Dr. Gridlock

Mar 10, 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.

Good morning, Doctor. I don't have a question, but with your permission, I'd like to post some of my biggest Metro pet peeves (in no particular order). It's therapeutic, you know! 1. Blocking a turnstile while hunting for your Metro fare card. 2. Standing on the left hand side of the escalator. 3. Being the first to enter a Metro car and then standing right in front of the door, prohibiting other passengers from freely entering the car. 4. Not removing a bulky backpack while on the train and then bumping into people with it. 5. See # 4, but replace backpack with a HUGE women's hand/shoulder bag. Thanks!

I'm sure commenters could endorse many of these and add to them.

My top item is #3, but I'd add to that the riders who stand by the door as it opens and won't budge to let riders out.

How on earth was that a logical article you wrote? Where in the Constitution does it afford individuals a right to park their privately-owned vehicles on publicly-owned city streets? Currently buses carry 50% of the traffic on 16th Street. Surely they deserve at least 50% of the roadway. And with the additional service quality and frequency that dedicated lanes would provide, I can guarantee you that the 50% share would soon be much greater than it is. Have you ever even tried to catch an S-bus during rush hour? Do that for a week and then tell us it's a bad idea. Or that cars carrying one person deserve equal or greater priority than a bus carrying 50-60.

I think the commenter is referring to a "Dear Dr. Gridlock" letter in my Sunday column from a 16th Street NW resident who worries about the prospect of dedicated bus lanes in her section of 16th, near U Street.

I think readers will find that my own experience with the S9 limited stop service has been great. I've also boarded and exited the S Line buses at many places along 16th Street.

I think bus-only lanes have potential on 16th Street, but the views of the adjacent neighborhoods need to be taken into consideration, and  my letter-writer illustrated some of those considerations.

There are things that Metro and DDOT still can try to improve the 16th Street bus service and ease the severe traffic congestion at rush hours. Meanwhile, we need a good estimate on how many more 16th Street commuters would use buses if they got a dedicated lane.


I got an email from PRTC (Prince William County - Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation...) about possible extra security on March 11th. TSA said they've received no direct threat it's purely precautionary. Why? Why haven't I heard anything else on the news? I take public transportation to work. Should I be concerned?

I hadn't noticed this before you pointed it out, and haven't had a chance to check. But the wording sounds similar to advisories posted from time to time by other transit agencies, including Metro. Those other advisories have marked routine training exercises for transit staff and security personnel.

This is the full advisory from PRTC, posted Friday:

PRTC Heightens Security on March 11

PRTC will implement heightened security measures on all buses and at the PRTC Transit Center on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 based on a special recommendation from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA recommendation is not in response to a specific threat but rather a heightened sense of awareness in Mass Transit, Passenger Rail and overall transportation enterprise. 

What does this mean for our passengers?  You may notice bus operators being especially mindful of the surroundings and of any packages and bags that are on or near the buses.  We ask for your assistance by not leaving any personal belongings unattended at bus stops or on board your bus.  In addition, there will be increased security patrols at the PRTC Transit Center.

If you notice unattended property or see something suspicious, please notify your bus operator, local law enforcement, or call 911.  Remember: If you see something, say something!

I sometimes am able to leave work early and get on I-66 Westbound inside the beltway around 3:30. The signs on the ramps say something like, "HOV Violators will be ticketed at 4:00". I know that they have a limited number of characters to display, but the signs seem to imply that anyone non-HOV is a violator, but since the HOV rules don't take effect until 4:00, non-HOV cars are NOT violators at 3:30. Why cant they just say, "HOV Starts at 4:00. Violators will be ticketed" or "HOV 4:00-6:30. Violators will be ticketed"

I don't recall seeing that particular message board, but based on questions from drivers about the HOV rules, I think what VDOT wants everybody to know is that if they don't meet the HOV rules they will be subject to a ticket anywhere in the HOV lanes at any time the HOV rules are in effect.

In other words, it's no good to say you got into the lanes shortly before the rules took effect. You're still subject to a ticket if you're in them anywhere, anytime during HOV hours.

