Dr. Gridlock

Mar 17, 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.

Happy St. Patrick's Day. Rare to have it coincide with a Snow Day.

I thought the highway crews did a good job with this late-season storm. The main routes were clear early on, and many neighborhood streets have been plowed too.

Anybody had issues getting around? It wasn't our worst storm of the winter, but I thought the feds made a good call to shut down.


Dr. Gridlock, I've noticed during early evening on the Inner Loop that the Braddock Rd. ramp often backs up onto the rightmost travel lane for a 1/2 mile or more. In addition to the safety concerns, it's my perception that this skews the going Express Lane rates. It seems the tolls are higher when that particular exit is logjammed, yet the the Express Lanes begin just before this exit. With such little overlap in roadway, there shouldn't be much impact on tolls. Is this a small but repetitive fleecing of Express Lane drivers?

The tolls in the express lanes rise and fall with the level of traffic in the express lanes. If I understand you right, the backup you're seeing is in the regular lanes of the inner loop.

I've heard arguments about fleecing express lanes users. I don't get that. How can you fleece someone when you tell them the price up front and give them a choice of paying it or driving for free?

If this winter wasn't bad enough why do the snow plows have to put the snow they plow off the streets onto the sidewalks? I can't tell you how many people I have had to dodge while driving around town because the people couldn't use the sidewalks. I think the snow plow drivers need a lesson on how to plow the roads properly.

The skills of plow drivers can vary, but the only place I can think of in the D.C. region where the plows push snow to the the left is the 495 Express Lanes. That's because the shoulder is on the left and the white bollards are to the right, so plowing right would push the snow into the regular travel lanes.

Highway departments recognize they have a problem pushing snow in ways that block cars, driveways and sidewalks.

In fact, the Virginia Department of Transportation urges residents to shovel snow to the right of their driveways, knowing the plow will come along and push snow across the driveway if the resident shovels it to the left.

Not sure there's a cure for this ill, other than continued global warming.

I live in Woodley Park on Connecticut Ave and I'm confronted by speeding bikes on the sidewalk as I walk to/from the metro. This is a huge safety issue since the folks on the bikes are speeding downhill! Not a safe situation at all. What can be done to get bicycles of the sidewalks now and then onto a bike lane on Connecticut Ave? I have contacted my local council member but have not received the courtesy of a reply. Thanks!

I notice several comments in the mailbag today about cycling and city streets. (Can't be based on this morning's experience.)

Here's a link to a map showing D.C.'s Central Business District, where cycling on sidewalks is banned.

Woodley Park is outside that zone. Cyclists may be on the sidewalk because they feel threatened riding on the avenue. But I hear often from pedestrians who feel threatened by cyclists going too fast on sidewalks.

The solution will be different in different neighborhoods. One thing you could try is discussing it with your Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which may focus on the local concern more intensely than a council member.

Making bike lanes available is no guarantee that cyclists will use them. That would be obvious to anyone who walks along L Street NW downtown.

(I'll start by saying) I totally support transportation alternatives such as bicycling, but it seems like cyclists in DC have carte blanche to put their own and others lives in danger by ignoring traffic laws. My understanding is that bicyclists are supposed to follow the rules of the road (including remaining in the road in a specifically-defined downtown area, and not on the sidewalks), but I consistently see bicycle riders flying through red lights and stop signs, going the wrong way on 1-way streets, and nearly mowing down pedestrians on busy sidewalks. Is there any attempt by the DC police to police the cyclists?

This seems like a natural follow-up to the previous comment.

Readers know that I stare at traffic for a living. And I've come to the conclusion that travelers of all sorts obey the traffic laws that they absolutely have to and ignore as many others as they can.

So I don't see cyclists performing any better or worse than any other type of traveler on city streets.

I don't routinely see police stopping cyclists for enforcement. I do see enforcement during periodic sweeps, as during the Street Smart campaigns.

The District government is stepping up its efforts at camera enforcement, but this can only get us so far in traffic safety.

I think you can apply the "broken windows" philosophy to traffic law enforcement. When people see the laws being enforced even in relatively small cases, they take the laws more seriously. When they don't see the laws enforce, they say, "Why do I have to be such a hero?" and decide to ignore the laws themselves.

If you look where those signs are, they are most often in places where a driver may need to be reminded about the law. The one that comes to mind the quickest is Rte 29 southbound coming up the hill into Four Corners. Being a hill a biker will slow down and keeping to the non-existent shoulder is not practical _or_ safe. And what do you think about the King Street Bike Lanes finally being approved?

Here's a link to Patricia Sullivan's story about the Alexandria council approving the King Street bike lanes this weekend.

Pat described a culture clash between cyclists and drivers, something we see regionwide as categories of travelers compete for space.

People see travel as a zero sum game. If somebody else is winning, they must be losing.

We see a similar clash between drivers and transit users over whether a lane on 16th Street NW should be set aside for buses.

But I digress.

