Dr. Gridlock

Mar 18, 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. Looks like quite a variety of things on your minds today. Let's start with a traffic question.

Dear Dr. Gridlock. In recent weeks, Northbound traffic from I-295 from MD and VA has come to a screetching halt at the 11th Street bridge. The bridge project has created a bottleneck that backs up traffic up to - in some cases the exit for the Naval Research Lab. It doesn't appear to be getting better and I can't understand how the bottleneck will resolve after the project has been completed. What are the plans and timeline for this project to be completed? Also - news radio is often wrong about I-295 trafic reporting. I listen to several outlets and then often have to guess - and even then, I guess wrongly. I live 13 miles from DC and it often takes 100 minutes or more during the morning rush. Your help is appreciated.

The source of the traffic backup appears to be on the new inbound freeway span of the 11th Street Bridge.  The two lanes heading onto the span from northbound I-295 are in fine position to continue toward Capitol Hill, I-395 and the 14th Street Bridge.

But many drivers entering from southbound DC 295 have to move over to the left two lanes if they're heading for the same places.

This is going to be that way all year. When some demolition and reconstruction on the Capitol Hill side of the bridge is done, a third through lane will open up on the inbound bridge span. That should drastically reduce the amount of weaving on the span.

The other day I was leaving work and making a decision on whether to hop on a northbound P6 bus on M St SE or walk to the Navy Yard Metro station and get on the Green Line. NextBus (I checked both an app and the WMATA website) showed the next P6 coming in about 30 minutes, so it was a no-brainer to make the half mile walk to the Metro. At least that's what I thought, until I saw two P6 buses pass by over the course of my seven-minute walk to the Metro station. What's the deal with NextBus? How can there be so many phantom buses that don't show up in the arrivals?

This has been a problem for years, since the system was first introduced. The buses have GPS units that transmit their locations to a computer and the computer makes the calculation about when the bus will arrive at a particular stop. Many things about driving through DC traffic can thwart that calculation.

During a recent discussion of this problem, a reader suggested that Metro just tell us where the buses are and let riders make the calculations about arrival time.

I think there would be some real advantages to that. In fact, I wish the Metrorail platform signs could be replaced with information about the actual location of the trains rather than computer calculations about when they will arrive.


How many Metro employees does it take to replace a lightbulb? Several lights have been out on the Ballston platform for many weeks. I have reported the issue twice. But it seems like the station manager's job should be to, well, manage the station. He or she should even be able to see most of the platform without even having to go down there. Why does it take Metro so long to do even the simplest task?

That's a bad show. And I agree with you that it should be part of the station manager's job. (Did you report it to the station manager, or to the Metro customer service center? I'd try both those routes.)

And I guess from the available information, we don't know whether the station manager actually did report it. Could be that the manager reported it, but nothing has happened yet.

Dr. Gridlock -- I would like to make a plea to pedestrians at intersections. Please, please, please stop standing in the street when you are waiting to cross. It is dangerous. Cars and bikes need to use that street in order to turn safely. Thanks.

From the description, I can't tell whether the pedestrians were just impatient to cross at the first opportunity, or had stepped into the intersection with the understanding that drivers must yield to pedestrians in intersections.

We talk about these rules a lot. Drivers don't have to stop when they see pedestrians standing on curbs, maybe thinking about crossing at some point. But they must yield to pedestrians who have entered the intersection where they have the right of way.

I was unable to get across town, East to West, for a Spanish class Sat AM because of this for-profit road race. It effectively shut down most of the city west of the park for the better part of the day. The city needs to rethink the cost/benefits of these things that cost the rest of us time and money. Next time, they should plan a route west of the park. See how long that lasts.

Any time we have a major event like that on a Saturday, it's a traffic congestion problem. The Sunday ones -- like the Marine Corps Marathon -- don't seem to cause nearly as much disruption.