Hi Dr G., There is an intersection in Montgomery County at Bonifant Road and Notley Road. When one is driving Eastbound on Bonifant, Notley Road comes in from the right and T's at Bonifant. There is a traffic light at this intersection. For the eastbound drivers on Bonifant there is a light that controls going through the intersection and continuing on Bonifant. There is a 2nd light that controls turning right onto Notley. There is also a NO RIGHT TURN ON RED sign, so if the turn light is not green you can't turn on to Notley from eastbound Bonifant. This is not a busy intersection, and there is not a lot of pedestrian traffic. There is a clear view of the traffic coming westbound on Bonifant, so there is no problem with visibility of oncoming traffic. Incidentally, there is no left-turn light for the Westbound drivers on Bonifant. I've lived in the area for a long time, and this has been the case since Maryland first allowed right-turn-on-red-after-stop turns 30 some years plus ago. This might not be something you know off the top of your head, but any idea where to find an answer. At this point it is a curiosity for me. I do not turn onto Notley, but I often see a line of cars waiting to make that right hand turn. Any ideas?

I think your neighbors long ago complained that they felt threatened when trying to cross Notley Road.

It is a busy intersection, according to traffic engineers, and many eastbound drivers want to make the right turn onto Notley because it will connect them with New Hampshire Avenue.

So the result is the red arrow, to give the pedestrians a break. And apparently there were enough of them who complained to get this special signal installed.

Sometimes one gets off on the left hand side of the escalator and can't get over to the right hand side. How about standing on the right hand side and then almost getting pushed down the escalator when someone running down bumps into you. One of these days I will fall and then never have to work another day. Have you felt the vibrations from the people stomping on the escalators. I am sure that contributes to the frequent breakdown.

Surely Metro has a "To Do" list of items to be accomplished during these weekends of work. Is it not possible for them to post this list with items accomplished in some format so we can get a sense of progress on the system overall? Many improvements are not very visible or are occuring in areas we don't routinely travel. Seems like it would help their P.R. problem. Even if they can't list things like individual switch replacement, they could say we've completed 10% of scheduled replacements, etc.

I wish Metro did have something like what you're describing. I've seen highway departments do this for big road projects, telling you how they're doing on their costs and their on-time performance with the work.

Metro does list the work being done each weekend on each line. That's a bit different from what you're seeking, which is a progress report, but it does offer riders an explanation of why the line is disrupted.

Each week, I do a blog posting about the upcoming weekend, and I include the information about the work on the lines. You can see an example here.


I think Dr. Gridlock's interpretation of the signs is correct. The principle that "if you are anywhere on the road when HOV starts, you can be ticketed" has not always been the case. The rule used to be that if you were on an HOV facility when HOV began, you had to exit that facility at the first opportunity (on I-66, for example, if you entered from DC via the Roosevelt Bridge and it hit 4:00 PM as you passed the Spout Run area, you had to exit at Glebe Road unless you were going to the airport). You would not be ticketed if you got off at that first exit as long as it was within a reasonably short time after the HOV hours started. This interpretation has changed in the last few years and now they say you can be ticketed anywhere in the HOV facility at any time during the HOV hours. I'm not entirely sure that's appropriate on a facility like inbound I-395 in the morning. You can enter the lanes legally well before the HOV hours end yet get stuck due to a crash or some such. It seems to me VDOT's interpretation of the rule constitutes a de facto extension of the HOV hours because it essentially says, "Don't enter the HOV lanes legally if you cannot reach an exit before the HOV hours begin."

I'll bet this reflects an enforcement problem, don't you think? A trooper pulls over a driver and the driver says, "But I entered before the rules took effect." How can the trooper verify that?

I have to commute from silver spring to old town Alexandria due to a new assignment. What is the best way to go about this? Driving seems like my best bet.

First of all, I'd try both driving and Metrorail to see what works best. It's not just a question of time, but also of what's more comfortable for a particular individual.

Me, I'd do the 45 minute trip on Metrorail to King Street. You'll almost certainly get a seat at Silver Spring.

As I was driving into the city on Saturday I think it finally dawned on me what keeps 66 slow... slow drivers. There was no reason for the slow-down (as always) and as I got closer to the bottleneck there were two cars driving 45 mph. One in the right lane, one in the left. Almost side by side. There were no cars in front of them for maybe 3/4 of a mile or more. Yet there they were driving under the speed limit. No one can say why but them. The backup was long... one must have been going 47 and eventually there was room to pass but it took most of the time between the 267 spur and 110. I guess they are too scared to drive 55?

Recently, I've had several instances where gates for the outdoor parking lots at New Carrollton Metro station have malfunctioned and will not open. There are no longer attendants in the booths since everything is automated. Sometimes both gates malfunction and drivers are "trapped" inside the lot. In one instance, one motorist decided to lift the gate manually, while others "escaped." Other times, the issue seems to get mysteriously resolved after waiting 5 minutes or so. It becomes very confusing and tempers start to flare. What is Metro doing to address this problem?

