Dr. Gridlock

Mar 26, 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.

I've noticed one thing happening quite often on Metro trains. At a crowded transfer point, like L'Enfant Plaza, where a lot of people are getting off and on the train, operators seem to have a quick trigger finger on the doors. Often they will start the door chimes before a single person has even had a chance to get on the train. Some ambitious operators even start closing the door in the middle of a stream of people. Obviously at transfer points, the doors just need to stay open longer to allow all the people off and all the people on the platform on...why do some operators not treat it that way?

We talked about this issue some last week, and I think it will remain a topic for many riders at least through the Cherry Blossom Festival time, with all the extra crowding.

Be sure to see Dana Hedgpeth's story from March 15:


It's one thing for the train operators to close the doors before everyone has gotten on. At a crowded dowtown platform, there are few times when everybody could possibly have gotten on before the train needs to move on.

Closing the doors before everyone has gotten off is another thing: This is holding riders hostage to the train schedule, and it shouldn't be happening.

If Metro needs to adjust its schedules, then it should adjust the schedules.

Dr G, I just want to pass along two good news (to me) items. One, the third lane of I-66W between Glebe and Sycamore has improved my morning commute. Yes, it still slows down near Sycamore and there are people who run in the right lane at high speed and merge abruptly at the end, but overall, it is better than previously when I-66W backed up before Glebe and the Fairfax Dr on-ramp was clogged. Two, the inbound DTR between the main toll plaza and the beltway seems much less congested than a few months ago. I know the left lanes to Rt 123/I-66E were extended, but I have to assume somehting has happened on the ramps to the beltway to improve things there.

I'm glad to hear these things about two separate projects. The first is the relatively small program to widen westbound I-66 inside the Beltway in three steps. I say relatively small just because it's occurring within the existing boundaries of the Interstate, and it's being done amist Northern Virginia's megaprojects.

They include the second one, which affected our traveler at the Dulles Toll Road/Beltway. The removal of the work zone that had blocked the left side eastbound is the main thing that happened over the past few months. (This is the 495 Express Lanes work zone.) Hope other commuters have experienced a similar improvement in what was for a while the worst congestion related to road work in the D.C. region.

Now that VDOT is posting travel time estimates on the electronic signs along 95 and 66, are they planning to post these time estimates on the Internet as well so I can find out before I set out? For example, could the same info be posted on 511 website and/or an app?

That's a very good idea. My recollection is that it's part of the VDOT plan as the travel time information program expands beyond last year's pilot phase.

Here's a question for you all: Before you get in the car, what do you know about traffic conditions on your route? Do you check online, turn on TV or the radio? Or just get in the car and go?

Do aggresive drivers understand that we all share the roads together and that their aggressiveness is putting my life at more risk than is necessary? By darting in and out of lanes to move up a little bit makes me upset because these people are too selfish. Do people jump in front of other people at a line in the supermarket? So why do it on the road?

Because they can get away with it.

How do you all feel about increased camera enforcement?

I thought DC made a mistake last week in presenting plans to expand its camera enforcement program. It's not the program itself -- the more aggressive use of cameras to penalize more types of traffic violations -- that bothers me. It's the way it was presented: As part of Mayor Gray's budget.

Budgets are about revenues and expenses. You don't introduce new safety programs that way.

(Now, before you say "They're just trying to raise revenue, let me repeat that if that's so, it doesn't bother me. I think penalizing anti-social behavior is a fine way to raise revenue. But traffic safety officials are always talking about the three E's: Engineering, education and enforcement.

By introducing this camera plan to the wider public through the budget, DC is minimizing the education part.)

Dr. Gridlock, A Metrorail extension or light rail service connecting the Pentagon Metrorail Station, down I-395, to the Springfield Metrorail Station seems like a no brainer to me. The pockets of density necessary to support stops along the way are already there, Shirlington, Seminary Rd with the new BRAC building, Duke St/Landmark Mall, Edsall Rd, downtown Springfield and on to the Springfield Metrorail Station. I know this corridor is served by bus and the HOV lanes on I-395 but neither of those services are form giving. Can you tell me if a Metrorail extension or light rail service has ever been investigated in this corridor?

I haven't see a study, but basically, if you can think of a transportation project for the D.C. area, there's a study about it gathering dust on some agency's shelf. (See the plan for a transit line over the new Wilson Bridge.)

