Dr. Gridlock

Apr 15, 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. I was away last week. What did I miss, besides summer?

I do see a bunch of traffic and transit questions and comments, so let's go.

It seems the work on Connecticut Avenue inside the Beltway has been sitting idle for some time. Is it someway tied to the Silver Spring Transit Center?

Nothing to do with the transit center debacle. Are you thinking of the Purple Line as the potential link between Conn Ave and Silver Spring?

There's no construction money for the Purple Line, and nothing's been started. When it is,  the light rail line will cross Conn Ave farther south.

What you're looking at probably is either utility location or some road work associated with the intersection improvements intended to ease traffic around the medical center.

Is there a good way to ask others to refrain from eating on the Metro? I don't want to be a busybody, but most people I see eating clearly know that it's not allowed, and our amazingly clean Metro cars are a community effort. Any tips on discouraging this behavior without seeming like a jerk?

That's always been a tough one, because you're not sure how the person will take it.

My suggestion: Treat the person as a newcomer to the system -- even if you don't believe the person is. Offer the friendly advice that eating and drinking is not allowed, and that if an officer sees the person doing it, the person faces a fine.


Will Metro ever address the many dead spots for cell phone reception on the Red Line? The one between Metro Center and Farragut North is particularly annoying to me but I am sure there are others. Thanks.

I'm sure riders can name plenty of dead spots. I think there's one around Union Station, speaking of the Red Line.

The project to upgrade the cell phone service throughout the system is way behind schedule. Many of the stations have better service, but the tunnels are spotty.

When did coming to a full stop at stop signs become optional in the metro area? Drivers appear to equate "Stop" with "Yield".

They yield at stop signs? Things are looking up.

I sometimes stand at intersections just to watch how all types of travelers behave. (Yes, I'm a transpo geek.)

My observation is that many people obey only those traffic laws they absolutely, positively believe they have to obey or they will get a ticket or get hit.

Which reminds me: The springtime Street Smart law enforcement campaign has begun. During the next few weeks, officers across the D.C. region will be paying particular attention to behavior at intersections.


Along with the tourists, the panhandlers are out in force, jumping from Metro rail car to car. What does Metro prefer riders do, besides of course not giving them money? Call police? Contact driver via intercom?

I think it's more a question of what riders prefer to do about this. I wouldn't use 911 for this, but calling the transit police number (202-962-2121)  or using the intercom to talk with the operator are good choices.

Riders have mentioned two issues during similar discussions: One is that they don't want to call attention to themselves by doing these things inside the car. Very understandable. I've often suggested moving to another car at the next station, so you're out of earshot. But I also wish there were a way to send a text message to transit police.

The other issue is that the panhandlers are highly mobile. It's going to take a while for transit police to reach a train -- assuming an officer is available at that time for this assignment -- and the panhandlers could get off at the next station and take a train heading the other way.


Do you know why the speed limit is artificially low on Wiehle Ave from Reston Pkwy to Fairfax County Pkwy? It's a 4-lane divided road with no traffic lights and no residential houses, yet the speed limit is 35. People routinely go 45-50, especially during rush hour and I frequently see police monitoring the area. They know it's artificially low as well. What can be done?

You can complain to the Virginia Department of Transportation about the speed limit. It's possible the speed limit is low. Not sure what you mean by "artifically low."

This stretch looks to be about 1.2 miles long. Not sure how much time savings would be gained by raising the speed limit for that distance.

I have an iPhone 4S on AT&T, and I can get service in Union Station (where I begin my commute in the morning) and Dupont (where I end), but don't get much in the other stations. Occasionally I do in Judiciary and Farragut, but never in Gallery Place and Metro Center.

Can we make more? Nothing worse then someone chatting on the phone on the Metro.

Does Verizon have superior coverage in the tunnels?

Yes. Verizon got there first. The other services are in the midst of catching up. Still, there are dead spots in tunnels even with Verizon -- I say from experience.

