Dr. Gridlock

Feb 04, 2013

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

Welcome, travelers. So far, I see questions about Metro's long-range plan, the fiasco on the Green Line last week and other traffic and transit concerns. Let's go.

Dr. G, Everything in Metro's recently-announced long-term wish list is good. But there isn't money for everything. So, what in your expert opinon would provide the most bang-for-the buck if you had to prioritize the wish list? Personally, i think building a transfer in Rosslyn allowing Blue and Yellow line trains to use the Orange/Silver line to Dulles reduces Rosslyn tunnel congestion, relieves Orange line congestion, addresses under-utilization of the Blue line, and provides no-change-of-train service between Dulles and National. What do you think? 

Metro's long-range plan is a great topic, and I hope many people will comment on this. But let me note a several things as we start:

The plan we've been talking about for the past two weeks is a draft. It still hasn't been approved by the Metro board, although board members did comment very favorably on it. The proposals are just that: proposals. Metro doesn't have engineering blueprints for this stuff. The price tags are just educated guesses. Many of the projects, especially the tunnels under the Potomac River and through D.C., will be very difficult to build.

And, oh yeah, there's no money to do any of this yet.

Okay, now the fun part: I'd focus first on the projects that will get the most use out of the system we already have. (And in fact, that's what the draft plan calls for.)

Key in that, I think, is creating an all-eight-car train system. Then, I'd build either a new set of tracks or a new station at Rosslyn to solve the current problems for Blue Line riders in that area and also create more flexibility in directing Orange and Silver Line trains.

The tunnels under the Potomac and through DC are mid-century goals, and incredibly expensive.

What do others think?

Why does metro not have a standard protocol to follow when they have an emergency situation. The protocol should include appropriate alternative transportation that can be organized at a moment's notice as well as communication feeds that are accurate and consistent to keep the passengers informed. It cannot be that difficult to put together.

Dealing with a train disruption at rush hour is a huge problem for Metro -- and therefore, for the train riders.

Metro doesn't know where the emergency is going to occur. It has to assess the problem and its impact, get its own people to the scene to help and organize the shuttle bus service. The bus drivers, who aren't necessarily familiar with the streets in the area where the disruption occurred, have to travel through rush hour traffic to get there.

But on the other hand, they know that. Metro officials have dealt with such disruptions for many years. And as far as I can tell, the emergency plans have not become any more effective over time.

I'm especially dismayed about the communication with riders at the nearby stations and along the lines. It may take a while to move buses through traffic, but it shouldn't take that long to establish effective and informative communication with riders about the nature of the delay and their options for getting where they are going.

What's up with the Telegraph Road bridge over the CSX and Metro tracks? We're still short two lanes, but there doesn't seem to be any work going on except during the morning rush.

I hope to do a blog posting on the bridge project this week. But basically, the project's deadline for finishing is June, and that Telegraph Road bridge over the tracks is the last element.

Work on many of our road projects is limited during the winter because of low temperatures, ice and snow, but it is still an active work site.

By the way, one of the issues working on that bridge is that the work has to be coordinated with train schedules for safety. Some of the Metrorail disruptions on weekends have occurred so that the bridge project can create a safe work zone.

When do you think we will ever see any real accountability from Metro? Every time there is an incident the glaring lack of communication (with customers and within the organization) is noted. Every time Metro "apologizes" but nothing ever improves or changes. When are heads gonna roll? How does Sarles get safety awards for running this pathetic system? Is the Metro board ever going to get off its giant butt and start exercising some real oversight? Will a rebuilt escalator ever work for longer than a week? Are we just doomed to have this awful-and-getting-worse system forever?

I'm writing a blog posting about what we learn from the Green Line fiasco. Here's my take: The current generation of Metro leaders have limited responsibility for how the system was designed, or the fact that maintenance was often postponed, or what tunnels get dug 20 years from now.

But this generation clearly should be held accountable for the goals it has set for itself: Safety and service.

By their own standard and goals, they blew it last Wednesday, just as they did last summer when another Green Line train was stranded at College Park.

You talked about apologies. But Metro's top officials rarely apologize. Yet last Thursday, Metro GM Richard Sarles did issue an apology for what happened on the Green Line. It was the right thing to do, but it was a sign of how much of a setback Wednesday was by Metro's own standards.

How are the prices determined for the I-495 Express Lanes? Is there a human monitoring traffice conditions and deciding on price points, or is some computer doing it based on pre-determined threshholds? During Friday's morning rush, the innerloop crossed $5. But the main lanes didn't seem that crowded to justify that price.

It's a computer calculation. But of course, humans put the algorithms into the computer that allow the calculations to be made.