Talking about BRAC specifically, the local transportation planners weren't given enough time to react to this round of base relocations. You can see that at the Mark Center, where construction of a new HOV ramps is still far away, and you can see that at Bethesda, where Maryland is just getting underway with some intersection improvements.

A rail extension would be an even bigger deal, take longer and be a lot more expensive.

I'm looking for an App for my Android that would cover Ride-On buses, either seperately or in addition to Metro. I've used some of the Metro-oriented ones with varying degrees of sucess but nothing addresses Ride-On. It would be nice to know if the bus I want is late, or even a "Next Bus" based on a static schedule. For me, I can choose one of 3 buses to get me to my destination, but I have to wait for them in different places. That requires me to do some schedule juggling, and it would be easier if I know coming out of Metro (or my own place) which one was my best bet.

I'm posting this one right now, because I know a lot of you travelers know more about the app world than I do. I use some of the iPhone apps that show Metro schedules, and have generally -- generally -- had good luck with them. I use Next Bus with some success, but not always.

I haven't seen an app yet for a suburban bus route, although, I can at least check the route information through Google Maps.

One problem with the door situation is that so many people exit the train s-l-o-w-l-y. Usually tourists who are not in any hurry whatsoever. Why would they be? It doesn't help keeping to a schedule, workers or trains!

I agree with you about the tourists. I see many people stop just after entering or exiting a rail car and look around, seemingly oblivious to the number of people still trying to do what they've just done.

Also, some get to the top of an escalator and halt to take in the view, while other riders have to dodge them.

But I also sympathize with the people who have "Moved to the center of the car," just as the voice tells them to, then can't get to the doors before they close.

Last Tuesday, I was on a yellow line train at approximately 6 p.m. We had quite a jerky ride between L'Enfant Plaza and Pentagon. When we arrived at Pentagon, the conductor told us that the train was now out of service due to "trouble with the train's automatic controls". Has metro started using the automatic controls again? I was under the assumption that trains have been on manual control since the Red Line accident a few years back

Yes, the trains have been operated under manual control since the June 2009 crash on the Red Line, and Metro has made no  public prediction on when automated control will be restored.

I'm not sure what the operator was referring to. There are some systems that are automated, but the operation of the train is definitely in the hands of the train operator.

A subway line down Columbia Pike was proposed in one of the early iterations of the design proposals that eventually led to the Metrorail system we know now. It was shelved due to cost. There are actually some bellmouths in the tunnels just to the south of the Pentagon Metro stop where the tunnels widen out to allow for the flying junction that would have led to the Columbia Pike line (I guess a rare example of WMATA leaving room for future expansion). You can find a map of that early proposal for the Metro system in Zachary Schrag's excellent book about the history of the Metrorail system, "The Great Society Subway." Excellent read for anyone interested in such topics, though I'm sure the average commuter would find it to be very esoteric reading! But anyway, aside from the cost, the other two problems confronting a line down Columbia Pike or I-395 these days are (a) on I-395, where would they put it since there's no more room in the Interstate's right-of-way; (b) in either case, a suburban subway stop would require parking and there's no room for the parking structures either.

Thanks, and I agree with you about Zach Schrag's fascinating history of the Metro system. Seems like most of the questions we ask each other today have a historic reference point in the book. (Example: There were engineering reasons a Metrorail line couldn't be put through Georgetown.)

Here's a question for you all: Before you get in the car, what do you know about traffic conditions on your route? Do you check online, turn on TV or the radio? Or just get in the car and go? I listen to WTOP (103.5) or WNEW (99.1), depending on the time, they both have traffic reports on either the 8's or 1's (respectively). It takes me 10 minutes to get to the interstate, and then I can plan accordingly.

Thank you.

I ask people this question every chance I get, because we're always seeking to improve the information we provide to travelers. (Mark "Mark in the Morning" Berman provides a daily preview of commuting conditions on the Dr. Gridlock blog. Mark also is the producer of this chat, which is stretching his work day.)

The most frequent answer I get on the question: "I just get in the car and if I run into trouble, I turn on TOP."

I prefer the "Know before you go" strategy.

I wonder if there is a better way for the Metro to handle their rush hour service. I can't help but think that having trains of one color split have two different destinations. For anyone heading into DC from Maryland or Virginia, it probably won't be as much of an issue because people are most likely not using the Metro to get from Virginia to Maryland or from Maryland to Virginia. But, in the afternoon, when most of the traffic is leaving DC, it will be more important to know if you are on the Orange line to Largo or New Carrolton. Maybe Metro should scrap the colors and name trains just on the destination.

