Dr. Gridlock

Apr 22, 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'm scanning through the mailbag looking for comments and questions that are most likely to need responses from you. So let me start with a few of them, on both traffic and transit issues.

We need to get from Richmond to DC tomorrow afternoon and had planned to go I-95. A friend told us today that the traffic going north was backed up for miles. Is there construction? Should we try to take another route rather than 1-95?

We had bad traffic on I-95/395 to the 14th Street Bridge into DC during Monday morning's rush. But I don't believe that was related to construction.

The one project I know if is the construction of the 95 Express Lanes where the HOV lanes are now.  I don't believe that would be a serious impedement to a Tuesday afternoon trip to DC.

Traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia is always pretty bad, but I don't see an alternative route doing any better for you from Richmond to DC.

Others have thoughts?

My drive each morning on I-295 northbound from the Wilson Bridge can occasionally be quite slow as there are numerous back-ups at exit 1 (for the Naval Research Lab) and exit 2 (for JBAB main gate). Once employees for the new DHS building join the crush, I wonder if additional lanes may be added to I-295? Hopefully there will not be any surprises with the additional traffic (remembering when the Mark Center opened on I-395).

I haven't heard of any plans that would affect those exits from I-295. The main traffic concern that readers express about I-295 comes at its most northern point, where it goes into the 11th Street Bridge. Are others concerned about traffic at exits 1 and 2?

Recently, you've been asking how people find out about traffic information once already on the road. There is a great app that provides real time traffic data, optimizes navigation instructions based on said data, can allow people you are meeting to track your ETA as you arrive, and gives you the ability to report (through a voice activated feature) incidents, speed traps, and the like to the app so other drivers will know about the incidents. The app is called Waze (www.waze.com) and is free to download to iPhone and Android. I'm a huge fan, and I expect others will be too once they try it out. I see it as an additional resource, beyond traffic reports on WTOP and WNEW that I can also get while I'm in my car.

I used Waze recently when the Gridspouse and I drove through Delaware on our way to the New Jersey Turnpike. An I-95 message board warned of traffic problems ahead so I -- in the passenger seat -- turned to Waze and got us onto Route 40, then tracked the speeds ahead of us as provided by Waze users.

That worked pretty well. I haven't tried the voice feature, but was recently told that was a big benefit.

Other people have success with Waze, or want to recommend alternatives for real-time navigation?

My wife and I have differing opinion on how to handle people that merge at the last possible moment when 2 lanes are going down to 1, especially during rush hour, which means it is not a surprise to most people. This happens a lot in the morning as the Cabin John Parkway ends right before the Clara Barton Parkway, and then again on the Clara Barton Parkway, right before the turnaround to MacArthur Blvd. She wants me to let everyone in and I'm saying if I do that, then what repercussions do people have in skipping the line and merging in the front of the line? We would not accept this behavior at a line at a store or ticket counter, so why let it happen when people are behind cars? I obviously am not so obstinate that an accident will result, but why make it easy for these "special" people that are too important to merge earlier on like most other people do?

Your wife is right. You should let them in. At least, that's what traffic engineers tell me. The traffic engineers don't engage in moral philosphy. They're just trying to get everyone where they're going as quickly and safely as possible. Nothing stretches out a traffic jam like constant braking. The kind of braking you see when drivers are really close together and need to hit the brakes every few feet, as they do when making sure that drivers in another lane can't merge.

Engineers -- like my readers -- also divide over the best way to merge. Some favor merging as quickly as possible when you're aware that a lane will end ahead. Others think that's a waste of perfectly good pavement. They say drivers should use both lanes till the last moment, then take turns going through the gap.

(You can see I'm talking about a straight-forward merge, where two through lanes become one through lane. I'm not talking about places like the Beltway's inner loop in Bethesda where drivers pull out of through lanes and shoot up the on/off lane to gain an advantage just before Wisconsin Ave. Still, I'd let God sort it out rather than risk a collision.)

Where are they coming from? What are they hauling?

I have no idea, but am publishing this in case someone else might have a suggestion.

What are the laws on riding bicycles on sidewalks in the central business district (I'm thinking roughly of the area bordered by Constitution Ave on the South, L St on the north, 15th on the west and 7th on the east.)? While I understand the desire for cycle tours groups to stay off the street, dodging them is iffy -- I've even been hit from behind by a cyclist on a sidewalk on the east side of 15th St).

Cyclists are barred from the sidewalks in the Central Business District. Here's a short link to a Google Map of that area.


I found that on the Washington Area Bicyclist Association Web site, which advises of the rule. But I've never seen a warning sign on a downtown sidewalk.

