Dr. Gridlock

Feb 25, 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. There's already quite a variety of questions and comments about local travel issues. As usual, I'll look for ones to start that you might want to respond to.

At various times during the week, I can be a driver, or I can be a pedestrian, so I know what traveling around in this city can be like from both sides. I'm begging pedestrians to pay attention to the traffic signs. When the red hand is flashing "Don't Walk" then please, DON'T WALK. As a driver, I can turn left only on a green light, and if pedestrians walk the entire time the light is green and yellow, then I can never make the turn (the same is true with a right hand turn, but in those cases, I sometimes have the option to turn right on red). Even more aggravating is when pedestrians walk at left turn arrows (e.g., from L Street onto 18th Street), when there never was a walk sign. Who do they think they are? Pedestrians like to complain about drivers who don't pay attention and don't follow the rules, and I know that both of those things are true, but pedestrians have to do so, too. I'm tired of pedestrians acting like they are the virtuous, put-upon commuters among us, and they never commit any wrongs.

I've been listening to travelers' complaints for many years, and can tell you that everyone likes to complain about everyone while asserting the virtue of their own mode of travel.

I don't mean that as a putdown of anybody. But it's something we all should be aware of, because it might help us get through sone of the everyday, low-grade tensions in travel.

All these complaints about pedestrian behavior are fair. I do a lot of walking and know it's all true, including the complain about the turn from L Street onto 18th. I do think walkers should be more considerate of the drivers who are patient about making turns and reward them by not walking after the walk sign has changed.

My general observation is that many travelers will do anything they think they can get away with: Walk against a light, turn right on red without stopping, pedal through an intersection against a red light.

Most of this behavior does not result in crashes, but that doesn't make it safe.

What can be done about cars parked in the right lane on Massachusetts Avenue in morning rush hour? Traffic has been horrible from Ward Circle to Wisconsin Avenue consistently for the past three weeks and every morning there is at least one parked car undoubtedly causing the problem. Occasionally, there is a ticket on these cars but usually nothing. Is there a number we can call? I'd like to see a tow truck waiting there to tow no later than 7:15. Thanks!

I'd call 311 in DC, the city's complaint line. What I think should happen is that the District Department of Transportation would send out a traffic control officer, and maybe get a tow truck. 

This wouldn't be a permanent solution, since there aren't enough traffic officers and tow trucks to go around for all the spots wehre people park illegally at rush hour. But even a demonstration of authority might be useful.

Well, in the end, it looks like we will still have a gas tax of some sort. Originally, the Governor wanted to eliminate the gas tax but we'll have a gas tax plus a small increase in the sales tax, an increase in the vehicle sales tax, a $100 hybrid fee and a larger share of sales tax revenue into transportation and who can forget the two regional (NOVA and Hampton Road) plans. How soon will we all see results (ie, potholes filled up on roads, extra lanes to drive on highway etc.) from this plan?

On Saturday, the Virginia General Assembly did something really remarkable. It acknowledged that if the state wants to fix something, it has to pay for it. I hope other states, like Maryland, will follow Virginia's lead on that.

Virginia has been experiencing a problem that's getting more common nationwide: Transportation departments seeing that they're running out of money to maintain transportation assets like roads, bridges and tunnels, and shifting money away from improvements into maintenance.

That works for a little while, then you start to run out of money for maintenance.

By not facing reality, Virginia was digging itself a deeper and deeper hole for the future. (One of the handful of things that was getting dug.)

It will take a while to climb back out of that. Also, people who care about getting around are going to have to pay attention to what the money is spent on. The transportation infrastucture needs to be improved -- and it looks now like that will happen -- but infrastucture improvement and congestion relief are not exactly the same thing. You can improve infrastucture without relieving congestion or improving people's mobility.

When's the traffic map supposed to be back on-line? I had expected it to be down for something like a week, but it appears down long-term. Can someone put the old one back until the upgrades are closer to final?

I don't know when we'll be able to bring back the traffic map. The Post is looking at options. The old map was difficult to use, and not useful to a great many people. I hope we can develop a new map that will be more user-friendly.

Specific suggestions on the types of live traffic and transit information you would use would be most helpful. You can send them to me at drgridlock@washpost.com and I'll pass them along.

I always ask people what traffic and transit information they consult before leaving home or office. Most people tell me they just go. If a problem develops, they start to look for information.

can you tell me (an out of towner) if the 11th st bridge ramp to 295 north is open or does one still take the Pennsylvania ave. bridge (the goal being to get to Baltimore without going through the District via New York Ave).

