Dr. Gridlock

Mar 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. Stay in touch with the Capital Weather Gang's forecasts on how the mid-week storm could affect commuting. But for now, I see a bunch of questions and comments about some immediate concerns.

It's a great idea for people to scope out the walking routes that would be alternatives to their metro commutes -- hurray for you and the reader who suggested it -- but what about bus alternatives?Once in your column you mentioned that a bus route -- maybe the A1 or B1--closely follows the Orange Line route. I think it would be great if you could run the alternative buses for all the Metro lines. Thanks for yr. great work --Lady Fairfax

This is a great idea, and I'll do it. The commenter is referring to recent discussions in my columns about long-distance walking commutes, particularly across the Potomac bridges.  (By the way, I'd also like to hear from long-distance walkers who travel across the District, or between DC and the Maryland suburbs.)

Several travelers have described routes they use as emergency routes -- for times when Metro is in a crisis, for example.

I think the bus route the commenter is referring to is the 38B, sometimes referred to as "the Orange Line with a view" because it parallels part of the Orange Line route through Arlington and over to Farragut Square.  Here's a short link to the timetable: http://bit.ly/jkY51L

In Metro emergencies, it's valuable to know the bus alternatives, but also to know the bus limitations. If people come pouring out of a Metrorail station and look for buses, the buses are going to be overwhelmed. Also, there's no way a bus matches the speed of the train, particularly getting through downtown traffic at rush hour.

Would anyone like to suggest a bus alternative like the 38B, even for times when there's no rail emergency?

Dr. Gridlock, When the HOT lanes on 495 opened and people were backing out of them to avoid paying the tolls inadvertently, you said in no uncertain terms that those drivers ought to lose their licenses for putting others at risk. What about a similar condemnation for those who take it upon themselves to "self-evacuate" from Metrorail trains? WMATA says some passengers on the Green Line recently self-evacuated after a mere 15 minutes, compounding the delays that occurred as a result of the accidental power shut off under the Anacostia River. Had all the passengers stayed on the trains, I believe that this incident, while still inconvenient due to the single tracking that was taking place due to the smoking insulator, would have not been nearly as major. Walking along railroad tracks (Metrorail's or others) is dangerous and should only be attempted by those qualified to do so. One of the first rules of railroading is that a train can come on any track at any time from any direction. Being stuck on a train for 15 minutes is not an emergency that warrants self evacuation. I've been stuck on trains in between stations in Chicago and New York for 30-40 minutes and no one tried to get off the train. WMATA might have a credibility issue with some riders, but those riders need to give the agency a chance to show improvement before taking matters in to their own hands. WMATA's report indicated that the self-evacuating passengers taking matters in to their own hands complicated the recovery effort a few weeks ago. It should be made clear in no uncertain terms that self-evacuation complicates service resumption, and instead of familiarizing themselves with how to self-evacuate as the irresponsible Unsuck DC Metro blog advises, passengers should instead familiarize themselves with bus alternates to get around the most severe of delays and understand that shuttle buses can't materialize out of nowhere during rush hour following unexpected delays.

First, I'd think long and hard about getting off a train and entering a darkened tunnel. I'd also be thinking about the fact that emergency responders are going to have to find me and the others, possibly endangering the lives of the emergency responders because they don't know how many people they're looking for in the tunnel or where they might be.

That said, I'm not in a position to condemn what the riders did that night. The only thing I feel comfortable doing is pointing out the dangers they set themselves up for and urge other riders to study the situation in case they ever have the misfortune to be in a similar one.

The HOT lanes case is more obvious. Anyone who got a driver's license knows better than to back up on a highway. The consequences of continuing on in the HOT lanes are minimal. You'll be slightly inconvenienced and could wind up paying a toll of about 35 cents.

Someone stuck underground in train with no information is in a very different spot. The transit authority has a responsibility to communicate with such people immediately and effectively. Riders didn't have to get a license to board a train, and certainly had no training in how to handle an emergency.