The toll is based on two things: The current state of traffic, and the desire of the express lanes operators to get a return on their substantial investment in the lanes.

I didn't spot the $5, but based on the toll rates over the past couple of months, that sounds like the toll for the entire 14 miles of express lanes. Because of the geography, most drivers who see the price aren't going to have a simultaneous view of the congestion in the regular lanes.

The easiest example is to think of  inner loop drivers in Springfield. They see the first toll sign there and know the traffic right around them isn't so bad. But what they can't see is what's going on up in Tysons.

Bottom line: Nobody's forcing anybody to use those toll lanes. If you don't want to pay that rate, don't.


What qualifies as an emergency in Metro's parlance that would allow you to use the plainly printed emergency evacuation instructions on the Metro? I ask because, if I had been stuck on either of those trains last week without power, I would have self-evacuated after 30 minutes. I say this as a younger man, but I would have been helpful to people along with me. Knowing that I was 500 feet from a platform, or able to discover it quickly, I would not have stayed on that train that long, and I don't think that I am wrong. Two hours in the dark underground? But according to Metro, my decision to self-evacuate was "dangerous" and would have caused problems to others. (Never mind for a minute that it was a Metro employee who pulled the wrong switch and caused trains to get stuck, and then Metro blamed a fireman.) I understand that Metro is concerned about people stumbling or tripping onto the third rail. I understand that they were single tracking around the trains to get other customers home. But, and this is a serious questions, when can you self-evacuate? Do you get to use your own self-judgment? Or is this an Orwellian world in which the only judgment you can use is what Metro lets you? So for future reference, as a life-long Metro rider, when can you evacuate? Only when there is imminent danger of an assault from a fellow rider? A fire on the train? No power for three hours?

It's really hard for me to put myself  in the place of a person stuck aboard a darkened, crowded train in a dark tunnel for several hours with little or no information about what's supposed to happen next.

I hope I could be rational enough to assess the dangers to me and to others, but I don't know. That's a tough spot.

Ideally, people would wait for instructions for the train operator or emergency responders before either opening the doors or following someone qualified to lead an escape.

I once took Metro's track safety course, and I've been in a tunnel during single-tracking, when a switch was being replaced.

I don't care how many people are around you, you really feel alone. I don't care how many people tell you the third rail is shut down, you'll feel nervous being anywhere near it.

So I do think I'd wait a very long time before I'd climb out of a rail car and start walking along a dark tunnel, not knowing what the status of the third rail is or what might be up ahead.

Also to consider: If you get out on the tracks, chances are good that some emergency responder also will have to get on the tracks to help you. That endangers the emergency responder. And if a bunch of people get on the tracks without an escort, this isn't going to be like a bunch of school kids holding onto a rope. The emergency responders are going to have to make sure that they've walked everywhere to make sure that no one remains on the tracks before the power can come back and the trains can move again. So, acting rationally, you have to think of others.

But all these things just enhance the failure of Metro to control the Green Line situation.

Apologies are empty without concrete and noticeable behavior changes.

Yes. So let's see how open Metro is about the results of its investigation into the Green Line stranding and what action results.

But I have to say that based on the fact that we went through a similar process last summer after the Green Line stranding near College Park, there's limited reason to be hopeful about the results of this latest review.

I think a lot of Metro's PR issue would be fixed by better communication. On the trains, in the stations, on the website, etc, etc. I can't tell you how many times I've been on a train that "will be moving momentarily" and then doesn't move for at least 10 minutes. Just give us the truth. Don't keep "apologizing for the inconvenience." At this point I don't think anyone believes they are sorry. Re-train all train conductors to ENUNCIATE their words so people can hear them. Oh, and STOP referring to passengers as customers.

I think that Metro has followed the same pattern for years when these emergencies occur. The staffers focus entirely in figuring out what broke and how to fix it.

That's fine as far as it goes. But what they never seem to fully include in their thinking is that hundreds and often thousands of riders don't know what's gone wrong and what they can do about it.

So sometimes there's no information. And somethings the information you do get is wrong.

It happens over and over. So at this point, there's really no excuse.

I don't blame the current folks for trying to get caught up on the poorly maintained hardware. I do blame them for the apparent lack of training and poor communication and customer service skills of their employees. I definitely blame them for their apparent lack of an emergency preparedness plan, or the ability to execute the plan if they do have one. It's inexcusable and dangerous. The Green Line fiasco was a stark reminder that we are on our own on Metro. Be ready to help yourself, because Metro employees are not willing or able to help you.

Two big events within a couple of weeks: The inauguration and the Green Line stranding.

In the first case, Metro performed really well. I was very impressed with the staffers at the vending machines, on the mezzanines and on the platforms. The folks I encountered were friendly and very helpful. They sought out opportunities to help people.