I'll send that e-mail, but in case there are any others who want to know: Yes, the ramp from the outbound 11th Street Bridge to DC 295 North opened late last year. The whole reconstruction -- creating three new bridge spans -- isn't done yet, but those new ramps so critical to through travelers are open: Both the inbound and outbound ramps that mean through travelers don't have to do loop arounds or get off the freeways to get across the Anacostia River.

Dr. Gridlock, thanks for this service you provide weekly to readers, along with your excellent blog! My husband and I are contemplating purchasing a home, and the best neighborhood we can come up with to meet our budget works well on every factor except his commute. He would be driving from a Silver Spring neighborhood near the Beltway to the Worldgate Center in Herndon. Luckily, he can flex his schedule so he could go in early and leave early, but we're trying to get a sense of how to make this workable and what expected commute times might be at different points in the day. Can you help us? Any resources you recommend to estimate commute times?

I think the most obvious route is probably the best: Take the Beltway to the Dulles Toll Road. In the morning rush, I'd leave about an hour and 15 minutes to get from Silver Spring to Herndon.

It's a tough commute, but there's worse around here.

During the morning rush, the outer loop of the Beltway will be bad through Silver Spring, but will lighten after Georgia Avenue. It should be relatively okay most days until he crosses the Legion Bridge and heads toward Tysons. Once he gets on the Dulles Toll Road, he should have a very decent trip.

At the height of the afternoon rush hour, the trip home is likely to be worse. The part of the Beltway he will travel in the afternoon is just awful. It will almost always be slow from the Legion Bridge to Connecticut Avenue. He's really going to hate that. The rush hour trip home is likely to take longer and be more wearing on him than the morning trip to work.

Going in early is a good idea. I'm not sure how much difference leaving early will make -- unless it's so early he can reach the Beltway by about 3 p.m.

Make sure he's actually tested this trip during the week before you sign house papers.

Now, do others have more suggestions about this trip? Alternatives? (We can't have him test the Metro Silver Line yet.)

Any reason why the next train signs present when you enter a station (near the fare card machines, before the fare gates) have different or delayed information from the signs on the platform?

You might see a difference in the mezzanine sign if the next train is real close to the platform. My recollection is that Metro doesn't want people to run for trains.

Any idea when the construction is supposed to be done on 395 near RFK? I understand from my DC United rep that entry to Lot 8 from 395 is now closed. At the end of last season you could still get into the lot but could not exit that way. This si going to cause enormous traffic issue for folks coming from VA.

That portion of the Southeast Freeway near RFK is going to be closed for about a year and a half, and it won't come back as a freeway. The District is raising the roadway and will reopen it as a boulevard, with better connections to the neighborhood.

What that poster wrote is slightly untrue. A person wanting to make a left turn on a green light (from either a one-way or a two-way street) may/should move about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way into the intersection and wait (with signal on, of course), then when the light turns yellow move to the halfway point, and even if it turns red may make the left turn because no one else can move until all traffic clears the intersection (every state has that in in its traffic laws), and the left turn is the traffic waiting to clear the intersection. A large number of people sit at the line waiting for traffic to clear, and then it turns yellow, and they don't move into the intersection and miss their chance to turn. That could theoretically lead one to wait for hours for the chance to turn. In Los Angeles where there are few (believe it or not) left turn signals, one could wait to turn left off Wilshire Blvd forever.

I understand what you're saying about driver behavior, but don't you think the original commenter was making a good point about pedestrians needing to give drivers a chance to make those left turns when the walk sign changes? It's pretty rare to have just one or two drivers interested in making left turns in heavy traffic.

And if a driver gets stuck in the intersection when the light changes, it creates a problem for everyone.

I found the old map very useful, because I wanted to know before leaving work if my Beltway segment was clear. There are plenty of out-bound alternates for me, that I could choose on the fly. But seeing red or green on my portion of the Beltway is something I plan my alternate around before even starting. (What other source do I use -- CHART ON THE WEB, Maryland)

I'd also try TrafficLand.com and a Google Map with the Traffic function turned on.

Are those pricing signs at the beginning of the HOT lanes all you're going to pay, or is it by mile? e.g. if the sign says $1.25, is that all I'm going to pay, or is that times 6 miles?

Drivers are having enough difficulties deciding whether to use the HOT lanes without adding a math problem.

The signs show the toll -- the entire toll -- to three destinations. The last destination is always the end of the HOT lanes. So that's the highest toll you could pay once you're in the lanes.

Since the sign can display no more than three destinations, yours may not be included. But you can get the general idea by looking at the three lines -- especially that last one, since you know you're not going to pay more than that.

