Dr. Gridlock

Mar 19, 2012

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. I'm glad to be back with you today. Last week, I was on vacation in Massachusetts, and I come back with new respect for drivers in the DC area. In Massachusetts, life is cheap.

The questions and comments in the mailbag cover many regional transportation topics, but I'd like to get right into a few that relate to Dana Hedgpeth's story about Metro car doors, published in Sunday's Post.

The Metro car doors are a source of many complaints. Some of the questions and comments came in last week, while I was away and before Dana's story was published, but I'll include them in the discussion.

Here's a link to Dana's story: http://wapo.st/xELqU9

Dr. Gridlock, Let me say I appreciate all the work you do on behalf of this area's road, rail and other commuters. However, sometimes when I read reporting done in the newspaper, I get very frustrated. An example is yesterday's article by Dana Hedgepeth regarding train doors. In the article, the points of view of the train operators were given an equivalent weight to the points of view of riders. That is why I am frustrated with the Post's reporting. I am sorry, but Metro's employees' opinions matter but they do not carry equal weight with those of riders! Riders pay through the nose to use this system, and we have a right to expect basic services, like properly functioning doors. Throwing in the alternative perspectives of Metro employees does NOT help.

First, thanks for reading our stuff. We really appreciate it.

I loved Dana's story. I've published many letters from riders frustrated about various aspects of door operations, and a lot of complaints have come in lately saying that the doors are closing more often before people have even had a chance to get off the train. Riders held hostage!

But Dana's good work gave readers a much more elaborate view of why things are the way they are.

The first three quotes in her story are from riders, including this:

“You don’t know if the chime means it is going to close in one second or 10 seconds,” he said. “It creates a sense of you have to rush on the train. Civility goes out the door.”

But the operators have to talk too. Otherwise, it would come down to us telling each other what we already know: The doors are one of the biggest problems with Metro operations.


It is my impression that the Metro door opening procedures are awkward and inefficient. For example, I have obsrvered a 2-4 second delay between when the train stops and when the doors open. (This difference depends upon whether the doors open on the left or right and time time it takes the operator to open the window.) I found it interesting to observe the Underground in London and Metro in Paris. In both cases the doors appear to start opening a fraction of a second BEFORE the train comes to a complete stop. This difference in procedure not only saves a few seconds per stop but appears to create a more even flow of passengers.

One of the things I remember from a trip to Paris after college was that the Metro doors could be quite exciting: The older cars allowed riders to operate the doors manually. Some people would open the doors while the train was still in the tunnel and then the rider would make a running leap onto the platform.

I think we don't want our system to be that exciting.

And I like the idea that the operator must bring the train to a stop and move to the platform side (if necessary) before opening the doors.

What I don't like is the follow up, the part where the operator may close the doors even before people have gotten off, let alone while people still are boarding.

There are so many complaints about Metro not keeping subway car doors open long enough, does the train schedule allow the operators more time for stops at major transfer points, like Metro Center, which would make sense given the huge numbers of people who transfer there, or the same amount of time at all stops?

In my Sunday column, there was a good letter from a rider saying that Metro should put a priority on moving people, not on moving trains. (I can't find this column online. It's the one on page 2 of Sunday's Metro section, with the headline "Metro rider: Moving people is what really matters."

Metro did make an adjustment in the Red Line schedule to try to bring it into line with the realities of how long it takes to get a train through downtown DC. The adjustment also included putting more space between the trains -- actually decreasing the total number of trains per hour -- and making more eight-car trains.

I think that's worked out pretty well, though at the height of rush hour, Red Line trains still have difficulty meeting their schedules. (Look at the passenger information display and see how often the trains are evenly spaced.)

I think the bigger problem with scheduling now is on the Orange Line.

Hi Dr. G - Love the chat and your Sunday work in the Post. Quick question - any idea how much the toll would be during rush hour from start to finish? (I do a Springfield to Bethesda commute daily). When everything is open I'd imagine the traffic will be much better without using the Express Lanes. Also - will HOV be 2 or 3 per car? Thanks!

Let's see, the 495 Express Lanes will be HOV 3. And I don't know how high the rush hour toll will be from start to finish -- and neither will you. That's because there's no cap on the toll. It can keep going up till the level of congestion in the Express Lanes goes down.

My guess is that you won't want to do this every day for the full length of the Express Lanes. You'll use them on a day when you're running late, or you absolutely positively have to be in Bethesda for something that starts promptly at 9 a.m.