The Twinbrook Metro parking garage has had no construction activity in the recent months and looks all but complete. When will they officially open the garage for drivers?

I'll check. I haven't heard a date for opening the garage.

Why has Metro stopped posting bus schedules? I needed to take the H2/4 bus from Tenleytown yesterday (the start of the route). There was a small amount of bus information at the stop, but not the timetable, so instead of knowing it would be a 20 minute wait and I could grab a cup of coffee and stay warm, I had to stand at the stop so I did not risk missing the bus (and bus service is pretty limited on Sunday, so missing a bus is no small issue). There's plenty of space at the stop for the full schedule, and it has been there in the past. As usual, my complaint about this to Metro gets no response (just the automated 'we have received your email'). It seems that Metro often gets criticized for not communicating with customers enough, so why CHOOSE to reduce customer communication?

I'm not aware of any Metro policy that would result in removal of timetables from bus stops. It was a good idea to contact Metro's customer service on that. Most often, you'll get back an e-mail that acknowledges your message was received, followed later by a message from a staffer in a position to respond to the problem.

(People who use the system don't always feel satisfied with the response to their concern, but that's a separate issue from not getting a response at all.)

The H2, H4 is one of those crosstown lines that can get all messed up in DC traffic, weekdays or weekends. So the comment reminds me to ask everyone: Are you using the Next Bus information system, and if so, are you getting accurate information on bus arrivals?

Monday mornings are usually my most "crowded" commute, but this morning was more like a typical Friday (South on the GW Parkway to 14th Street Bridge to SE/SW Freeway). My friends think it was because everyone is already in storm panic about Snowquester.

Traffic was relatively light this morning, and also in Friday morning -- based on my observations of traffic maps and cameras between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m.

This morning, it looked to me like GW Parkway to around the 14th Street Bridge was one of the heavier areas. The morning bottlenecks usually occur in the same places. Mondays and Fridays -- statistically, at least -- tend to be the lightest days of the week, with some folks on Tuesday-Saturday shifts and others on Sunday-Thursday shifts, and some taking three-day weekends.

I don't know of any special circumstance affecting last Friday or this morning, but I do think traffic was rather light.

Hi Dr. G. Has anyone out there ever walked from DC into VA over the Chain Bridge and onto North Glebe Rd? A few months ago, the Post had an article about two commuters who bike into DC and back every day along that route. I am wondering about pedestrians taking that route, and whether it's safe/feasible. Thanks!

For all, I think Tom Jackman's State of NoVa article is what the commenter is referring to:


I don't recall ever hearing from pedestrians who used that route, and also don't recall ever seeing a pedestrian walking along Glebe Road in that area. I'd be very reluctant to do that, for safety reasons.

My answers: Yes; and Heck no! Ghost buses are everywhere in the city. The H2/H4 routes are particularly guilty of this. Metro, for pity's sake, fix the Next Bus system!!!!!

This is vexing, partly because the system has had such problems from the beginning and partly because a real-time arrival system has the potential to make bus travel so much more popular and convenient.

Does Metro have a policy governing charity solicitors in Metro stations? In recent weeks, a team has been staking out the large, circular space at the north end of the Friendship Heights station, and they're pretty aggressive about stopping people and making their sales pitch.

Tell the station manager or call Metro police at 202-962-2121.

I've encountered some pretty aggressive pitches at station entrances and aboard trains. I guess also a few friendlier pitches for fare money "to get home" on platforms. Metro can't catch up with all that, but managers and police should be able to help.

Dr. G, work on the Silver Line is definitely ongong- but I have seen little, ok, no activity anywhere towards Dulles Airport. Did I miss something where the extension to Dulles was cancelled? I feel like we'd be seeing construction activity somewhere out there as they at least start to prep areas for work- but I see nothing.

I'm not aware of any construction underway on Phase 2, west of Wiehle Avenue and out to Route 772 in Loudoun. But Phase 2 is still on. Should take about five years to complete.