I commuted between College Park and Chantilly for a few weeks post college. The drive on the Beltway in the evening is HORRENDOUS. Seriously. If you can get any closer than Silver Spring, do it. Otherwise, I recommend he find a new job (or one that lets him work from home a couple days a week for his own sanity).

And there's no plan I've heard of that would make that evening Beltway commute substantially better. That's a big problem for the region.

I like the thought about telecommuting, not just in this particular case but in general. That's likely to be one of the real solutions to traffic congestion, though it won't be possible for everyone. (Your plumber isn't going to telecommute.)

Dear Dr., At the HOT lane entrances, there's no signs telling anybody where they can get off. That's why I don't use them. Couldn't they tell us where the exits are, with signs?

Are you saying this is a problem because the HOT lanes are new and we need more information about them? If that's the case, I highly recommend the HOT lanes Web site: 495expresslanes.com. There's lots of information about entrances and exits. Videos showing how to use each entrance were added recently, and there are plenty of maps showing both entrances and exits.

Otherwise, I don't see much difference between the HOT lanes and any other highway. I don't recall, for example, seeing a list of all the northbound exits when I get on the regular Beltway lanes at Gallows Road -- or anywhere else in the Interstate highway system.

"You might see a difference in the mezzanine sign if the next train is real close to the platform. My recollection is that Metro doesn't want people to run for trains." I'd rather they were honest with me. I don't want the signs at Greenbelt or College Park to say the train is departing in 2 minutes only to hear the door closing chime as I walk up the stairs.

Yeah, it's a bit Nanny.

23rd and G is full of cocky GW students who enter the crosswalk as the countdown says, "3, 2, 1, 0," yellow light. And that when the first car waiting to turn left is waiting right at the crosswalk line. Rude little buggers.

I walk downtown streets all the time, and I'm not seeing any age restriction on bad behavior while walking or riding.

One possibility for avoiding the Beltway on the trip home from Herndon to Silver Spring: Instead of exiting the Dulles Toll Road onto the Beltway, go to the next exit for Route 123 and take the second ramp (the loop-around towards McLean). Follow 123 all the way to where it ends at Chain Bridge and go across the bridge, make a right at the light, and make the next left onto Arizona Avenue. That takes you up the hill to MacArthur Boulevard and there are then a couple of ways to get across to Silver Spring....easiest one may be to stay straight on Arizona until it ends at Loughboro Road, hang a right, then follow that (it becomes Nebraska Avenue) all the way to Military Road. Make another right, cross Rock Creek Park, and then you can take 16th Street or Georgia Avenue up to Silver Spring. Just watch your speed in the District. This is all a lot easier than it sounds on paper, but the advice to make test runs during the week before moving is the key. Get a hotel room if needed, and make sure to do it at midweek, since Mondays and Fridays often have lighter traffic.

Thanks for this alternative. People should watch their speed everywhere, but I don't believe that that it will be too difficult to control when driving through DC at rush hour.

Commuters -- as they are painfully aware -- are limited by the number of river crossings, so for our Herndon-Silver Spring driver, it's either cross the Legion Bridge or figure out a way through DC via another crossing.

I guess using I-66E and then going up Rock Creek Park to 16th Street would be another option. But I'm worried about sending our traveler into too many traffic lights and crowded intersections to get through the city.

Hey, sorry if this has been addressed before, but I recall your saying a while ago that the double white lines on 66 both entering and leaving the express lanes were intended to discourage lane changes, but not bar them. However I noticed a couple of weeks ago there are now signs saying "Do Not Cross Double Lines" or words to that effect--this in the same color scheme etc. as the HOV warnings. So are they going to be able to ticket us now for that? The lines are, to use a technical term, nutty.

Where you see double white lines, it's illegal to cross, and yes, police could give a driver a ticket for doing that.

I was among those who wanted VDOT to add the signs, but really, people who passed the driver's license test should know the rules about double white lines.

Where can I find links to previous Dr. Gridlock chats?

Here's a short link to the whole set:


I work in Sterling, and many of my co-workers live in MD. I the afternoon, the Toll Road/Beltway intersection (especially going into MD) is very bad. Some of the co-workers take the Springhill Exit off the toll road, then get on Georgetown Pike, and get onto the beltway from there. Good luck with the commute, and obviously, the earlier you can do the commute, the better.

Thanks for the tip. That would cut out some Virginia Beltway traffic.

The part of the homeward trip I think would be the very worst, day after day, is the Beltway inner loop through Bethesda, where it narrows to two lanes.