I haven't heard about this problem at New Carrollton before, so I have no idea what Metro is doing to address it. I do get many complaints about Metro's parking operations, but it's usually about what happens when drivers arrive at the exit gates and don't have a way of paying to get out -- and there's no attendant to help them.

I've said many times that Metro should not be in the parking business. The transit authority obviously has its hands full operating trains and buses. Parking should be done by a parking specialist.

That's a nonanswer. The question read: "Currently buses carry 50% of the traffic on 16th Street. Surely they deserve at least 50% of the roadway." Do you deny this?

Yes. The advantage of buses is that they carry so many riders in so little space. If you expand the space available to them greatly, you've also got to expand the ridership greatly, or it won't ease the congestion.

I've seen nothing so far to suggest that if the road space for buses is greatly expanded, it will be matched by an appropriate expansion in ridership.

Also, the proposal for the bus lanes is about a relatively small segment of 16th Street south of Arkansas Avenue. North of there, all the way up to Silver Spring, there's not enough pavement to allow for a dedicated bus lane.

Just saying I saw the signs today that this race is on for Saturday morning. In previous years, it has stuffed up traffic in DC, so plan accordingly. I was unpleasantly surprised one year. I'm just submitting here, because there might be some folks who read the chat but might miss your blog post this week on it.

Many travelers have had the same experience with this marathon. Anything like this happening on a Saturday turns out far worse for traffic than similar events on Sundays.

I will have a blog posting warning about this.

I tried at three different machines in two stations (L'Enfant and Rosslyn) to procure a $10 SmarTrip card. In both, I tried cash and then various credit cards and at all I finally received an Out of Order message. It would be appropriate for Metro to keep these machines in working order, particularly because it costs a dollar extra per ride if you don't have a SmarTrip,.

Yes, and the Cherry Blossom Festival, with all its tourists, starts March 20.

My daily commute takes me on I-66 between the beltway and US-50. The far left lane is HOV, but any time I use I-66 it seems that the HOV lane moves no faster than the other lanes. Either all of the traffic is moving or it is all crawling along. I can pick 2 or 3 vehicles in the HOV lane and watch them pull forward a bit and then fall behind. Most of the time we all make it to US-50 at the same time. Based on my experience, the HOV-2 makes little or no difference to traffic. Either, then need to change it to HOV-3 or eliminate the HOV restriction all together. I am in favor of eliminating the HOV since that would give people less reason to need to move from the far left HOV lane to the right exits at Nutley, Rt 123 or US-50.

There's nothing about I-66 that works well at rush hours. The HOV lane can move slowly. Whether it's slower than the regular lanes, I'm not sure. In his terrific book, "Traffic," Tom Vanderbilt wrote about the frequent illusion that traffic in other lanes is moving faster.

The bottom line for I-66 is that Virginia needs to throw a bunch of solutions at it. The traffic problem is so big that no one thing is likely to solve it.

I think you're more likely to see the HOV lanes outside the Beltway converted to HOT lanes than you are to see the HOV lanes converted into regular travel lanes.

I am the world's biggest proponent of public transportation, but after 8 years of the Blue line, I bought a car last week (yes, it is electric and efficient, and eco friendly). I just cannot rely on it, anymore, and need transportation to be there for me to get to work on time. It makes me really sad. Things are reaching critical mass for driving, too, though (with a billion new units going in at Potomac Yard and in Tysons), so something needs to give. We really need more tunnels and more trains.

We talk about the Blue Line problem for Virginia commuters all the time. There's no solution in the immediate future. In fact, once the Silver Line starts, the Blue Line trains will be scheduled to operate every 12 minutes, at peak and off-peak.

The solutions being discussed are big, expensive and long-term. One is all eight-car trains throughout the rail system at rush hours. That's not just a question of buying more rail cars. It also means upgrading the power system and opening up more space in rail yards.

The other is a new set of tracks at Rosslyn that would allow trains to bypass the bottleneck.

These things are all in the transit plan known as Metro 2025. Metro officials are running around trying to build support for that among the goverments that finance Metro's capital projects.

I agree that people who block the doors and don't let people out of the train are a big annoyance. I usually say something like "you can get off the train and then get back on" to them. Another is people who stop at the bottom (or top) of an escalator oblivious to all of the people behind them.

You got it. What annoys me so much about the door-blockers' behavior is that it's so easy step out and then step back on. While you're on the platform, you might even notice that there's more room on an adjacent car and move to that one.

Regular commuters know which set of doors will open at which stations, yet some act like they couldn't care less about blocking the doors.