I read somewhere that as part of the Beltway Express Lanes contract with Flour/Transurban, that VDOT agreed to not complete any widening or major improvements to the beltway for the length of the contract, 75 years. Was a similar contract signed for the I-95 Express Lanes project? Are drivers along the I-95 corridor expected to deal witha 3-lane roadway between DC and Fredericksburg for the next 75 years? Even conservative growth would suggest that I-95 would need to be widened at least once in the next 75 years to accomodate natural population increase in the region. Can VDOT build a paralell highway to I-95 or widen/upgrade route 1 to keep up with growth in Fairfax, Prince William, and Stafford Counties?

I do not believe that is part of the contract, either for the Beltway HOT lanes or the I-95 HOT lanes. Very early in the history of express toll lanes, there was a non-compete clause in a contract. I think this was on the West Coast. People howled about that. Rightly so.

I do not believe Virginia repeated that mistake.

Meanwhile, I make this not-very-bold prediction: Virginia is not going to build a new highway parallel to any highway -- not to the Beltway, not to I-95, not to Route 1. The state can't afford to do that. And I've not met a planner who thinks parallel highways would be wise investments.

When Virginia adds miles of new lanes, it will probably be through traffic management techniques like the HOT lanes. The state also will go for traffic management systems, like the electronic lane controls and information signs that will be installed on I-66.


What can we do about pedestrians who ignore the flashing red, don't start crossing, signal ? Turning vehicles get stuck waiting, making congestion even worse in our area. Are these pedestrians selfish, oblivious or what ?

Pedestrians are selfish and oblivious. Just like drivers.

Pedestrians shouldn't start to cross intersections when the red hand starts to flash. But really, is there a pedestrian amonst us today who considers that "aggressive" behavior?

I do think pedestrians should be aware that drivers need a chance to turn at crowded intersections, and the best chance to do that usually comes when the "Walk" sign ends and the red hand or "Don't Walk" starts flashing.

But a little enforcement -- warnings and information, rather than tickets unless someone is being a real jerk -- would help a lot.

What happens when BL trains come every 12 minutes, and an inevitable door malfunction caused by the intense overcrowding requires offloads at Arlington Cemetary? Trains are already packed to the gills by Rosslyn in the afternoon, so it could take more than an hour to get back on a train post-offload in that (certain) circumstance. There's no option there to, as Metro recommends, use the Yellow Line instead. What do they suggest we do?

We're talking about the fact that when the Silver Line starts service, probably at the end of this year, the gap between Blue Line trains will be 12 minutes, at peak as well as off-peak.

This will add to the current difficulties Blue Line riders are having. I think it doesn't take a "what if" scenario to see that.

In the short term, I'd like to see more eight-car trains on the Blue Line. Longer term, I like Metro's idea about building a bypass track at Rosslyn, or a separate station, that would allow more Blue Line trains to run. But there's no proposal yet to finance such a reconstruction.

Dr G., this morning at NoMa-NY Ave the only fare gate working for exiting was the one designed for handicapped people. So of course there was a large crowd, no order, and people cutting in. Routinely at this station there are only 2 fare gates working to exit the station. Why does metro install all these fare gates and then not use them? And no, all the other ones were not in use for entry. This has become an extremely busy station with ATF, DoJ, and other large groups of workers in the immediate area. It would be great if metro could not only utilize all the fare gates, but also analyze the area and realize a lot more people are exiting rather then entering this station during morning rush.

Metro does have that kind of data on station entries and exits. As with a previous comment early in the chat, this could be a question of station management, but it's a bit hard to tell just from this how much communication there is between the station manager and Metro operations, and what the result of that communication is.

I'll stop walking into an intersection with a flashing no walk signal when drivers stop driving through the crosswalk for the first 10 seconds of the Walk signal when I'm crossing (WMATA Bus Drivers, I'm talking to you).