Then comes the Green Line disruption and the staff appears to be overwhelmed. Certainly, you can contrast a situation that allows for a lot of planning vs an emergency. But a similar emergency occurred just last summer, and was the subject of a staff review and a revised set of procedures for handling a train stranding.

And what did that yield? The same type of mess that happened last summer, with riders wandering around the tracks -- only this time it wasn't in daylight. It was in a darkened tunnel.

Where is the appology on WMATA? Oh is it under news and alerts that takes a few page clicks to get to? How about an explanation of what happened and how they plan on keeping from happening again?

What got my attention wasn't just that Metro posted an apology from GM Sarles on its Web site. He sought out reporters last Thursday and repeated the apology. And he went down to Navy Yard station to talk to riders.

I've been saying for years that Metro's leaders need to be very visible during this time of trouble with the transit system. So I certainly think he did the right thing last Thursday in getting out there as Metro's leader and acknowledging that this was a major screwup, taking responsibility as leader and issuing an apology.

But as this commenter and others have noted, that only gets us so far. Now we need a frank report on what happened and a convincing plan for preventing another such episode.

The price is set based on traffic in the Express Lanes, not based on traffic in the main lanes. The main lanes could be free-flowing, and the Express Lanes could have a bunch of carpoolers in them driving up the price. In that case, if I were carpooling, I'd take the Express Lanes for a guaranteed fast trip, but if I were not carpooling, I'd probably not pay such a high price to use the lanes. The flip side is what happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The main lanes were jammed solid, and hardly anyone was using the Express Lanes (out of towners without E-ZPass or people just didn't know where the entrances were, etc.), so the Express Lane price was low. Best $1.65 I ever spent! Drivers will need to do a little research beforehand...which could be as easy as tuning into the radio traffic reports to see if the main lanes are backed up, and more importantly, where the main lanes are backed up. Then they can make an educated decision about main lanes vs. Express Lanes. Just remember, the price you pay for the Express Lanes is the price for a guaranteed fast trip, but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a bad/slow trip in the main lanes if the price is high.

Yes, the price is based on traffic in the express lanes. But the most frequently asked question since the lanes opened is, How can I decide whether the price is worth it? Drivers who see free-flowing traffic around them say they have no way of knowing whether an express lanes choice will be cost effective.

In the months ahead, it may be possible to get them more information at the decision point. But for now, I think the best advice is this: Try the express lanes a few times on your regular commute. Calculate whether you're saving time, and if so, what's the average time saving. Decide whether on certain days, that time savings is worth the price.

In other words, make your decision before you leave home or office. Don't wait till your driving past a message board with the toll rates.

"After power was cut, Metro 'didn't follow protocols entirely, and as a result it took longer to figure out what was going on and recover,' Sarles said. Based on the Post's previous coverage, it sounds like Metro does have an emergency plan but that Metro staff either can't or won't follow it. That's either an issue with the plan or the personnel but essentially both are the fault of continued poor management.

I think getting information and aid to people on trains stranded in tunnels should be paramount. Much as I think it's important to inform the people waiting on platforms or trying to figure out which bus to take, that's still secondary to helping people stuck in tunnels.

I think it's quite likely the plan was inadequate and the execution faulty. But from previous incidents, I also know that it takes a while to fully assess what went wrong in chaotic situations. So I'm really interested to see the results of Metro's review, and I hope it's as thorough as it needs to be.

They need to scrap the Silver line past Dulles. Seriously. No one's going to use it, and even if they do, it's going to make life worse for the people who take the Orange line closer in. I commute from Ashburn to D.C. and there is no way I will ever take Metro in to work. Too unpredictable, too time-consuming... Not worth the taxpayer dollars. I should note, I'm not some clueless suburbanite - I lived in Arlington and used Metro exclusively for about six years before I decided to move further out. And don't even get me started on the increased rates on the toll road - a good toll road is self-sustaining and funded by those who wish to use it. It's not a slush fund to be raided to pay for someone's boondoggle pet project. Sorry, rant over.

I think those Loudoun County stations, west of Dulles Airport, will wind up being heavily used, and I'm not totally sure that's a good thing.

A train line with big parking lots and garages at the end can spread sprawl just as much as a highway, creating new problems the next generation will have to solve.

The more immediate problem is likely to be the added congestion the Silver Line will bring to the core of the Metrorail system.

Meanwhile, I continue to believe that one of the worst transportation decisions made in recent years was the decision to put the airport Metro station so far from the terminal that few air travelers are likely to use it. That's a false economy.