I don't know if this would qualify as "long distance" but I walk three miles to work every morning. It takes about an hour but I find it is a great way to start my day (except on days like today - I'm still cold!). The bus typically takes 30-45 minutes and is usually packed and unpleasant. When i walk, I know exactly how long it takes from door to door, I can switch up my scenery if I want to, and it's a good way to get my minimum exercise dose. The walk home, up a long hill, is usually much less appealing!

Thanks, and I do think three miles qualifies as a long-distance walking commute. I know that's subjective. If I'm out on a trail, three miles is just getting started. But when walking along city streets, three miles is more challenging and can be more stressful.

In the recent columns, we've been talking not only about routes, but also about safety issues.

And I hope that doesn't discourage anyone from trying long walks to and from work. The commenter reminded me that I developed some of my walking routes as I saw crowded buses going by. The walk is so much nicer -- even in a brisk wind, like we had this morning.

Why is it that fare gates are breaking down at a high rate? I swear the stuff that breaks down on Metro gets more ridiculous by the day

I haven't noticed them breaking down any more or less than usual. (How about the rest of you?)

There was that time period when Metro was upgrading the software behind SmarTrip when there seemed to be lots of problems, but that's been resolved for a while.

It's really annoying to encounter gates out of service at rush hour.

Is to require their drivers to carry a phone linked to GPS. I've seen smartphone apps that (voluntarily) track drivers to map traffic congestion. You log into the app, and you can see where the bus is.

The Metrobuses do have GPS locating equipment. It's part of the Next Bus system. There are occasional problems with that, but I think the overall technology is not up to the job. Even when the GPS unit is working, the bus location information is fed through a computer that makes predictions about arrival times, partly based on the schedule.

I think that's part of the problem behind the ghost buses. But also, it means that any unexpected thing, even something like a long line of boarding passengers, or a disabled rider who needs a little extra time, is going to throw off the computer's prediction.

I have an easy commute between Court House and Foggy Bottom. I'll take the 38B in the morning if it is at the Court House station when I arrive but won't wait for it. The same goes for the afternoon at the 22nd & PA Ave bus stop. In both cases the bus and the Metro take the same time. Now a question for you. Is there any estimate of when the Metro will return to automatic service. I've had some really bad operators lately who have no ability to stop the train smoothly. Thanks

Yeah, I had one challenged train operator last week. Just about the same experience at each station. Thought about getting off and waiting for the next train.

No, there's been no announcement from Metro management -- not so much as a prediction or rough guess -- about when the trains might return to automated control, something that was suspended after the June 2009 Red Line crash, so it's coming up on four years.

Can you get an answer from Metro as to when the fare gates at PG Plaza, which have been broken for over week, will be repaired. Customers have to wait to enter or exit there, or ont he other end of their trip, because only one gate is working.

Yes, I'll ask about that.

Having completed Metro emergency training as part of my Community Emergency Response Team, I would strongly urge that no rider ever exit a Metro train that is on a track unless the car you are in is actually on fire! The tracks are that dangerous.

The tracks are extremely dangerous. I also took emergency training a few years ago. It just reinforced my believe that the train tunnel is an unsafe environment for pedestrians.

Any idea how long the Pennsylvania Ave exit from DC 695 (or SE/SW Freeway) is going to be closed? I use the little-known RFK left hand exit but I can no longer access it because the ramp to Pennsylavia Ave SE is closed. I live near RFK and it appears I must exit at 6th Street SE or I'm going to end up across the river?

Closed at least through this soccer season, but I'll probably be able to get an update later today.

I would rather know where a bus is. I can guess how long it will take to reach me.

Not a bad idea. Give up on the forecasting. Just locate the buses along the line.

Travelers, Mark Berman, our producer, and I have to break away now. I've still got a bunch of comments in the mail bag, including some that were responses to my questions. So I'll look to post some of those comments on the Dr. Gridlock blog in the next day or so.

Thanks for joining me. I always look forward to getting the week started this way. Stay safe, especial with this Tuesday-Wednesday storm, 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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