Dr. Gridlock

Mar 24, 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.

Dr. Gridlock - I live near the East Falls Church metro, but have never used the parking lot there. I have family in town this Friday, and was wondering if the lot is normally full following rush hour, or if I would be able to get there in the mid/late morning to park the car for some downtown sightseeing during the day. Do you or the chatters have any insights? Thanks!

I invite others to comment, but I think you will have a very difficult time parking at East Falls Church just after the morning rush.

East Falls Church has only all-day 422 parking spaces, and Metro stats show it's typically at capacity. You might be better off driving to West Falls Church, which has about 2,000 spaces.

There is a newish redline driver (I've had him a few times now) who won't stop talking. He announces the next station stop usually 2-3 times, what side the doors will open on, the time (at every single station), and sometimes the date. Last time I had him, he was quiet for about 30 total seconds from Union Station to Farragut North. I just want to read my book! I feel badly complaining about him, but it's driving me insane. Should I contact Metro?

You can certainly contact the Metro customer service center, 202-637-1328. You'd want to tell them the number of the car you were riding in, and give a time.

But I think many riders are going to find it difficult to criticize a train operator who appears to be into his job. Much more typical are rider complaints about a lack of information coming from the cab.

I'll be on the east side of the Red line Wednesday at about 11:30 am. What's the state of parking at the new Glenmont garage at that time? I know the older one is full by 7 am. Should I bet on a spot at the new garage? What about Wheaton?

Here again, I invite travelers to share their experiences with Metro parking. I don't have a garage by garage breakdown for Glenmont parking, but you should be able to find space. Glenmont does not normally fill up.

We're driving to the Outer Banks in a few weeks. last year we avoided I-95 South in favor of a different route to avoid traffic slowdowns. Can we brave it in April or should we avoid it again?

That's difficult to predict. Easter is April 20, so you know you'll have some heavy long-distance traffic around then, and I-95 in Northern Virginia doesn't need much help to get jammed.

The 95 Express Lanes in the middle of I-95 will be under construction for the rest of this year, though the disruptions are unlikely to be as severe as they were in 2013. If you can leave early in the morning, you will be better off.

By the way, in watching the traffic cameras and maps during rush hours, I notice that Friday mornings tend to be on the light side for highway travel in the DC area, compared to other weekdays.


Go to Ballston or Clarendon and park in a garage. There's a garage in Clarendon off N Highland St. that is reasonably priced and only a block from the Clarendon Metro. EFC is impossible. We have been on the waitlist for years for a reserved parking space, and we believe that we will never get a space there, given the planned redevelopment.

This person just needs to wear headphones...

Why does Metro complain about lack of funds when it seems that they allow 5-8% of people to ride without paying? Several of us in my office agree that the "SmartCards" don't take off all the money they are supposed to. I only ride metro to work, each month I get my benefits put on my card and at the end of the month any extra disappears. I can look at my time and attendance sheet and tell within 5 mins every ride I took in the last month and between which stations. Generally at the end of the month I have 5-8% too much left on my card. Same thing for others in my office. Has anyone at metro every checked how well the SmartCards work under actual conditions?

Very interesting. I have never, ever heard a complaint that too little is being taken off the cards. (I have heard the opposite.)

More of a gripe than a question, but as a pedestrian, one of the most infuriating things is other pedestrians who walk in groups or side-by-side so that others can't go past them (from either direction). I still haven't decided if this is blatant rudeness or just obliviousness. I decided to take a stand and refuse to stop and let these groups pass when they're the ones being rude and hogging the sidewalk, which results in me being run into. Any other solutions?

I kind of like your solution. Just make sure you're well-planted.

I've never had a problem parking in the new Glenmont garage after rush hour. It just takes forever to loop around and around until you get to the top. :) I never attempt to park in the old garage anymore.

Please, for the sake of us all, if you want peace and quiet on the Red Line, buy some noise cancelling head phones. I have not had the pleasure of riding with this driver, but I can only imagine that having someone who cares about his job and giving plenty of information to riders, especially new riders, is a good thing. We need more operators like him. I also understand that some people like peace and quiet, and I can understand how it might be distracting to you, but please consider noise cancelling headphones to stay in your own little world and let's try to encourage more audible and comprehensible announcements on Metro.

I'll get up and move when the person next to me decides he needs to call a friend with a status update on his transit ride. So I think I'm pretty sensitive to noise on rail cars. But I don't find reports from the operator to be anything but welcome.

I'm pretty sure I haven't heard this particular operator, but more generally, the train operator's comments can put riders in a good mood. (Unless they're whining at us to stay away from the doors. But that wasn't the case here.)