I wait for a commuter bus on 14th St. The traffic is heavy in the evenings. Frequently when the light is green traffic going straight cannot go or they will block the intersection. However over and over I see when a car moves up someone doing a right turn on red will quickly fill the spot not allowing thought traffic to move. I know this is legal but it does not seem right. Maybe there should be a ban on right turns on red during rush hour.

Many intersections in DC do have right turn restrictions till 7 p.m. (The black and white sign posted by the traffic signal.) Maybe this one should be added?

Dr. Gridlock: Is the Post planning to publish Metro's weekend track work schedule for this spring and summer? It was a big help to me last year as I attend several Nationals games on the weekends. Thank you. Nats Fan

Back in January, I did a listing of major track work through June. Here's a link: http://bit.ly/117j0tW

But Metro does add in additional projects as the months go on. And that's just the major projects, the kind that split lines and close stations. Metro also -- as you are no doubt painfully aware -- also does projects in which trains share tracks around work zones. Those generally aren't announced till the start of the week in which the work will occur.

We do postings on the Dr. Gridlock blog as well as short items in the newspaper to provide updates on the schedule.

Hey Doc, I believe that I am behind the times on this, but has the direct connection from I-395 North to DC 295 north opened? That is, can I start skipping the Pennsylvania Avenue connection when I'm coming from Virginia and headed to the BW Parkway?

Yes, the direct link has been open since late last year. So continue across the 11th Street Bridge to find that ramp.

And don't look for that old link to Pennsylvania Avenue. That's gone. The freeway section that you recall is under reconstruction. That stretch will remained close for more than a year.

Any ideas why Metro train operators don't more uniformly communicate with passengers on the train during trouble? Last week, on an OL train - we sat for several minutes without moving. Then, the train slowly moved down the tracks to Courthouse. All without a word from the operator. As we pulled into the station, I pulled out my phone and saw on Twitter that an OL train was being off-loaded at Courthouse. 20 seconds later, the operator told us that. If WMATA can put it on Twitter several minutes beforehand, the operator can't tell us anything about what's going on with the train?

The operator should certainly be telling the riders what's going on. I like the improvements Mero has made with its electronic alerts, but I don't see that as a substitute for direct communication with riders via the loudspeakers and the platform signs.

There is this, though: Riders sometimes report getting mixed signals. The electronic message says one thing and the train operator says another. Sometimes, I think there's miscommunication. Other times, I think the situations are evolving quickly. Everybody is right for 30 seconds, and then they're information is outdated.

How on earth does Arlington think 1 million dollars is appropriate to spend on a bus stop. If the street car project was run like the bus stop modernization one, it would approach Silver line costs.

Here's a link to Patricia Sullivan's story: http://bit.ly/138kwih

I found it all very discouraging. The region needs better bus stops. That would encourage more people to choose buses. But that rate of spending -- or anything close to it --  is unsustainable.

This is true, but even a rookie metro police officer should have figured out by now that these pandhandlers aka kids raising money for "their team" hangout at union station around2-3pm every day and harrass people on the platform and then on the train heading towards Glenmont.

That would be a good target for police. I see the panhandlers mostly on trains -- and they're rarely the kids you mention. It's more often someone handing out a card for something, then taking it back from you when you don't give money. They don't spend a long time in any one car.

Regarding the prior suggestion about banning right turns on red during rush hour (which I presume was intended to be a suggestion for DC), I think rights on red are becoming more and more of a problem everywhere. People have decided they are ENTITLED to go right on red regardless of other traffic (and I'll include pedestrians in "other traffic"). In fact the rule is precisely the opposite: Because you are at a red light, you are required to come to a full stop and you may only proceed to turn right (or left, in certain situations) if there is no other traffic to whom you are required to yield. I've had people turn right on red in front of me when I'm going 45 mph on a route like Van Dorn Street at Franconia Road (posted speed limit: 45 mph) and it scares the heck out of me. I've also seen a lot of near-accidents where a right on red movement conflicts with a U-turn movement. Van Dorn Street at Edsall Road in Alexandria is a good example: Lots of people make U-turns to reach a McDonald's, and the people making the U-turns have a green arrow. That means they're entitled to go and the right-on-red people are supposed to yield. Of course, the right-on-red crowd never yields and there are a lot of near rear-endings and the like. I don't think a blanket ban on turning on red is the solution, but I do think the local highway departments need to be more aggressive in considering particular intersections that should have restrictions posted (whether due to a lot of U-turns, high pedestrian traffic, poor sight lines, whatever).