We're talking here about what Metro is calling the "Rush Plus" service. Starting June 18, the transit authority is going to do the thing it's been talking about for a few years: Divert some rush-hour Blue Line trains from the Rosslyn tunnel.

That's basically it, but the diversion allows Metro to add some Orange Line trains and expand Yellow Line service, sending some Yellow Line trains up to Greenbelt at rush hours.

One of the complications is the one that our reader notes: Because Metro is subtracting some Blue Line trains, it's going to compensate by sending some Orange Line trains through to Largo Town Center.

It's one of several ways Metro is increasing the odds that some riders will get on the wrong trains.

It will become more important to watch the destination signs on trains on some of the lines.

I've tried to describe this for you in a Commuter page feature about the new map Metro has created to incorporate "Rush Plus": http://wapo.st/GTogrj

I don't see the question in the mailbag today, but in previous sessions some of you have asked when the staircase between the mezzanine and platform at Vienna is scheduled to be done. Metro says May.

I work in Sterling and live in Arlington and I check Google traffic every afternoon before I leave work. I really only have 2 choices (both pretty bad) but sometimes it helps if I know the toll rd is backed up before the Toll Plaza.

I also like Google traffic. Very convenient.

(I think the next generation won't believe how primitive our "intelligent" transportation services were. Next Bus has its ghost buses. The traffic information system have green roads when they should be red and vice versa.)

It's not just the tourists, Dr. G. I see plenty of non-tourists (in suits, w/briefcases, ids around their necks, etc) who wait to get up until the doors open and then take their sweet time getting off the train. It's a real problem at busy stops like Metro Center.

Yes, and I don't mean to suggest it's all the tourists fault. Or that it's all the train operators' fault.

I have several other responses on the doors closing issue, and I'll push them out next.

When you are the last person who does not get on when the doors close, you naturally feel like they should have stayed open just a bit longer. It makes perfect sense to you. So if they do that, then what about the person just behind you? And the one behind them? Someone has to be the first one to not make it. I have been on an Orange line in the morning that is stopped at Court House to let Rosslyn clear, and if they leave the doors open it is a non-stop STREAM on to the train. There is not actual break or stop. So by your letter writer of a couple of weeks ago, they should never close the doors. There should be a set amount of time, adjusted based on the presence of those who need more time, and that is it. That is the only way any of us will get anywhere.

I agree that the doors have to close some time, and in any relatively busy period, there's going to be somebody who can't get on. I remember watching several trains go by one morning at Silver Spring station. There was always somebody running up the northside escalator, the one farthest from the operator's view, who tried to get on the train before the car doors closed. One operator opened the doors several times to let the stragglers aboard, but there comes a point where the train has to move on to all those people waiting on the Takoma platform.

When a door stops working on a single car, why can't they just empty that car, turn it dark, and let the train continue with 5 or 7 operating cars? I know they do that sometimes, because you see trains with a closed off, dark car. That would be so much more efficient than dumping an entire 8 car Orange Line train during rush hour because one door out of 48 (6 per car, 8 cars) has stopped working.

I know the cars on order now, the 7000 series, will have stronger doors and a much more flexible, intelligent system for checking problems and getting them back in service.

With the current fleet, I'm not sure a train can stay in service with one malfunctioning set of doors.

You certainly do see cars closed off, but I think that's generally because the air conditioning is busted, or because there was a sick passenger.

This isn't something you can do anything about, but I'm wondering what your take might be. I've lived in the DC area for a long time and have driven here for about 23 years and I feel like people on our roads are simply out of control in terms of the attitude of "I can do whatever I want, whenever I want." Pedestrians walk out into traffic at midblock, or against the light, or whatever and expect drivers to stop for them. Cyclicts ignore stop signs or red lights, ride on the wrong side of the road, and expet everyone to get out of the way. Drivers ignore whatever laws they find inconvenient. This morning I was in the right lane of two approaching a green light at 45 mph (which was the speed limit there) when the guy to my left suddenly decided he wanted to turn right (without a signal, of course) and swerved in front of me to cross to the right-turn-only lane, then gave ME the finger when I blew the horn (what, was I just supposed to melt out of his way?). I've had people turn right on red in front of me when I'm already halfway through an intersection. I routinely see cars being driven at night without headlights. It frustrates the [expletive deleted] out of me, but I'm at a loss for what the solution might be. We can require people to re-take the knowledge test for every other driver's license renewal, and I think that would be a great idea, but really, we all know people will pass the test and then go out and behave the way they already were. I guess the point of my rant, aside from getting it off my chest, is what, if anything, can we do about it?