Things aren't as bad downtown as they were in the heyday of the bicycle messengers, but there still are plenty of cyclists who ignore the law or are ignorant of it.

Dr. G., You wrote in your column this week about how Metro should do an improvement with immediate and clear benefit to the riders. What about pressuring them to provide better information about the weekend trackwork schedule, the way other transit agencies around the world do? While it is true that there is a calendar of "major" trackwork requiring bustitution due to station closures on the website, all "minor" work (including trains running every 20-30 minutes due to single tracking that can add 40 minutes or more to a trip) is only announced the Monday before the weekend. Other agencies have special sections for all trackwork and service advisories that are easily accessible from the home page, such as the MTA in New York, Transport for London, and others. In the case of both London and New York, trackwork and scheduled disruptions are listed for months in advance, even if the work doesn't require station closures.

I haven't looked at how other transit agencies organize their track work. What Metro says is that the single-tracking projects -- as opposed to the projects defined as major track work, the ones that close stations -- is much more subject to schedule changes. So it's difficult to publish a reliable schedule farther ahead than the Monday before.

The amount of notice I get on single-tracking is about the same amount of notice I get from DDOT, VDOT and MDOT about lane closings. For similar reasons, I think.

That said, anything Metro can do to improve communication about delays is a very good thing. One of my main gripes for a long time was that the otherwise useful Trip Planner on Metro's Web site wasn't reflecting the scheduled delays on weekends. Now it does that, although it comes in a couple of phases. First, Metro attaches advisories to Trip Planner warning about delays along particular routes. But by the end of the week, the delays are incorporated into the timetables you get in response to a Trip Planner query. For example, if you ask about a weekend trip on the Red Line and it's in the zone where stations are shut, the Trip Planner response is going to tell you that you'll have to get onto a bus here and get off there and it's going to take you this much longer because of that.

That's a bit of progress.

I'm the one who originally wrote in on Waze, thanks for posting the comment. An important note to make is that it works best if you drive with the app open as much as possible, so as to communicate data to other drivers AND so that you aren't dependent upon message boards and the like to find out about incidents ahead. I used Waze while driving to Baltimore on the Orioles' opening day and Waze correctly sent me alerts about traffic building ahead and an accident that took place after passing one of the message boards that indicated smooth sailing to the tunnels (though it also said traffic conditions had improved ahead when I was sitting on I-395 in Baltimore going nowhere).

Thanks for the extra information, and I get what you're saying about keeping the app open. We were on a long trip and I was worried about the iPhone battery.

Generally, I like the idea of having more than one source for traffic information. Wherever I can, I go for the region's all-news station to get regular reports. And on the phone, I check several sites, including Traffic View and Google Maps for real-time information.

I take exit 2 for JBAB, and really hope that the DHS addition doesn't add too much to my commute. To avoid most of the traffic, I leave my house at 5 a.m., and don't want to have to leave any earlier!

Thanks for this response on my question about whether commuters were having trouble with the I-295 exits south of the 11th St Bridge. (5 a.m. is a pretty brutal departure time just to deal with traffic congestion.)

They were great for about a week, & now those overhead signs on Route 66 eastbound, in the morning at least, are displaying "Delays ahead Exits 50-60". No kidding. Even the one that has been working for longer, 10 miles out from the beltway, just says delays. After all the money spent putting them up, why are they no longer functioning? Did Metro take them over?

Anyone else with feedback on the I-66 travel time message boards? In our region, I'm getting used to seeing a number of miles and a number of travel minutes displayed. Outside our region -- on I-95 in Connecticut, for example -- I'm used to seeing the "delays ahead" version.


If I use the Beltway Express Lanes without an EZPass, where does the extra fee go ($1.50 if I pay online or $12 if I wait for the bill in the mail)? Does Transurban get that money or does it just go to EZPass?

I know you have to make the check out to Capital Beltway Express LLC, which is the express lanes operator. I'm not sure if they then pass some of that along to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, as an administrative fee for looking up the registered owner of the vehicle, based on the license plate photo.

Don't use the E-ZPass lanes without an E-ZPass. It's not like Maryland's Intercounty Connector, which uses a video tolling system in addition to accepting E-ZPass. The Beltway express lanes system was not designed to accommodate car drivers who don't have E-ZPasses.