I know many drivers don't like this, but I really like the newer red-light cameras that can catch drivers sail through red lights when making right turns.

Early in today's discussion, I noted that many travelers ignore any traffic law they feel they don't absolutely have to obey because of personal risk (a ticket or a crash). Rights on red without stopping is one of the scenarios I had in mind.

Has Richard Sarles lost his mind? The problems with metro rely in poor, inconsistent service. Not aesthetics. Why is Metro wasting money on this nonsense?

I've got a bunch of comments about Metro's plan to makeover the Bethesda station as a test case in some new design concepts. Here's a link to Dana Hedgpeth's story: http://wapo.st/16VNzWG

I was away last week, so I'm trying to catch up with you on this one.

During this rebuilding program, when so much of the transit system looks so crummy, I've frequently urged Metro managers to pick something -- almost anything -- and make it better. (My historical reference is to the height of the grafitti era on the NY subways, when the transit authority said, okay, we pick this line to be grafitti free. It's just one line, but it's a start.)

So now, I see Metro picking one station as a target, and saying, in effect, "We're going to make this better. Yes, it's just one station, but it's a start." So I have a tough time feeling anything other than hopeful about this.

And I say this as someone who regularly has to look up at the ceiling in the Farragut North station, which for well more than a year has looked like somebody upstairs let the tub overflow till it brought down all the ceiling tiles.

So yes, I know there are plenty of other things Metro needs to fix.

I see nothing wrong with using Bethesda as a lab for attacking some of the problems -- such as the miserable lighting conditions -- that riders constantly complain about throughout the rail system.

What I especially like is that Metro seems willing to consider new ideas on station design. I've watched station cleaning crews move in and do station makeovers. They do a fine job. But the station designs are a half century old.

If you just take what your given and try to repair individual items, that's just lipstick on a pig at this point. I can't see anything wrong with taking a modern approach to the overall design of our stations, and applying a 21st century vision.

Metro might try something at Bethesda and decide it doesn't work. We've certainly seen other examples of that over the years. But as long as this station makeover isn't coming at the expense of other work -- and Metro says it isn't -- we should support this idea.

A Shout out to the Bethesda station manager from this morning. I arrived to find a disabled train on the platform and single tracking. The Bethesda station manager was on the platform helping people and making announcements as the trains were coming into the station. He was really great and provided information that was helpful, a rare event during a train crisis!

More of this. As I was saying earlier, it's fine that Metro has improved its electronic communications, but there's no substitute for effective communication on the mezzanines, platforms and trains.

I know this is a perennially frustrating topic but... I'm a bike commuter who runs the occasional red light, and wanted to offer my perspective. Bikes are neither cars nor pedestrians, but at different times we have features of each. To wit, when my bike is MOVING, I think of myself as mostly a car. But when my bike is STOPPED, I'm really much more like pedestrian than anything else. And as a pedestrian, I jaywalk (when safe) all the time.

I'm not saying the top priority is to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules. We're not that type of a society, thank goodness.

You're description isn't the type of thinking I'm down on.  For example, it doesn't matter to me so much that people think of themselves as this or that. What bothers me is that people seem to think of themselves, and nothing but themselves, when traveling.

Okay, we should stop now. Sorry I took so long to answer that one comment on the Bethesda Metro makeover, but that seemed like an important one and I wanted to check on some things. I think I'll do a blog posting about that issue and let more people comment.

Also, I want to use the blog this week to talk a little more about the Beltway HOT lanes and some developments there.

Come on back next Monday and we can share some more ideas about local travel. In the meantime, stay safe out there.

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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