So, we see the news that the new metro line is delayed yet again by completely avoidable problems. Is no one overseeing this project? Are there no inspectors? Is there no auditor?

There are all of those things. I think the situation with the hundreds of speakers needing to be replaced is ridiculous. But other things, like making sure the automatic train controls work, I just say, "Take your time and make sure it's right."

There seem to be plenty of people who didn't know they needed the Silver Line till they started hearing about the delays in opening. I'm still wondering how heavily used the new stations will be just after the opening.

Don't bother trying after rush hour. My suggestion if you live near that stop and want to park during the day is to go to the Ballston Common shopping mall garage (entrance is off Glebe Road just past the Mazda dealer south of Wilson Boulevard). It's surprisingly inexpensive, and there is a covered walkway from the mall to the building adjacent to the Metro stop. Just follow the signs.

Be wary of the Wheaton lot. There has been a spate of car break ins at that garage and Metro Police are at a loss on how to investigate. Older cars especialy without anti-theft ignition locks are targeted by thieves to try and take them for joy rides and to head outside of the lot. I'd try and park at Forest Glen if I were you or go back over to the Western edge.

If I believed my card wasn't being charged enough (or was being charged too much), I'd setup an account on the Smartrip website, which allows you to see a breakdown by trip, exactly how much you're getting charged and where/when you got on and off. From the Metro homepage, click on "Login" in the "Smartrip Card" box near the bottom center of the page.

I have always found parking at Glenmont in the mid morning once the reserved spots are released for others to park in them.

Dr. G., Previously on the WMATA site, a traveler on the Next Bus Arrivals page could click the Live Map link for any bus route and then check boxes to add more routes for comparison. This option is now gone. Any place we can get or recreate that useful function? Thanks!

I was not aware of this comparative feature and can ask about that.

The Live Map feature itself is very interesting. Here's a link so people can see what we're talking about. Just pick your route and click Live Map on that page.

One thing I like about the Live Map is that it shows me where the buses are rather than estimating how many minutes away from my stop they are. I think the estimates are what messes up Next Bus for many riders.

There has been a lot of discussion in this forum urging VDOT to provide drivers with travel time information so drivers can make an informed decision about whether to pay the toll for the 495 Express lanes and 95 Express lanes. VDOT is now providing this information for 95. However, there has been less attention to the fact that VDOT has stacked the deck in favor of the investors, who now control the Express lanes. For example on 95, the speed limit in the Express lanes is 65 all the way, but the mainline drops to 60 north of Dumfries and then drops to 55 in northern Prince William County. This is despite the fact that the Express lanes are a cluttered mess with construction activity, but the speed limit remains 65. By contrast, the mainline through Fairfax is wide with 4 lanes and well lit, but has a widely disobeyed speed limit of 55. The obvious remedy is that VDOT should raise the mainline speed limit to 65 so the investors, who control the Express lanes, have to compete on a level playing field. The Virginia State Police should not be used to write tickets so a bunch of wealthy investors get extra money from their investment. And the same should go for 495.

I think you may be a little ahead of things on I-95, if I'm reading you right. The 95 Express Lanes aren't scheduled to open till early 2015. In the meantime, we still have the HOV lanes in the middle of 95. The speed limit is 65, but it's been that way for a long time.

The 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway did open with a 55 mph speed limit, which later rose to 65. To me, that was mostly PR. In all the times I drove the express lanes, I never saw anybody (besides me) going 55. And I don't see anybody (besides me) going 65 now.

I certainly do agree with you that VDOT should display the trip times for one set of lanes vs. the other, on the Beltway and on I-95. The top complaint I get about the Beltway express lanes is that drivers can't make the instant cost-benefit analysis at the decision points for the lanes.

I hate driving in NoVa and try to avoid it, and now I've gained another reason to support my hatred. I got a notice saying I owed money for using the 495 express lanes. The toll was 60 cents and it said I had gotten on and off within the SAME minute. I have no idea because I have no recollection of being in the lanes, and certainly wouldn't do it on purpose. But 60 cents, fine. What made me mad was the $12+ admin fee they also charged me. What!! I thought about fighting it but their website was very clear that they don't entertain "accidental" lane usage claims so I paid up. How are they allowed to charge that much more than the actual toll?!

Guessing here: It reads like you entered the lanes on the north side and got off for the Dulles Toll Road or one of the Tysons exits. That's a short trip at a relatively low toll.

I had a letter recently from a driver who inadvertantly got into the express lanes and got off at Westpark Drive in Tysons.  This driver also did not have an E-ZPass.