Does Metro have a phone line where people can call with complaints in real time? I can't count the number of times I've entered stations with all the escalators either running only one way or just off, and just in today's column you've heard from people dealing with failing parking gates and card machines. It should be possible to call somebody and say "This is where I am and this is what I see." it would be comparable to the D.C. 311 line, or the non-emergency lines in other jurisdictions.

You can call Metro's customer service line in real time, but I think it's very unlikely you'll get a real time solution that way. (The number is 202-637-1328. It's the Metro equivalent of 311.)

I've noticed that some Metrorail customers have luck when they send a Tweet to @Metrorailinfo.


The big problem with I-66 is that it has too many entrances. The original intent of I-66 was to connect downtown D.C. with the Beltway, but in some ways it serves as a local street for Arlington residents. Maybe all the on-ramps between Arlington and I-495 should be closed, primarily outbound, but maybe even in both directions.

I see what you mean, but I think denying Arlingtonians access to the highway isn't going to fly. And it's not unusual for an urban Interstate to become the de facto Main Street for communities along the way.

I-66 needs solutions inside the Beltway as much as outside. But you're more likely to notice the plan to allow buses to use shoulders and other efforts to promote bus use on the inside the Beltway part.

My pet peeve is Metro Bus Drivers who leave their tails hanging out in the otherwise free lane of traffic -- even when they have plenty of space to pull up into the bus stop.

I was thinking of this as part of our discussion of buses on 16th Street. One of the problems with simply putting more buses on 16th Street is that they start to contribute to the traffic congestion, as they pull into and out of their stops and hold up other traffic.

The following constantly break down at Metro: Wheels, Brakes, Doors, Radios, Air Conditioners, Heaters, rails, rail ties, escalators, elevators, faregates, fare machines, parking lot gates, PID Displays, just to name a few. What entities at Metro do not break at an embarrassing rate?

Transit officials -- here and elsewhere -- always tell me that the ideal transit system is the one that doesn't move. (And I know some here would say that Metro is approaching perfection.)

I think it's fair to recognize that it's not as simple as just designating a bus lane. Unless you construct a fully separate lane, such as the one now under construction near Potomac Yard in Alexandria, you're going to have enforcement issues. The question is how to designate a bus lane without so severely constricting other traffic on the road that the bus lane breaks down due to people violating it. This is why the bus lanes near Verizon Center on 7th and 9th Streets are always clogged with non-bus traffic, for example.

I think enhanced bus service is the thing most likely to improve commuting in the lifetime of today's commuters, so it's frustrating to see the agonizingly slow progress of bus service upgrades regionwide.

But as you note, this is not at all simple. And I've been trying to illustrate some of those complications by writing about the proposals in D.C. and Montgomery County to create dedicated bus lanes out of existing lanes on major commuter routes.

There are major engineering and political issues to overcome.

I've run into more than one person confused at Farragut North by the silly sign that points to "Washington Square," rather than simply "L Street". Particularly given that Washington Circle is near Foggy Bottom, it's confusing. Washington Square is the little-known name of an office building at the L St Sentrance. Why should it be listed on the new Metro signs?

I've seen improvements in Metro's wayfinding signs lately. That doesn't sound like one of them.

is 11 years too late. We need a Beltway line, another tunnel under the river and third and fourth tracks for express trains. And we need them now.

The idea of a Beltway line has been around for years, but I don't see that happening. In some ways, it's the path of least resistance, but it's still incredibly expensive.

Still expensive, but probably more cost-effective would be an extra Potomac crossing, an extra tunnel through downtown D.C., and a bypass track at Rosslyn.

Tourists/Tourist Season.

Are you aware of any enforcement efforts to cut down on aggressive and reckless driving, including wild lane changes and tailgating? I actually find D.C. drivers to be fairly polite in some ways -- usually great at letting people merge for example -- but the number of slightly aggressive to truly dangerous drivers out there is alarming. I'd love to see fleets of unmarked patrol cars roving our highways and arteries specifically targeting not speeders but these otherwise dangerous drivers. Does that ever happen? [I also would love to see a reality Cops-style show where someone drives around in a van with cameras mounted everywhere documenting these drivers.]

Fleets of unmarked patrol cars roving our highways? No, that never happens. And I'll bet most people wouldn't want a police force that large -- both for the expense and for the police state issues it would raise.

You're quite right to be frustrated by the aggressive driving you see. The District is expanding its use of enforcement cameras to capture more offenders, but it will be interesting to see whether this proves popular with travelers.