I have a good letter I'm going to run from a traveler who wants to know if there's any evidence that any particular driving behavior has gotten better.

And so far, I can't find any evidence of a specific behavior that's gotten better. In my column, people write in all the time to vent about bad behavior on the roads.

In response to a traveler's comment earlier in the chat, I talked about traffic safety's three E's of Engineering, Education and Enforcement.

It's pretty clear that no single E does the trick.

The last 3-4 weeks has seen MAJOR work in Arlington at Rt. 50 and Courthouse road where they will be completely rebuilding an intersection... or perhaps more correctly series of close proximity intersections. Do you know if there's any information that outlines the stages of this project? I use the intersection every day as my office building is right there, and am curious when it will effect me (they just tore down a major bridge over the weekend).

First, I want to invite you to follow along on the Dr. Gridlock blog, where I've noted the current state of this VDOT reconstruction project a few times, including Friday and today.

My chat producer, Mark Berman, also found a Web page that describes the whole project: http://bit.ly/GO6I1k

The whole project -- and it's a big one -- is scheduled to be done in fall 2013.

Dr. G - I know this project is suposed to be done by the end of this year, but does VDOT plan on opening up lanes or sections over a period of time? Or will the entire project be completed and unveiled all at once? I may be wrong, but I thought I recall you saying a long time ago that the outer loop would be completed before the inner loop and would be accessible to drivers first.

All at once. The goal of this project is to create four high-occupancy toll lanes in the middle of the Beltway for the 14 miles between Springfield and the area just north of the Dulles Toll Road.

Those new lanes will open when all the work is done and all the equipment is in place to operate them as HOT lanes.

Some new things have opened, and will open, beforehand. But think of those as accessories to the main piece, the HOT lanes themselves.

Of course there are plenty of times where the destination signs on the train are either not working or wrong. That really complicates things. Those also end up usually being the trains where the announcements are either not made, inaudible, or unintelligible.

And the thing I didn't mention before: Riders will have extra reasons to check the passenger information displays on the platforms to see the destinations. But as you know, those signs can be wrong, too. It certainly doesn't inspire confidence when the signs tell you the next train is "2" cars long.

I sometimes wait to get up to get off the train for two reasons: 1 - I'm sitting at the window and there is someone next to me or 2 - The ride has been so jerky, I don't feel like being flung into my fellow passengers just to get closer to the door.

Yes, I do that, too. And like many of you, I'm sure, I pick my seat based on ease of exit. So those seats right by the doors, where you don't have to ask a seatmate to move, are particularly appealing.

I saw the new Metro map and I was surprised that they didn't include any sort of information, whether via symbol, text box, whatever, about the free "out-of-system" transfer "between the Farraguts." If they really want to reduce congestion at the most crowded stops, wouldn't it make sense for the map to advise riders that they need not continue down to Metro Center to change from Red to Orange/Blue or vice versa? I was really surprised that this one isn't on there.

I've heard the same thought from several travelers about the lack of map information on the virtual transfer between the Farraguts.

Seems to me that the mapmakers have decided to severely limit the amount of explaining done in text on the map, for the sake of overall clarity.

Think of how many things you know about one Metrorail trip that you could tell a newcomer. And I don't mean warnings about how the doors close. I mean just the basic getting-around information. Then compare what you know to what's on the map.

Thanks for the reading suggestion! Just requested a copy from my local library

I see on Amazon it's $27.50 in hardcover and $16.50 as a Kindle download. (Good subway reading, if you can get a seat.)

The radios in our bedroom are tuned to WTOP and we listen to that while getting dressed. If we miss the report and need to hear one promptly, we'll turn to WNEW. I also have XM Satellite Radio in one of the cars and in the past I've turned to their traffic channel when I'm in the car and I needed info at a time when WTOP's report was not coming up, but I'm less likely to do that now because their DC channel is shared with information for Baltimore and Atlanta and the DC part airs "on the 1s," i.e., the same time as WNEW's. I'm more confident in WNEW's and WTOP's reports than XM's because the former two stations broadcast their reports live, whereas XM records them and loops the recording every ten minutes, updating it every half an hour or so. Also, XM's reporters seem less adept than WTOP's and WNEW's, to the point where it's blatantly obvious that they're just reading from a computer display without really understanding what they're saying (example: "I-95 is backed up from Occoquan River Bridge to the Triangle"--Triangle is the name of a town in Virginia and "the Triangle" is a region of North Carolina). It just makes me feel less confident in the XM reports. I must say, though, that for out-of-area travel it's nice to have the satellite radio reports available because if I'm in, say, Orlando I don't know which FM station is good for this info. The big thing for us in the morning is our own two eyes, though. I can tell when I reach the light at the entrance to our community whether the road will be backed up and whether I need to go a different way based on whether there are stopped cars on the road we'll be turning onto when we leave.