The thing is the lanes were built to be used by E-ZPass drivers. They're not set up to routinely deal with video tolling (taking pix of plates) the way Maryland's Intercounty Connector is. So the administrative fee for a violation is much higher.

If you go to the Using the Lanes page on the 495 Express Lanes Web site, you can see driver's-eye videos showing what it looks like to enter and exit the express lanes.

"The 495 Express Lanes on the Beltway did open with a 55 mph speed limit, which later rose to 65. To me, that was mostly PR. In all the times I drove the express lanes, I never saw anybody (besides me) going 55. And I don't see anybody (besides me) going 65 now." That's true, but the layout of the lanes, and constant enforcement make Express Lanes drivers easy pickens for state troppers. I can't tell you the last time I saw VA State Police running radar on the main lanes of the beltway, but they're running radar on the Express Lanes at least once or twice a week.

One reason, I think, is that the express lanes were built with cut-outs where troopers can station their cruisers off the shoulders. Radar patrols on the regular lanes are more dangerous. Plus, to be practical, an enforcement operation like that on the congested regular lanes of the Beltway is going to slow down traffic so much it creates its own dangerous situation.

What's the point of encouraging cyclist, such as myself, to utilize bike lanes? Over the weekend I was biking north along N.Hampshire Avenue from Dupont Circle towards U Street. I was stopped in the Bike lane, waiting at a red light, when I was rear-ended by a lovely lady who had very choice words for me and wanted to make a right turn on Red at Q Street. It's fun to be the cyclist who follows the rules then gets cussed out for doing it.

Hope you cussed back.

My husband and I take I-66 east to work by entering the the HOV access ramp from Monument Road (which is open only to to eastbound drivers during the morning rush hour). For 2 consecutive days, while driving down the ramp, my husband and I have seen a car drive up the ramp from I-66 westbound. I don't know if these drivers are doing this intentionally, as it is hard to miss the barriers that are down and the overhead digital signs that say "Closed." I'm scared we're going to get into a head-on collision as these cars are essentially going the wrong way down a one-way road. Is there any way to increase driver awareness - or increase police presence - to this dangerous activity?

Doesn't seem that a driver, or drivers, could be doing this by mistake -- not with the signs and barriers in place. If you see this again and you've got a cell phone, call #77 and report it to the state police.

Do you know what the plan is for pedestrians leaving the H Street Exit of Union Station once the streetcar is in place? Right now the south H Street sidewalk on the Hopscotch bridge is closed for streetcar construction but it is extremely dangerous to cross the street to the north side across speeding traffic. At present there is no other way to get to the H Street corridor on foot. How are pedestrians going to get from Union Station to the streetcar platform in the future?

Last time I was out there, I paid more attention to how I was going to get from the bridge into the north side of Union Station. (That wasn't bad. I just have to remember to stay on the walkway to the left and avoid the intercity buses on that leve.) I'll have to go back and check the crossing of H Street.

Last week I was on a 16 bus heading to Pentagon City and there were a group of incredibly obnoxious teenagers using language in a way I don't appreciate hearing (but not bad enough for me to get off the bus). This bothered one of the fellow passengers so much that she asked the driver to call the police, which he pulled over and did. The kids heard this and ran off and we had to sit and wait for the police to come to file a report (I waited for 10 minutes until I caught a cab). Is it normal protocol to delay a bus for one passenger to file a report (especially for a non-violent action where the kids are no longer in the area)? How long are the other passengers to be inconvenienced for this?

This may be like the previous exchange concerning the chatty Metrorail operator in the sense that riders may come down on either side.

Many riders complain to me that no action is taken in response to unruly young people. Here, an action was taken.

Seems to me that once the police are called to respond, the bus ought to wait for the police.

Hello Dr. Gridlock, I notice during the morning and evenings that there are Fairfax County police cars tucked in spots along the 495 express lanes where the speed limit is 65 mph. However, in the the regular lanes, at certain times, cars are zooming past at 70 - 80 mph; no police to be found.

I'd be surprised to know those are Fairfax County police. The state police are assigned to patrol the express lanes, under a contract with the lanes' operator.

I'd certainly like to see more enforcement of traffic laws in the regular lanes, as long as it could be done in a way that's safe for both the enforcers and the motorists.

I realize that because of the construction of the new I-95 Express Lanes, the current HOV lanes are sometimes closed overnight on weekends to accommodate construction. However, the timing of the lane closures appear to be completely random. I frequently leave downtown between 8 PM an 10 PM, and it's a complete crap shoot as to whether or not the southbound HOV lanes will be open. Is there a posted schedule somewhere that I can see on what days the lanes are closing early? I'm already subscribed to the VA Megaprojects e-mail, but those only note the major full closures, and don't typically detail when the lanes are closed an hour or 2 early.