To add to the list. SmarTrip user who waits until the turnstile closes behind the previous person. Then he stares at the little screen. Then she taps her card. Then he stares at the screen as the turnstiles open. Then she goes through. While the rest of us bunch up behind and then are able to efficiently get through by using the Tap and Go method; the turnstiles will stay open and the screen will record your transaction. Keep moving, people!

I know it's a tiny thing in the cosmic scheme, but I also feel myself getting annoyed by slow movement through the fare gates. Some people see it as a great place to start a conversation.

But I also think that we need an upgrade in the fare gate system. There are too many delays and other problems with the card readers.

Not a question but a follow-up I think that - and have heard that - the reason that right turns are prohibited is to make it inconvenient for people to drive through the neighborhood at high speed rather than continuing to New Hampshire Ave. There are virtually no pedestrians there (no sidewalks either) though there are some deeper in the neighborhood, including kids walking to school. Frankly, now that the ICC is done, New Hampshire is not that bad but I would not mind seeing the right turn prohibition turned off in the middle of the night, for example. Fortunately, I only drive by here once in a while and do not use the route for commuting.

Speaking of the S9, have you noticed that the southbound ones say "Franklin Square" on the destination sign but the recorded voice when the doors open says "Destination: McPherson Square"? Franklin Square is definitely a more accurate description of where the buses end up!

how about strollers that block doors? But of course they are sacred cows.

I'm with you on this as an annoyance, but what to do? The stroller won't make it to the interior of a crowded car -- and you wouldn't want people to try.

Doc, I know you say that the NextBus app is improving, but I'm here to tell you that it's not. (I use a 3rd party app on my smartphone (Next Bus DC) which uses the information directly from the Metro system to update). This morning I waited 30 minutes for the L8 bus, with NextBus constantly refreshing. This was after 9 am when traffic was very light on Connecticut Avenue southbound, and yet the information kept getting longer wait times. I just barely made my appointment this morning but there was an hour break between buses according to the app. And this is a typical experience. In fact, it's gotten to the point that my fellow riders joke every morning that we're in a Twilight Zone world and where we wish we were living on NextBus time because we'd all still look like we're in our 30s. Isn't the point of the NextBus service to let people plan their commutes better? Why can't they add in real time information from some stops where the usual delays add in?

I don't say NextBus is improving. I say Metro officials say they've improved the GPS signals from the buses so they refresh more frequently.

I've always been very hopeful about the NextBus system as a way of making it easier for many more people to use buses, but there have been accuracy problems since the system was created.

I think I'd prefer a system that just told me where the buses are right now, rather than predicting when they're going to arrive at my stop.

I use a SmarTrip and routinely slow at the turnstile. I've had too many times when the reader does not recognize my card and I've gone through while the gates are open only to have a problem exiting the station (and the station managers are not so helpful). Therefore, I will slow and wait until I can verify my card has been read. I hate doing so but the hardware (or software) has just problems I must do so.

I've also had this sort of problem, and I feel like lately, there have been many more times when the reader has told me to tap the card again. And again.

Drive unless you can walk from the King Street Metro to your office. The King Street shuttle doesn't early in the morning and the timing of the metro and the DASH busses is a pain in the neck.

It used to be if you got in the wrong lane (right hand turn only when you wanted to go left for example) you gritted your teeth, made the turn and then turned around to go in the desired direction. Now people hold up an entire line waiting for someone to let them into the line they want.

I think some drivers would see this and say, Well, it's not my fault the traffic congestion is so bad and can't afford to go around.

I wouldn't buy that explanation. Just do the right thing. Turn right and come back around.

There's always bikeshare. I wonder how much of our traffic problems could be solved by improving bicycle infrastructure. Google maps says a bike ride from Rosslyn to McPherson Sq metro should take less than half an hour.

Bikeshare is a good option for many in the urban core, and I love the way the stations are being expanded to outer areas.

I support the expansion of bike lanes, too. But I can't say this is going to solve the big problems on the Blue Line, or the other transit capacity issues we've been discussing. Not for the generation of commuters reading this, anyway.

Any new word on when the Silver line will open? Will it be this year?

It will be this year. No date announced. My guess -- and it's just a guess: May/June.

Thanks for joining me today. I know there are many more questions and comments in the mailbag, but I need to break away now. I will try to post some things you've said today on the Dr. Gridlock blog, including some of the unpublished comments you made on today's bigger themes, like the Metro pet peeves.

I'll be back with you here next Monday, St. Patrick's Day. 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 his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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