I see those "Bikes may use full lane" signs on various roadways in Montgomery County, but it's the ones on Route 29 in Four Corners that are most vivid in my mind. Because I think: Who among cyclists would be brave enough -- or nuts enough -- to ride in the middle of the lane on Route 29?

It can serve as a reminder for motorists, but then why not "Watch for cyclists in lane"?

This is one place I wouldn't mind seeing cyclists on the sidewalks, for their own safety.

(And I don't mean this to let drivers off the hook for jeopardizing cyclists. It's their fault if they hit a bike. But it's the cyclist who takes the consequences.)

I think what the original poster is trying to say is that the regular lanes look clogged at the point where you need to decide whether to take them or not if you are coming from Alexandria. If things look bad you'll take the express lanes only to find that the congestion lightens up just past the first exit. I see this nearly every day commuting from Van Dorn to Bethesda. Some days I take the express lanes but most I don't because I know it usually lightens up past Braddock Road. Now...what are they going to do about the problem of Braddock Road causing backups on the beltway?

I haven't heard of any plans to rebuild the Braddock Road interchange.

I doubt there are many commuters who think the traffic they see just after Springfield is going to stay that way up through Tysons. Most of them do this everyday and know what to look for.


Anyone know how the roads are in Prince George's County/Upper Marlboro area? Is there a good site to find out if side streets were plowed or not?

I think that Prince George's does not have the same type of online snow plow tracking systems that residents of Montgomery County, or the District or the VDOT parts of Northern Virginia can see. But if readers know different, please write in.

How are "delays" measured? If it relates to train frequency, it's clear why the Red Line has so many more announced delays-- trains are more frequent. Essentially, a train only has to be delayed 2 minutes to cause trains behind it to be delayed on the Red Line, where it would have to be delayed 12 minutes to cause another train problems on Blue. An offload, for example, would then be considered a "delay" on Red, but not on Blue.

I can't remember the exact number of minutes that a train must be off schedule before Metro sends out an advisory about a delay.

It's fair that there should be some buffer -- otherwise, we'd get bombarded with e-mails, text alerts and Twitter messages.

I think that what you say of the Red Line -- about an initial delay backing up the line -- is true of all lines at rush hours, because of the train frequencies. It would be especially noticeable where Orange/Blue and Yellow/Green share a tunnel.


Getting to the Key Bridge from eastbound Canal Rd is always a mess because only one lane goes through the Whitehurst Freeway interchange. Are there any plans to try to make this better? Not sure why they don't just have two lanes go through and have the Whitehurst traffic have to wait some along with the M St and Key Bridge traffic. With the cheaters trying to come in from the right at the last minute, the Whitehurst access is often backed up anyways.

That intersection is just a mess and has been for years. I don't know of any plans to modify it. And I think there are plenty of Whtiehurst Freeway drivers who would object to your proposal to have them wait.

You remember the fuss during the Fenty Administration when a proposal was floated to tear down the freeway?

This might be the case, but now there are So Many More on the sidewalk it puts me as a pedestrian Much more at risk. It's becoming increasingly problematic.

It's definitely problematic. I'm not sure it's "increasingly" problematic. You remember the 80s and 90s when the downtown sidewalks were jammed with bicycle messengers. Pedestrians took their lives in their hands just to walk a block.

I understand that OPM, the school districts, and local governments participate in an early morning conference call to decide whether to open or close schools and the government. First question: do you or any of the Dr. Gridlock posse participate in this conference call? Second question: do you know what criteria the participants use to determine whether to close or remain open? Thank.

I get eight hours of solid sleep myself, so I don't participate in the 4 a.m. calls. I have talked several times with Dean Hunter, the OPM exec who leads the calls.

I remember asking him if any type of weather event was more difficult than any other?

"They're all difficult," he said. I think the basic criterion is the decision-making is a judgment about how many people they're likely to put at risk by making the call a certain way.

But that makes it sound too simple. This conference call has participants from local governments, schools, highway departments, the National Weather Service, Metro, other transit agencies, emergency management officials -- and I think I'm forgetting 10 or 20 other interested parties.

They are spread out across the entire D.C. region. A local school district can evaluate conditions in its area, but OPM has to made a decision for all federal workers, even if the weather event may affect different parts of the region differently.

And another part of the decision is based on the timing of the weather. Don't bring people in if you aren't sure they can get home again.

I think this winter's calls have been very good ones.

It's a big problem on Capitol Hill also, especially because we have so many tourists using the rental bikes and some seem not used to biking and don't know where they're going. I would support any candidate for mayor who would ban bikes on sidewalks citywide. It's dangerous.

I think you won't get that from any candidate -- not because they're trying to appease the biking crowd, but because a citywide ban is utterly unenforceable.

I don't like traffic laws designed to make groups feel better, feel like something has been done about a problem. When people see a traffic law can't be enforced, many of them lose respect for traffic laws generally.