Anybody think our traveler might save Maryland time by getting off the Beltway at Old Georgetown Road and taking it to East-West Highway into Silver Spring? Or is that just trading one view of tail lights for another?

Then they shouldn't run them 15-20 min apart on weekends.

Wouldn't that be great? I'd be willing to pay higher fares and higher taxes to support extra cost of extended weekend service.

Who's with me?

How is possible to drive off the Memorial Bridge? Even at a substantial speed, to crash through the stone guardrails seems like quite a feat.

That Sunday night incident sure got my attention, too, but I don't have any more than what was in The Post story here:


The problem with the signs VDOT posted on 66 is that they are the same size and pattern as the HOV signs (about the size of a speed limit sign) and easy to miss. There's also only one posted in each stretch, before the double lines start. Can't they make the signs larger and post them more prominently? I still see drivers darting back and forth between the lanes.

Even if those signs were as big as a barn door, drivers would still dart between lanes. The most we can hope for is that better drivers will see the double white lines and know how to behave, limiting the safety problems and congestion in that zone.

I'm concerned that I'll get on the HOT lanes and not be able to get off where I want. The website is very confusing. Can you get off at every normal exit on the beltway, from the express lanes? Can you get back onto the regular lanes, and where?

The access points for the HOT lanes do not always correspond with the access points for the general purpose lanes.

Look at the map on this page:


You will see every entrance and exit on the express lanes. If you click on the names of any of the access points, like Jones Branch Drive, or Interstate 66, you will see a detailed map of the interchange. Click on one of the pointers within that map and you will see a display showing your exact route as you enter or exit. Look also for the link that says "Watch a video of this" to see a driver cam view of how to enter the lanes.


So now I'm going to have to pay an extra $100 EVERY YEAR for driving a car that uses less gasoline? Huh? What to put in an incentive for good behavior. I would still buy the hybrid because it is the car I wanted and I think it is a responsible choice, I'm just flummoxed by the "logic" of this choice. How about keeping the tax on consumption of fuel?

There's a little bit of logic to what Gov. McDonnell was saying in proposing this new fee: Vehicles put similar demands on the roadway no matter what type of fuel they use.

But this tax may be more than what drivers of regular fuel vehicles have been paying in state gas taxes per year. That would be unfair.

What people should know, what they do know, and what they actually do are three distinct things. Very few around here actually know the laws (lights on with wipers?) and even fewer comply.

Yeah, I think you're being overly generous and giving drivers the benefit of the doubt on why they're not obeying the traffic laws.

While I agree as a driver it must be frustrating to not be able to turn right with pedestrians in the way, please try to be a little more understanding. Currently with temperatures in the low-30s, sometimes very strong winds, and the occasional rain/snow, it is tough to walk outside!! I walk close to a mile back and forth from the metro daily, and walking outside in blustery conditions at 6:30am is brutal. You are sitting in a warm car. With the heat cranked, perhaps a seat warmer, and you are not forced to brave the elements. Sorry if I don't especially want to stand outside for an additional 45 seconds when I technically have the right-of-way.

Once the walk sign is off, a person shouldn't be starting across a street. (Not that it would ever be open season on pedestrians under any circumstances. I'm just saying a traffic rule is not a technicality.)

It is a shame that there are such poor bike links from SE into DC. The widening of I-295 presented an opportunity, but there is no link from the path across the Wilson Bridge to Overlook Ave. There are paths through Oxon Hill Farm, but it officially closes at 4:30 p.m. Unless one has access thru Bolling, there's no safe path anyway. Much money was spent on renovating the Douglas Bridge along S. Capital, but the walk/bike path too narrow for a bike to pass anything else.

I noticed in Mayor Gray's Sustainability plan that he wants to put a priority on getting more bike lanes east of the Anacostia.

If I might offer a suggestion in the name of completeness: In addition to noting that the ramp from the 11th Street Bridge to northbound DC-295 is open, it's worth remembering that one CANNOT take the old route of using the SW/SE Freeway to Pennsylvania Avenue to that left turn onto DC-295. That part of the Freeway has been closed. I know Dr. Gridlock knows this, but because the person submitting the question asked "does one still take the Pennsylvania Ave. bridge" I suspect that person does not know.....and when one person doesn't know, odds are someone else doesn't either.

Yes, thank you. This also relates to the earlier question about the RFK route. DDOT has closed the portion of the Southeast Freeway that used to take drivers between the Sousa Bridge (Pennsylvania Avenue) and I-395. This is the part that's being rebuilt into a boulevard over the next year and a half or so.

Thanks for joining me today. Got to go out and walk in traffic now. Please stay safe out there, and join me 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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