Also, I do expect that at least initially there will be an improvement in the traffic flow in the regular lanes. Seems like that's just bound to happen when you expand the total capacity of the Beltway by two lanes in each direction.

The inner loop dropped to 3 thru lanes about two months ago, creating the back-up to Braddock Rd. (usually). There seems to be enough room to keep it at 4, do you know why they did that? Any chance that it goes back to 4 lanes before the project is done? Very frustrating...thanks for your work!

I know it's going to be a while longer before the inner loop goes back to four lanes at that point. Eventually, it's going to be four lanes, plus a fifth lane up as far as Route 7.

I think the current restriction has to do with the overall construction plan for the interchange and the desire to ease the traffic flow from eastbound I-66 onto the inner loop (one of the worst bottlenecks in the DC region).

And yes, I know you're correct in saying that this restriction has created a new bottleneck on the inner loop.

Dr. Gridlock, It seems to me that the people running the HOT lanes construction dictate the afternoon commute from Rockville to Tysons. On days where they close 1 lane (around Tysons on 495), and open up the lane at 3:00pm the traffic is horrible. On days where they do not close a lane, the traffic is non-existent. Can someone let them know if they need to shutdown a lane for afternoon construction, open it back up by 1:30 or 2:00 at the latest?

I know that it's been a difficult balancing act to make the work move along as quickly as possible while allowing the traffic to move along as quickly as possible.

VDOT has somewhat the same problem that Metro has in setting up its work zones. Given the setup and take-down times for the work zone, you want to allow enough time in between so the workers can really accomplish something and get the job done as quickly as possible. I think most of the construction along the Beltway has been done in a reasonable fashion -- give the immense scope of the project -- but drivers who have been patient for several years now are getting ready to see this thing get done and all the lanes restored.

Dr. Gridlock -- I know that you endured months of questions and complaints about the Humpback Bridge project. I just wanted to point out what a fantastic job was done on this project now that it is finished. As a driver, cyclist, and pedestrian who uses this bridge, the before and after is like night and day. The bike/pedestrian path was so narrow before that it made for a harrowing dangerous experience. My only complaint is the 20 feet of asphalt that is missing to make a more direct approach for cyclists and walkers to the 14th Street Bridge from the Humpback Bridge. There is currently an awkward T junction with the Mt. Vernon Trail.

I'm glad you're generally pleased, given the big impact this project had on GW Parkway traffic over the past few years. But I'm interested in what hyou say about the junction. It's the first time I've heard that issue raised.

Past chats/columns have discussed metro's philosophy re the direction of escalators- Is there a similar global policy re the fare gates? At metro center (13&G) it seems like every morning there is a different number of gates set for exiting and entering. Some days just the handicap and the one to its left are set as exits, other days its the handicap and up to three to its left.

I haven't asked about a fare gate policy, but will. That's a good question.

Just to review for others what you mentioned about the escalator use: Many riders complain about the direction of the escalators. They say they should be adjusted to match the flow at rush hour.

Metro has several reasons for using a configuration that has two going up and one going down all the time at many stations. The transit authority puts a priority on getting people out of the stations. (The platforms and the mezzanines -- the confined spaces -- are areas where congestion is most likely to be a safety issue.) Also, the escalators are more likely to break down if the direction is reversed frequently.

ok. so my math skills are not the very best. But. If I have a 15 gallon gas tank, and gas now costs, say 45 cents more per gallon, that is a total extra cost of $6.75. That's not nothing, but neither is it a huge amount for most of us. Lines at the Starbucks are still long for those fancy drinks. Restaurants are still full at dinner. Traffic is still backed up on the beltway every day! Parking lots are full at Tysons. People on fixed incomes, have minimum wage jobs, or live in non-urban areas with no buses or subways are more affected. I think the whole thing is bogus by the way - I bet we'll hear soon that the oil companies are makiing record profits yet again, and we'll keep complaining and they'll keep making up excuses...

There are a bunch of theories about why we care so much about gas prices, even as we seem to think nothing of buying an exotic coffee drink.

The explanation I find most compelling is that we have little to do at the pump other than to stare at the digits showing how much we're spending.

Something I find less likely: All the surveys that tell us people are going to cancel vacations or severely cut back on other expenses because of gas price increases.

Dear Dr. Gridlock, Where is the nearest handicapped parking to see the cherry blossoms at the tidal basin?