Dr. G, I recall that recently (within the past two or three months) one of your columns discussed people driving at night using just their daytime running lights and how it's unsafe, especially for people whose cars don't turn on the taillights when they turn on the DRLs. I've noticed an ever-increasing number of cars being driven at night with no headlights at all or with just the parking lights. I assume part of this stems from the new trend in car design where the dashboard lights are dark when the car is off, illuminate when you turn on the car, and then dim when you turn on the headlights—I assume the "no-headlights" crowd might see the dash lights are on and forget to flip on the lights. I also assume some of it stems from the same attitude that causes some people to refuse to use their headlights in rain or snow: "I can see fine, so I don't need my lights." But whatever the reason, it can be scary. Friday night I was driving down the I-395 HOV lanes on my way back from Verizon Center when I saw a car being driven in the northbound lanes with no lights at all. I initially realized he was there only because his car blocked out the headlights from another car. That particular incident didn't affect me, but on average I'd say I see several cars being driven without headlights on any given night. What do you recommend people do? Flashing one's own lights on and off sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. Would you call the state police using a handsfree phone to report what you had seen, or would you figure they'd never get there in time to do anything?

I've published several letters from travelers on this topic. My feeling is that readers seem to be cutting these drivers more slack that I would. It's possible some are confused about what they see on the dashboard. But I think there shouldn't be much confusion about what they see on the road ahead at night.

There are different types of daytime running lights, but the general isea is that they draw less power -- and provide less illumination -- than full headlights. And the red tail lights don't go on.

I don't see how a driver who's paying attention to the road can fail to discover that.

So I think that in many, many cases, these drivers are just deciding not to turn on their lights.

Also, my recollection is that police officers look for cars without headlights and often pull them over. It's one of the signs of a drunk driver.

(I think flashing headlights is a decent idea. This is one of the few cases where I'd recommend that. In general, I worry about car-to-car communication, because it's so easy to misinterpret the message.

In response to the Green Line fiasco, I'd like to point out an experience I had in New York over the weekend. On the E train in Queens, the train had been holding on the platform for several minutes, we then heard an automated announcement about a "medical emergency" followed by the conductor telling us that would be holding there for EMS. Along with hundreds of others, we decided to bail, but it was nice to be told what was going on within minutes of it happening. The best part: MTA employees were just up the stairs from the platform handing out free ride passes good for bus and subway use, as well as pointing out alternative routes. Four block walk to the 7 train and we were on our way - without paying an extra fare. If only Metro's response to emergencies could be this seamless.

One thought on your blog - there are three entirely distinct types of entries: (1) traffic report entries about accidents, delays, as well as and transportation work that will be taking place in the immediate future; (2) big picture entries that discuss transportation trends, potential transportation projects, and public forums or other opportunities for commuters to share their views with decisionmakers; (3) miscellaneous - entries discussing interesting transportation news (e.g., plane wings clipping, TSA finding banned objects). It would be helpful if readers could quickly sort the posts by these categories so that readers can quickly locate those the category of posts they are currently looking for.

Good description and good thought. And I'm not sure whether readers like the blend, would prefer that one thing dominate, or just get confused by the mix.

In fact, if you do have a preference, I'd like to hear about it. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

But meanwhile, there might be a way we could segregate categories through the use of the clickable titles on top of the headlines. I mean the short things that say "Traffic, transit tips"; or "Capital Beltway" or Metro and so on.


Hi Dr. G! Are Metrobuses somehow exempt from stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks in DC? I have almost gotten hit by several recently, with some even honking at me! If cars are required to stop, why aren't Metrobuses?

Of course they're not exempt. And bus operators should be especially responsible about this. But it's not like I see a lot of car drivers showing special concern for crosswalk safety.

Traffic as a whole in the DC region is a problem. I know there are projects to fix certain parts of the traffic, but is anything being done to look at the region as a whole and identify the problems and find solutions. While a small project here or there may help one spot, it is only a small piece of the overall puzzle.

The region's Transportation Planning Board, part of the Council of Governments, does a lot of good work in identifying problems and proposing solutions, but it doesn't have much power to implement them. That's largely up to the individual jurisidictions, even where we clearly have traffic problems that stradle boundaries.

For transit, we have Metro, which in this Momentum long-range plan is trying to carry out its responsibility to take the lead on designing the next generation of transit services. Here again, the Metro board and staff doesn't have the power to carry out such plans on their own. Example: We talk about setting up a system of rapid buses, to travel along corridors where buses have priority, and maybe dedicated lanes. Metro may be able to supply the buses, but the transit authority doesn't control the roads. Setting aside lanes is up to the local jurisdictions and their transportation departments.

Thanks for joining me this week. Stay safe out there, and we'll do this again next Monday.

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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