Each week, VDOT puts out a lane closings bulletin for the megaprojects. It covers all days and all hours for that week, and it's enormous.

Here's a link to the pdf.

Has anybody gotten them to work on Metro? Mine seem to be good for a constant airline hum, but sporadic Metro chatter comes through. I use regular headphones.

I use an iPod myself. Let's me listen to books and podcasts, rather than white noise. I worry a little about these things. I'd like to cancel out some of the cellphone chatter, but don't want to miss messages from the train operator.

I feel completely cheated by the Beltway Express Lanes. I drive every weekday from Maryland all the way down to Springfield on the Beltway, and have not had a reason to use the Express Lanes. About a month ago, I finally had a situation where I though the Express Lanes would help me make an appointment. When I crossed the bridge on the outer loop, the variable signs indicated traffic delays all the way to Braddock Road (Exit 54), and the traffic was pretty bad coming across the bridge. In addition, the toll for the Express Lanes was one of the highest I had ever seen ($7.50 for the full length), so I made the decision that the traffic must have been pretty bad through Tysons. Boy was I wrong. I made the move to the left and entered the Express Lanes, and ended up in Springfield next to 2 of the same cars I was next to coming across the American Legion Bridge, except they made it to Springfield at the same time without spending a dime. I pleaded my case to Transurban, and even offered a compromise to pay an the average toll ($3-$5) since I did ultimately make the decision to pay, but they were completely unwilling to negotiate. I also was not satisfied that it took 8 business days for the toll to show up on my account so I could appeal it. Transurban represents itself as customer friendly through all of their promotion and praise in the Washington Post, but when dealing with them from a customer's perspective, they are anything but friendly.

I don't see how they could negotiate tolls based on whether the drivers think they matched the speed of cars in the regular lanes.

Other stuff, yeah, if you got caught in a traffic jam in the express lanes, that's worth a call.

Many drivers have told me that they use the counter-intuitive reasoning that says, The higher the toll for the express lanes, the more it must be worth it, because the regular lanes must be jammed.

I understand the thinking, but it's a bit of a bank shot, and not necessarily an accurate reflection of traffic conditions in the regular and express lanes.

The tolls rise and fall to manage the flow of traffic in the express lanes. That doesn't tell you much about the regular lanes.

Last week you took a complaint from somebody who claimed that he couldn't exit a Frederick garage because he didn't have a credit card. The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. It turns out that ALL of Frederick's public garages have automated pay stations that accept payment by card or CASH. You only need a card to pay at the exit GATE itself. Your commenter was just upset that the world didn't work the way he wanted it to. The older I get, the more I realize that this attitude is at the root of many life difficulties. http://www.cityoffrederick.com/Index.aspx?NID=207

Thanks for the follow-up on this. I should have suspected this was the way the system worked. Parking garages with on-foot cash payment stations are common now in the D.C. area.

They aren't intended to cancel out all noise. As the prior question noted, they're excellent for filtering out low-frequency or ambient noise (such as airline engines, or a building's HVAC system) that will cause fatigue. But they don't block out things like loud conversation or PA systems or the like. Even on a plane, that would be undesirable: You sometimes need to be able to hear the announcements from the cockpit. Or consider if you use them at home. You probably still want to be able to hear the phone ringing if someone calls.

My girlfriend currently commutes from Anacostia to Tyson's Corner and it is awful, awful, awful. We have been waiting, waiting, waiting for the Silver Line to be finished. I hope it is done soon because the commute is taking years off my gf's life.

Still a pretty long commute. About 45 minutes probably. But definitely better than the current situation.

For travelers who would like to see estimates on Silver Line trips to various destinations, use this link.

I'm guessing late spring for when the new line opens.

Like the first poster about pedestrians, I am peeved by groups the span the sidewalk. When I'm walking (often by myself to/from the Metro), I stay as far right as possible and if a large group is coming towards me, I don't stop. Eventually, the person closest to me will realize a collision will occur and slows and moves to his/her right (my left) so we can pass. I would LOVE to see paint lines on the sidewalks just like the roads. A center line and arrows so people will stay to the right. It's really not that hard a concept.

Okay, now I think we're going too far. Walking shouldn't be like a contact sport. Most of us aren't wearing pads.

I share your annoyance at confronting a solid phalanx of oblivious pedestrians. They ought to yield. But I wouldn't instigate collisions.

Thanks for joining me today. Stay safe out there, and we'll do this again next Monday at noon.

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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