It's very difficult for people with disabilities to park near the Tidal Basin. First, it's difficult for anybody to get through that traffic congestion during the height of blossom season. Second, while there is some disability parking near the monuments -- like the MLK and Roosevelt -- near the basin, it's extremely limited and nobody should count on finding a space there.

Dr. G: I saw that Metro won't be doing track work this weekend, but what sort of headtimes can we expect to see between trains. Are they going to be doing their normal 20+ minutes between trains, or can we expect something more reasonable like 10 minutes (or less) due to the crowds.

My understanding is this: The schedule will stay about the same, but you should see more eight-car trains, including on the weekends.

Dr. Gridlock, With two elderly parents and two two-year-olds in two, I'm hoping to drive down to see the cherry blossoms this week (Thursday or Friday morning). Am I kidding myself in thinking that I'll be able to find parking within reasonable walking distance to the tidal basin? Unfortunately, Metro is not an option. Any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

I know that with a group like that, the definition of a "reasonable" walk has to shrink considerably.

Given that, nothing will be easy. You might try the parking area at Hains Point. Then take the shuttle bus to the Tidal Basin.

There's also that new tour bus operating out of Union Station and making stops along the Mall on the way to Arlington Cemetery. That leaves from the bus deck in the Union Station garage. But it's $5 per person per boarding. It's operated by ANC Tours and stops near the WW II memorial, the King Memorial and the Lincoln memorial. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.


I know the chat system lets you see who's submitting a question, so it won't surprise you to hear that I share your interest in the 495 Express Lanes project and I'm looking forward to the lanes' opening even though I don't expect to use them often. I'm wondering what your opinion is about the negative screeds we often see posted on your blog, or in response to WTOP articles, or the like regarding this project. While I know such postings are not really representative of the public at large, I do have to suspect that a lot of the public really lacks any sense for how the Express Lanes will work and how they'll be configured (for example, my impression is that people wrongly think it'll be like I-270 where you can move back and forth between "Express" and "Local"). It's also obvious that a lot of people are simply unwilling to look at the various sources of information online. So I guess my query is, with the lanes scheduled to open later this year, what do you make of the state of the project officials' efforts to educate the driving public about these lanes, and what do you think needs to be done in the coming months?

Let me first reassure everybody that there's nothing in the chat system that lets me see who's submitting questions. (The downside to me is that I don't have any back channel way of asking commenters to clarify their descriptions before I try to answer.)

Yes, I'm very hopeful that the 495 Express Lanes will provide one way to ease our travel problems. I'm glad we're trying this new approach.

That said, I've been humbled over the years by the number of times things didn't work out the way I hoped.

This system -- high-occupancy toll or HOT lanes -- is not new. There have been some favorable results nationwide, but it's still relatively early to draw firm conclusions.

How to get out the information for users: VDOT and Transurban officials know that there will be a steep learning curve for drivers in using this first of its kind system in the DC area. I know that too, and plan to spend a lot of time this year helping drivers get familiar with the system so they can use it if they want to

Sometimes I get complacent about particular points on their use, thinking I've already explained something enough times. Then I get a letter asking the same basic question. People don't memorize what we write. Every time we think we've done enough to explain the HOT lanes system, we need to do more.

Dr. Gridlock, has the unofficially official "walk left/stand right" escalator rule become unofficial again? I don't see it brought up as a complaint in your chats as much as I used to.

I know you'll see it again over the next few weeks, as the tourists arrive for the cherry blossoms.

I disagree with the first poster. I think the doors are a cause of frustration to both the riders and the operators, which is what I thought the article was trying to portay. There are some great operators who do their best to communicate how riders should behave around the doors. And there are some great riders who are respectful of the need to close the doors and get the train moving. however, there are some terrible operators who almost seem to act out of spite towards riders related to the doors. And there are some real jerks who ride the system who try to force themselves onto cars and end up disabling the train. The issue is greater than rider vs. operator and I think the author got to that point.

I do think Dana's story was very helpful for all of us trying to understand what's going on with the train doors. And I like your summary of all the factors -- human and mechanical -- behind what we're seeing.

Where is the best place to park for the Cherry Blossoms during the week (a.m.)? We're not convenient to a metro stop.

There's nothing about visiting the Tidal Basin that's particularly convenient. Almost certainly, you'll need two forms of transportation to see the blossoms. You might drive to a Metro station, take the train, and then walk. You might park downtown, take a bus, and then walk. You might park downtown, then walk to the basin. You might park at Hains Point, then board the shuttle bus. You might get lucky and find a street meter space on Independence Avenue, but then you'll have to walk.