Hi. Thanks for taking my question. Do you know Metro's reason(s) for replacing the older plexiglass-enclosed bus shelters (to provide protection from the elements from the top, back, and sides) with shelters that have vented panels? With the new panels, the wind and/or wet weather easily come through. So, in essence, these new structures are not really shelters at all.

I'm posting this in case a reader is more familiar with the scenario than I am. I haven't seen a bus shelter replaced in this manner. And a more usual topic is how much we'd like to have any short of shelter at bus stops.

I noticed twice last week at McPherson Square headed for Virginia that the first train into the station was an eight car Blue Line train. I view this as a waste of resources. Generally, the Blue Line trains, even under Rush Plus, have plenty of seats. I noticed that the seventh and eight cars were virtually empty.

That should be the first Blue Line train after the 12-minute gap between Blue Line trains. I don't believe this is a waste at all, and I feel sure that people who board the Blue Line between McPherson Square and Rosslyn during the afternoon rush will back me up on that.

The Blue Line will need more eight-car trains during Rush Plus times.

Once again, Dr. Gridlock, you better check with DC police, at least, before saying drivers don't have to yield to pedestrians waiting on the curb at a crosswalk. The officers will tell you different: They consider pedestrians waiting on the curb to be "in the crosswalk." I attend meetings of my local PSA and have asked this question, specifically, several times. (And, practically speaking, since we can't see oncoming traffic from the curb due to parked cars, we tend to stand in the parking lane, which is absolutely, definitely, IN THE CROSSWALK.)

They would be wrong about pedestrians waiting on the curb at an intersection uncontrolled by a traffic signal having the right of way. Any driver who gets a ticket for that should fight the ticket.

I am a runner and I ran the race on Saturday-- my plea for those following this blog is not to loop that poorly organized race in with the others. There were far more runner than that race could handle and the poor execution of the race just lead to far too many problems for those not involved (as well as the runners who had to wait 90 minutes after the race to get their bag, massive lines to get into the metro, and long waits for a train to get to the race). It would be great if the city could cap the race size to an amount the city could handle-- 30,000 is just too many.

So many times in this forum (and others), DC drivers complain about pedestrians getting in their way. As a pedestrian, it's astounding to me that drivers don't understand that hitting a human being with your car can kill. Instead they honk, they speed past, they yell at human beings in the cross walk. So my question back is: are DC drivers really that selfish, obnoxious and borderline sociopathic that you think it's okay to run over (or threaten to run over) a human being because you don't want to wait 3 seconds?

From time to time, I get questions from drivers that describe a pedestrian making an odd move and asking who has the right of way. Those questions make me uncomfortable. 

I get the feeling the driver is asking when it's okay to hit pedestrians. So I always tell them, Pedestrians are never in season. Doesn't matter if they're upside down on a roller skate and wearing headphones and crossing with their eyes closed. It's never okay to hit them. Just stop.

I believe the OP is talking about people who are waiting for the signal to change in order to cross, but stand a couple of feet in a bike or driving lane and stare down at their smartphone. I see this often in Rosslyn.

You're probably right about the original poster. And I certainly recognize the behavior you're describing. All I have to do in order to observe that is walk outside The Post's newsroom and spend 60 seconds looking at the intersection of 15th and L streets NW. (Still not okay for drivers or bikers to hit them.)

Considering that the main marathon route ran up Rock Creek park to Mt Pleasant/Columbia Heights before sticking to North Capital street to reach K & H Streets, then heading down 13th to Constitution and points south. I find it hard to believe that OP couldn't find some crosstown route by heading north of Constitution on any street other than 13th. Police were letting drivers cross streets when no runners were passing. Yes, traffic was somewhat confused at points, but it was hardly "jammed."

After the earlier comment about pedestrians at intersections, I would like to remind drivers that the proper place for them to stop at an intersection is at the first white line, not across the entire crosswalk. It's dangerous for pedestrians to have to navigate in front of cars that pay no attention to us, or cross behind them and risk being hit by a car going the other direction that cannot see us.