My wife ad I spnht last Saturday in Annapolis We parked in a $5 All Day Parking garage, only to learn when we left that you had to pay the $5 by credit card. There was no notice of this at the garage entrance. We have only one credit card which we use for internet travel purchases and the like. We do not typically have it with us for routine purchases, nor did wehave it o Saturday. We caused quite a logjam at the garage exit until the car behind us offered their credit card, and we payed them the $5. I think this is outrageous, a form of false imprisonment. We've written the garage telling them they should post notice of this policy at the entry, but it's too early to have heard back from them.

I haven't had this experiene in Annapolis. Of course, I have had it anytime I park at a Metro lot or garage, where drivers must pay on exit with either a SmarTrip or credit card.

It's a way for the parking operator to save money on personnel costs and, sometimes, eliminate the possibility of cheating on receipts. But very annoying for drivers.

It seems there are more and more and more because of the capital bikeshare and so many of them are rather wobbly and unpredictable ... .

I walk around downtown D.C. very often so I can see how various types of travelers are interacting. (Very discouraging.) And I certainly see the problem with cyclists on sidewalks.

While I haven't kept score, I don't attribute this primarily to Bikeshare riders. I do see an occasional problem with them, but it's usually right around the Bikeshare stations, when they're coming in for a landing.

Just a thought: I think it's also easy for many of us to forget how broad an area, and what a variety of roads, a school district or other such authority must consider. Dr. Gridlock has often noted that we, as commuters, understandably tend to focus on our own routes and on what we observe. If you live in, say, Springfield, the roads you will encounter are very different from the roads in, say, Clifton or Great Falls. The latter are much twistier, more up- and down-hill grades, often with a ditch on the side of the road or minimal space to recover if you mess up. So it's not as simple as looking out your own window and saying, "Gee, it looks pretty good here. Why are they closing?" (I do question certain private employers, notably some of the law firms, who pride themselves on not following what the government does when all the government agencies are asking people to stay off the roads. What makes law firm administrators think they know better, other than their worship of the billable hour?)

Varying geography, varying infrastructure, varying weather.

Remember that horrible night when the Springfield interchange ramps iced over? A slight variation in predicted temperatures, a variation from one community to the next, can create problems.

Forecasting has gotten much better, but we live in a zone where a couple of degrees difference in temperature, or a slight variation in a storm track, can make a huge difference to commuters.

Tough calls, whether its the local school district or OPM. And they can never win. It's either, "Why did you put us at risk by staying open?" Or: "You weenies! Where I come from, this is nothing!"

It's astonishing that someone has a credit card (some people don't have them at all) but doesn't keep it in his wallet. You never know when you will need to pay for something upfront in an emergency (your car breaks down and you need a tow, you need to go to the emergency room, etc. etc.). It probably never occurred to the garage managers that somebody with a car wouldn't have a credit card.

We seem to be on a bubble between old-fashioned cash and the payment systems of the future. Metro is going through this right now, debating whether to continue, increase or eliminate the cash surcharge on bus riders. And then someday, transit managers think, SmarTrip will be a thing of the past. Federal employees may use their federal IDs to go through the fare gates.

You're so right - I wish everyone was courteous and had what my military friends call 'situational awareness' - eg. don't walk five abreast like a wall so that oncoming pedestrians can't get by! I think people are so focussed on getting where they're going so that they don't even see what's in front of them. A while back I was in the metro and saw a guy with a white stick just standing there, hordes of people pouring past him. So I went up and asked if he was ok or if he needed some help - then escorted him to the correct platform.

You're reminding me of the ultimate situational awareness story, written by Gene Weingarten for The Post Magazine. He got Josh Bell to play the violin for a rush hour crowd at L'Enfant Plaza.

Hardly anyone noticed.

(I'll start by saying) I totally support transportation alternatives such as single-passenger automobiles, but it seems like drivers in DC have carte blanche to put their own and others lives in danger by ignoring traffic laws. My understanding is that drivers are supposed to follow the rules of the road (including stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks), but I consistently see drivers flying through red lights and stop signs, going the wrong way on 1-way streets, and nearly mowing down pedestrians on busy crosswalks. Is there any attempt by the DC police to police the drivers?

What I said before works this way, too. Travelers of all sorts obey the traffic laws they think they absolutely, positively have to obey -- and flout the others.

Hi Dr Gridlock, I have noticed that metro has parked a train in the middle track at Regan National Airport. This is to bridge the train platforms. I have noticed that the cars are the 6000 series the newest cars in service. It seem like a waste when they have so many 1000 series cars, the oldest of the fleet. Please comment

I've seen them there, too. It's the "Train Bridge" that Lori Aratani wrote about. They're parked between platforms to reduce the riders'  inconvenience while the elevator is out of service.

Hadn't noticed they were 6000s, though, and am not sure why Metro chose them for the job. (They do look better than those crummy old 1000s and present a better image of Metro to arriving air travelers, but am not sure that had anything to do with the selection.)

Thanks for joining me on a Snow Day. And please come back next Monday, for our first springtime chat.

Stay safe.

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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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