Why is it taking Metro more than 10 months to build a short set of stairs at the Vienna station? The fences narrow the platform, making it rather dangerous.

I'll ask. (10 months is going to seem like a short time to Red Line riders who endured the narrowing the platform at Farragut North for construction of that support column.)

When's the best time of day and day this week in your opinion to travel to DC (from Fairfax) to drive around the Tidal Basin etc to view the blossoms by car. thanks, Kathleen

I think if I were trying to do that, I'd go just after the morning rush hour, but I wouldn't be trying to do that. At least, I wouldn't be expecting a pleasant experience.

That's like driving along the rim of the Grand Canyon in July to see the Grand Canyon. All you really get to see is traffic. Lots of traffic. Seeing the blossoms should mellow you out and leave you feeling revived. There's nothing about a drive by the basin that's going to accomplish either.

I'd love for Metro to be that exciting, since Paris' trains haven't killed anyone while Metro's have.

I also remember the signs on the Paris Metro train cars: "Danger de Mort," showing a stick figure tumbling from the train through an open door.

"Also, the escalators are more likely to break down if the direction is reversed frequently." What pathetic escalators. How long did the new and improved Foggy Bottom ones work before they broke down?

Yes, we do have pathetic escalators. And yes, the new ones at Foggy Bottom don't always work.

(Maybe I should also point out that nobody at Metro ever promised us the new ones would work all the time, only that they'd be less likely to break down than the old ones. My first clue about these expectations came when I saw they also were building a staircase.)

Seen the new metro map? (http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/rushplus.cfm?) Any thoughts on whether it will be effective in communicating some of the changes to lines?

I think it will take a bit of getting used to, and there's no way everybody is going to get everything they need to know about where a particular train is going.

A little earlier, we were exchanging views about the HOT lanes education process. We're going to have a similar learning curve for Metro's upcoming "Rush Plus" service.

My mistake, then! I recall when the Post first rolled out the current online discussion setup they said the chat host could see who had submitted a question/comment. Didn't know they'd changed it.

I'm not doubting you on this. Just want you to know that in the six years I've been doing chats, I haven't known who's submitting a question/comment unless that person chooses to add their name.

(Our various forms of interaction do get a bit complicated in the modern era. There's chat comments and blog comments and letters to the Dr. Gridlock column. The letters are at one extreme. I interact with people who put their full names and home communities with their comments.)

I guess we will find out in a little while, but I still wonder how big the bottleneck is going to be where the toll lanes join back up with the regular lanes. And I still don't understand how this electronic system will be able to tell the difference between and HOV vehicle and a non-HOV vehicle. It also means that everyone will have to get a new transponder to use those lanes, right? How will that be implemented?

I'm also concerned about the merge areas. But as with other aspects of the HOT lanes project, the profit motive gives me hope. The Express Lanes operators don't want to see merging traffic backing up into their lanes.

About the transponders: If you've got an E-ZPass, you're fine. If you think you might want to go HOV3 some days, you will need a new transponder with an extra setting for carpooling. Everybody who uses the lanes will need a transponder. There's no video tolling, as there is on Maryland's Intercounty Connector.

(This is another good example of how complicated it will be to explain the lane operations.)

Are other American public transit agencies as dysfunctional as Metro? Or are we special in that regard?

I've had experience with many US and international transit systems, but find it very hard to compare with Metro. Sometimes, it's difficult to figure out who to blame when things go wrong here. Is it the fault of the current generation of transit staff and transit policy makers, or the people who designed the system four decades ago? (Other times, it's not so hard to figure out.)

Avoid the crowds at the Tidal Basin and go to Kenwood where locals go (Bethesda off River Road).

Good advice, and there are many places in the DC region with lovely blossoms that are a lot easier to get to than the Tidal Basin. (Many of us can just walk around our own neighborhoods, or go for a bike ride along a local trail.)

Travelers, I've got to sign off now from what has been a particularly engaging chat, thanks to your questions and comments. I always say I've got a lot left in the mailbag, but that's extra-true today.

I'll try to add more on the Dr. Gridlock blog. On the cherry blossoms and the Express Lanes, for example. (There's a good illustration of the diversity of travelers' interests.)

I hope many of you do get to enjoy the blossoms this week. The weather should be great. Just keep in mind that the Tidal Basin is tough to reach by car. And no matter how you go, bring your patience.

Stay safe out there, and we'll chat 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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