I do not believe public assets (our roads) should be closed for the benefit of a for-profit company (marathon groups like the Rock 'n Roll marathon). Transportation and mobility shouldn't be sacrificed for a for-profit race.

Any big city needs to be able to accommodate special events in which tens of thousands of people can have a good time. It's tricky to start evaluating the virtues of the event sponsor.

It is fair to evaluate the traffic control plans of the local government agencies involved.

Dr. G, The poster reminding pedestrians not to stand in the street while waiting for the light to change was absolutely right. Now I have a request to drivers: please do not block crosswalks! When you cluelessly block the crosswalk with your vehicle, you force pedestrians to walk in traffic. That's unsafe. So get your head out of your [navel] and show some consideration. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Thank you

I have a bunch of comments about behavior of drivers and pedestrians at intersections. I'll post a few more of them now.

They stand IN the street. All the time. I see it at the corner of 17th and H almost every day.

Pedestrians may be hustling to get across the street because the wait for the next cross cycle is extremely long. it some places it can be 60 seconds or more. Which doesn't sound like much when you're in a car, but it can feel like forever when you're waiting in poor weather.

A while back I saved someone from being creamed as she walked into the crosswalk looking at her phone. She'd looked up before she stepped into the crosswalk but this wasn't enough. Please always keep your eyes on traffic as all the way across the road.

Oh, give me a break. Yes, I'm going to honk and/or yell when a pedestrian strolls nonchalantly across the street in front of me, against a red light, without ever looking to see if anyone is coming. I understand that the ped has the right of way in the crosswalk, but let's use a little common sense, shall we? Crossing against the light, without looking for traffic, is plain stupid, and stupidity annoys me. Also, that stupidity will likely get you killed eventually; I just don't want to be the one who kills you.

We all need to be considerate of each other and not do things like this: Am stopped in my car at traffic light - pedestrian looks, sees it's at one seconds but still saunters across the road *looking at her phone*. She must have known she was holding up traffic but she still just took her sweet time

There's a new metrobus shelter that was installed last year at Hwy 1 (heading south) and 23rd St. in Crystal City, and it does have vented panels in the top, I believe. This new shelter doesn't seem to have the "protection" of the older shelter because the side glass doesn't extend as far. That's a problem when the bus shelter (like this one) is 2 feet from the hightway and cars are whizzing by at 45 mph in the rain.

I see what you mean. Since we need to get more people onto buses to reduce traffic congestion, it would be really swell to make the waiting experience as comfortable as possible for the riders.

(I think it's the local jurisdictions that provide the shelters.)

Dr. G -- I know what this poster is talking about. Metro has replaced the older shelters with the new "vented" ones. Two I can think of off the top of my head are at Wisconsin Ave & Upton Street headed south on the 30s/H2 line; and at Connecticut Ave & Veazey St heading south on the L1/L2 lines. I dislike these shelters because they do not shelter one from wind or rain. What a waste of taxpayer money.

I think D.C. provides the shelters in a partnership with a private contractor.

I thought that the original tolls posted for the I-495 Express Lanes were ridiculous, but I guess operators seem to think everyone driving through Tysons Corner is a millionare. The tolls have steadily increased to absurd levels, even when there's no traffic on the main lanes. I saw my first $5.00 toll the other day for the full length, and was tempted to open my window and openly mock the cars I was passing on Express Lanes while driving 55 MPH in the free lanes. I certainly don't mind people paying the increasingly exhorbitant tolls on the Express Lanes, since that's fewer cars in the free lanes. However, I just don't understand the dynamic between the toll and amount of traffic on the road at any given time. I was in California over the holidays, and they're HOT lanes had much more standardized pricing (more like the ICC), and none of them approached 35 cents a mile (most were 10 cents a mile or less).

The highest tolls I've noticed are in the $5 range. And that's for the full 14 mile trip north from the Springfield Interchange to north of the Dulles Toll Road during the morning rush. It's interesting that at the same time the full trip southbound costs less.