Thanks for the full report, including the part about what tips a veteran traveler looks for right at the start of a commute.

Others probably look for similar visual clues.

I am very tired of these complaints. Yes, there are idiots anywhere. Yes, each region of the country tends to have certain driving "ticks" that are more prevalent than others. I can't help but wonder, though, about the people I meet who ALWAYS seem to encounter bad drivers. Have they ever stopped to consider the only common factor in each encounter is themself? For example, maybe the poster who was cut off by someone wanting to turn right hadn't been actively paying attention, and had actually blocked that other driver from merging well before the intersection? Sometimes, a little self-reflection is in order...

We've been talking some about transportation books today. There's a great section in "The Invisible Gorilla" about how most drivers rate themselves as above average. A Lake Wobegon effect, you might say.

Some base this evaluation on the fact that they often get home without crashing. As you note, we tend to overlook our own faults and highlight the errors of others.

I've heard that Metro SmartCards are separating out the monies on it for transit and parking. Does that apply only to people with SmartBenefits, or to all riders? If to all riders, is there a way for me to check what the balances are? It's been ages since I rode Metro, but will need to again soon. Hence the question. Thanks!

You're talking about the new SmartBenefits system designed to comply with longstanding IRS rules. Yes, this is for people who get transit benefits.

If all you're doing is adding your own money to your SmarTrip card, the display at the fare gate or at the parking exit should be telling you the grand total you have. There shouldn't be any division between transit riding and parking.

People did OK adapting to the weird period in the early 1980s when the Blue Line ran on the Orange Line and vice versa. See old Metro map here: http://images.greatergreaterwashington.org/images/200810/wmata1982large.jpg I'm sure people can adapt today, since all they have to do now is watch for the destination signs. If you board at a station with shared tracks like, say, Foggy Bottom, you already have to do that anyway, so what's the big deal?

I do think the regulars will adapt pretty quickly. But visitors, or occasional riders, or people who might wind up taking a route that's not their usual one, will get on the wrong train from time to time. Or they will be confused about why a train is terminating at a station before the end of the line.

It can happen now. A person at Metro Center heading for Vienna could wind up on a train to Franconia-Springfield if the person doesn't watch the train colors.

The new system just increases the opportunities for such misadventures.


"I prefer the "Know before you go" strategy." It typically doesn't do any good because so many commuters do not have viable alternate routes. For instance, I can look at the cameras and check the radio, but it doesn't change the fact that my commute from Gaithersburg to Fairfax is going to take me over the Legion Bridge and through Tysons. Sure, I could go through DC or go out to Point of Rocks, but unless the beltway is physically closed, the beltway is still the fastest route. The only thing checking ahead will tell me is if I'm in for an hour-long drive or 3-hour long drive, and that's the crux of the transportation system in this region---the lack of viable alternative routes. Drive to just about any other major city, and there are 2-4 parallel highways within 10-15 miles of each other. If you have to cross the Potomac River as part of your commute, you're pretty much out of luck, because the alternative highways are non-existant. Until this region wakes up to the fact that there is not enough highway capacity in the area, all of the preplanning in the world is not going to change the fact that you're going to sit in traffic because there's only one road to get you from point a to point b.

I think you're quite right about the limited alternatives, and also the limited ways we have of knowing whether those alternatives will be any better than just sitting through the congestion we're in right now.

I think we're going to get very little in the way of new routes. The HOT lanes and the "spot improvements" on I-66 inside the Beltway are ways of increasing capacity within existing roadways. Other than that, we'll probably concentrate on making roads smarter through technology, as VDOT is planning to do with I-66.

Thanks for joining me today. We have to sign off now. You've given me some ideas for topics I should post on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week. (For example, I didn't get to post some of your responses on the aggressive driving and camera issues.)

Write to me during the week at drgridlock@washpost.com, and join me again next Monday for the chat.

Stay safe, and enjoy some of these upcoming days of good spring weather.

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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