, and plans for a future army museum are afoot? All of the employees and visitors will reach these facilities via a car along an already-gridlocked I-95 or Route 1. Question 2: Where's the money going to come from to pay for these equally important projects to ameliorate the impact of some really stupid decision-making by Army colonels and generals?

Very interesting story by Jonathan O'Connell in December about Metro planners considering the idea of an inner loop of stations.

That's certainly fun to consider, and it's important to be talking now about the Metrorail system of the future. At the moment, I wouldn't raise this to the status of a "Metro plan."

Part of the reason lies in the commenter's question: "Where's the money going to come from?" The money is going to come from you, as a rider or a taxpayer -- or both. And so far, no one is asking you for it.

The focus now is on much shorter range plans, particularly on building up the resources so we have all eight-car trains at rush hours. Even on this, the money has not yet been secured from the local governments that finance Metro.

Since tomorrow is expected to be the coldest day the area has seen during the past 20 years, are there predictions of what will be open/closed tomorrow. Not sure if one night is enough time to freeze gas and engines which would cause problems for both Metro and school buses, not to mention cars and other vehicles.

I haven't seen any announcements about closings or schedule changes for tomorrow. Even on days when a significant amount of snow or ice is predicted, decisions on government and school closings don't get made till late the night before -- except in the rare event when officials are sure a blizzard is heading our way.

It's going to be shockingly cold tomorrow, and commuters will need to prepare themselves, but the sky will be clear. I don't expect this will lead to widespread closings.

Dr. Gridlock, With the coming of the Silver line, the capacity of the Rosslyn to Foggy Bottom tunnel is at its peak. Metro will be cutting service on the Blue line to accomodate the Orange and Silver lines. What recourse do those of us living in the Franconia-Springfield area have? I don't want to drive to Huntington.

The Rosslyn tunnel is at peak now. At rush hour, it can't accommodate any more trains -- I think it's 26 per hour.

Most of the Blue Line cutback to accommodate the Silver Line already has occurred, but it will get a little worse once the line actually starts operating. Blue Line trains will be scheduled to operate 12 minutes apart, all the time.

The only realistic option is the one that exists now: Take a Rush Plus Yellow Line train from Franconia-Springfield into the middle of DC, then change trains at L'Enfant Plaza or Gallery Place.

Thanks, Dr. G. That texting number is helpful. I hope that it gets more press as I somehow missed it and I read your blog and other Metro-related resources a lot. I found the singing quite annoying. Using the number is probably better than my other solution which is to ask the singer if takes requests, and then say "please stop singing".

I've reported similar things, including both singing and disruptive loud preaching, several times by phone and by text. No action on any of them. Yes, I did ride along until the disrupters got off, and I saw no Metro staff on the platform waiting for them.

He's been around for at least twenty years. The Post has written about him before. Insistent and annoying, but harmless.

In the snow why??? How idiotic! If you are terrified when its snowing out or the roads are icy please stay home. Do not get on the roads and turn your flashers on! Now do the fools who think they know how to drive in the snow with their 4wd trucks and SUVs. you dont or you would be running winter tires instead of All Terrains or Mud Terrains. Winter tires have special tread compounds that make them more effective in in the wet and dry when temps drop below about 45 degrees. Your mud terrain and all terrains dont which maybe why you are stuffed into that guard rail. I be waving at you look for the bright yellow M3 with winter tires.

When I took drivers ed, the rule we were taught was "If you're traveling at a speed well below the prevailing speed, use your hazards." This was to alert others (driving at say 55) that you're going much slower. If, however, EVERYBODY is going 30 on the highway, you shouldn't use your hazards as you are traveling (even at 25) at the prevailing speed. Using your hazards like that cause other drivers to have their eyes constantly drawn to your vehicle - thereby creating a hazard.

On your last point, about eyes being drawn toward flashing lights: Paul Hubbe of the Maryland State Highway Administration made this point to me when he was driving around the Beltway looking for vehicles in trouble. His truck had several banks of emergency lights, but he was cautious about using them when he pulled onto the shoulder behind a stopped vehicle.

He said drivers in the through lanes tend to get fixated on the lights, and they'll move their steering wheels in the direction they're looking.

Any thoughts on VDOTs announcement that they are going to allow cars to drive on the left hand shoulder of the 495 inner loop between the Express Lanes and the GW Parkway? Too bad it can't happen sooner than the announced December 2014.

VDOT will be on a tight time frame for this project. The department is going to start it in the summer, and as you note, wants to open the shoulder by the end of the year.  It's a bit more elaborate than just some paving and restriping, so the time frame seemed reasonable to me.

VDOT officials don't describe it as a major breakthrough in congestion relief. They have more modest goals: They think it will provide some relief at rush hour, for about 1.8 miles.

Drivers still will face the bottleneck at the Legion Bridge and on the inner loop to Bethesda.

I think he's a minister. The Post wrote an article on him several years ago. I believe he is the same guy who preaches/sings at Union Station.

I'm a CDL instructor, and hazards should be used when a vehicle is incapable, or the driver is uncomfortable going within 10 MPH of the posted speed limit or the predominent speed of traffic on the road. If you're driving on a doughnut, which has a maximum speed rating of 50 MPH, on a 65 MPH highway, that would be an instance to use hazards. They are also to be used when broken down. Hazards are to indicate a vehicle in distress or unable to travel at a reasonable speed, not just stopped.

When is working going to start for the HOV lane ramps? I though work had already started, but it appears that it was just work for Express Lanes signage.

VDOT is scheduled to start work early this year on the ramp connecting the I-395 HOV lanes with Seminary Road by the Mark Center. It won't be done till early 2016.

What if I'm traveling outside of rush hour? Is the only alternative to suck it up and pay the same as everyone else for less service? This seems like a big middle finger from Metro to the Blue line customers.

If you're traveling outside of rush hour, the Blue Line trains are still going to be 12 minutes apart. So what's best for you would depend on your destination. Once you board at Franconia-Springfield, you might just want to stay on the Blue Line train. But there might be an advantage in transfering to a Yellow Line train by the time you reach Pentagon.


I think it's a part of living in a big city, you get the odd "performance" every now and then. It certainly beats rampant crime and violence on the Metro. I'd take a bad singer any day over another iPhone snatcher.

And I'm not sure the average cellphone shouter is any more melodious than the singer.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I thought we had a good variety of issues -- and I learned a lot about the singer and about your views on driving with the hazard lights on. Thank you.

Please join me next Monday, and write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com

Stay safe out there, especially during the upcoming cold snap. We have several reporters working on stories about that.

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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