I asked a Transurban official about that, who said it was a function of the heavier northbound traffic in Tysons at that hour.

A driver who thinks the new lanes are overpriced shouldn't use them.

When I make a decision about using them, it's because I want the new exit access (like the one to and from the Westpark Drive Bridge in Tysons) or because I'm going to an appointment and want to be sure I'm not going to encounter a delay.


90/92 buses tend to drop out of site for a while about the time I reckon they should be reaching ... the Navy Yard ... then reappear a few minutes later. I've always assume there may be some jamming going on there, with similar types of interference being the source of many of NextBus's woes. Providing a time estimate based on a bus's last recorded location (and perhaps the location) would be helpful, allowing riders to use their own knowledge of typical traffic conditions to estimate whether the missing bus is stuck in traffic or on its way.

This is my example of the problem created when the computer estimates the arrival time at a certain stop in downtown D.C.: I'm looking at the Next Bus estimate telling me the S4 is one minute away.

I'm looking south on 16th Street NW, and I can see it pulling up to the stop in front of the Capital Hilton. The bus entrance lowers so a person in a wheelchair can board. There's a long line of riders behind that passenger.

All that's typical center-city bus conditions. But there's no way Next Bus is going to account for that.

It took about four minutes, not one minute, for the bus to reach my stop. Repeat those conditions several times getting through downtown D.C.

I take the same route as the first person and it's ridiculous how backed-up it is. I agree with the reader that I can't really see a way out of it anytime soon. I also feel like to some extent we are the ugly stepchild for the local traffic reporters; they only really rarely mention our side of the town and it's frequently wrong. There are also some nuances that could help this congestion. If you look at the temporary and permanent jersey barriers, they aren't uniformly straight. The permanent ones have diamon jut outs unnecessarily where the light poles are. The temporary ones jut out zig-zagged as if whoever placed them wasn't paying attention. This causes drivers to slow down sharply; I know it sounds odd but if you pay attention to your responses when you're driving you'll notice that you probably do the same thing. I wonder if they fixed this if it would alleviate some of the congestion.

I think the 11th Street Bridge doesn't get the attention it deserves. It's a major regional commuter route, as well as an important link between D.C. neighborhoods.

The project isn't done. Around the end of this month, a couple of new ramps will open on the local span, the one on the downstream side of the Anacostia. Then at the end of May or early June, the local span will be put into its final configuration. Some drivers struggling now will find this a relief.

I think the race organizers need to do a better job with explaining to drivers what is open and what is closed. The line on the map shows the roads that runners will be on. And I understand that those roads obviously need to be closed. What was not explained to the public was that every single road crossing the marathon route would also be closed. They need to include those closures as well, and specifically publish the exact list of where MPD officers would be detouring traffic. Connecticut Avenue crossing Calvert was closed, and that was not listed on their list of closures. Calvert east of Shoreham Drive was closed, but police were detouring traffic not at Shoreham Drive, but at 27th Street and a second forced detour was set up on Garfield at 34th. I understand why they do this...they want to send anyone coming east on Garfield down to Massachusetts via 34th rather than have them get all the way to the hard detour and have to turn around, but why couldn't they publish this information in advance, and at least list a detour route for those of us who need to get to destinations near, but not on, the marathon route. I was trying to get to the Omni Shoreham hotel from Wisconsin Avenue, and pretty much had to wait until the race had passed before I could figure out a way to get into that area.

Last year, the first year, they allowed 20,000. This year 30,000, although not all showed up probably due to the weather report. 20,000 is better.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. We will not have a chat next Monday. Our producer, Mark Berman, and I both will be away.

Write to me any time with your thoughts on today's topics or any new issue you'd like to raise. I'm at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe out there, whatever your mode of travel, and look out for each other.

NEXT CHAT: April 1, 2013.

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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