I have seen in various recent articles about the Silver Line that Metro can fit 26 trains through Rosslyn in one direction in one hour. They have chosen to run 10 Silver, 11 Orange, and 5 Blue trains, which leads to their being a Blue train every 12 minutes, and each of the others every 5-6 minutes. Blue Line riders in Virginia find this hard to accept. It seems to me that a way to please everyone would be to run a Blue, Orange, and Silver Train every 7.5 minutes each (for a total of 6 trains every 15 minutes), and you still have room for one extra Silver and one extra Orange train to reach the 26-train level through Rosslyn. Silver and Orange riders would hardly notice the (less than) 2-minute extra wait, and Blue Line riders would get nearly the same level of service as they had up until a year ago. And if the Silver and Orange Lines get 8-car trains, and the Blue Line gets 6-car trains, there will still be enough room for everyone.

Blue Line riders definitely lose under the service plan to accommodate the Silver Line. The 12 minutes between trains will be the biggest gap anywhere in the Metrorail system at rush hour.

Metro officials say they start with the idea that you describe -- the max number of trains that can go through the tunnel per hour -- and then see how to divide them up among three lines. The problem with a balanced schedule is that it wouldn't accommodate ridership patterns, either now or in the future. By Metro's calculations, it needs that number of trains coming in from the west to accommodate the commuters from that area. (Let's see if a rider boarding at Court House or Clarendon would be okay with fewer trains per hour during the morning rush.)

On Saturday afternoon we were coming back from a winery visit in Linden and the signs were all working fine. Approaching Centreville, the sign used "Vienna Metro" as the waypoint and gave time and distance; later signs listed the Beltway and gave time and distance. Seemed fine to me. Now if they could just do something about the self-important [censored] who ignore the red "X" signals for the shoulder and bomb along at 55 to 65 mph when the traffic using the legal lanes is doing 25.....

Thanks for the report on the travel time signs.

And yeah, those X drivers are the kind I was talking about in my response to the question/comment about mergers' behavior.

The earlier posters are correct. There are now frequent backups on 295 for both exits 1 and 2. You finally make it past exit 2 only to face the wall of traffic that is trying to go across the 11th Street bridge. It is bad and getting worse.

Also what about places like Key Bridge? Very hard to walk when bikes are whizzing by on the sidewalk.

Cyclists are allowed to use the Key Bridge sidewalk. My cross-bridge experience is that regular commuter cyclists tend to travel responsibly and are aware of pedestrians. Unfortunately, that's not universally true. The bridges are places where travelers need to share.

"Don't use the E-ZPass lanes without an E-ZPass." Why?? According to Transurban's own report, nearly half of the vehicles in the lanes do not use an EZPass. If I'm only going to use the lanes once or twice a year, why should I purchase an maintain an EZPass account at $1/month if it only costs me $1.50 each time I use them? I could theoretically use the last 8 times in a year and still break even.

What I saw in the Transurban report was that about half the drivers on the Beltway in Virginia don't have E-ZPasses, which would be different from half the drivers in the express lanes.

I'm not sure which is more of a hassle for drivers: Going to the trouble of getting an E-ZPass, or remembering to go online and pay the toll and fee each time they violate the lane rules.

I drive from Quantico to VA every afternoon, and want to reassure the first poster that the traffic won't be as horrific as you think. It will slow down around exit 152, and you'll either be stop-and-go, or about a steady 35 mph until you get close to the construction which is right by Potomac Mills. Then you lose a lane, definitely stop-and-go as people try to merge. It consistently adds 20 minutes to my commute, but rarely anything more than that. So plan accordingly, don't stress, it is all over by the time you pass the Ikea!

When you drive in the lanes without E-ZPass, the toll transaction costs more to process (they have to match video images of license plates, a process that is not completely automatic), and the $1.50 fee goes to Transurban to offset their increased costs of tracking your trip. If you don't come forward and pay, the extra $10.50 on top of that is to offset the cost of looking up your registration info from DMV. I'm assuming this is an average cost, as it is probably dirt cheap for them to get lookup information from Virginia/Maryland/DC, but other states are far more expensive (it has been reported that Pennsylvania charges $25 per lookup).

Regarding the merge question, in some states they post "Alternate "Merge" signs at the point where the two lanes narrow to one, and drivers use both lanes right until the merge point, at which they take turns entering the single lane. Drivers in both lanes have equal rights to merge, and drivers understand what "Alternate Merge" means. Safer and less stressful than the way we do it here, but taking turns seems to be an alien concept.

Yeah, I think Pennsylvania is one of those states, right? I think success depends partly on traffic volume and on how quickly the lane ends.

But above all, I like the idea of the highway department clearly stating rules. Most drivers will follow the rules -- if they feel they're clearly stated and everyone can see them.

I feel for blue line riders, but as an courthouse rider, I can tell you my wait isn't every 2 minutes. There may be a train coming every 2 minutes, but about half of the time I have to let it pass or stand touching the 2-3 people next to me. When we have a gap of more than 4 minutes, there is no chance I can get on the train. With the silver line, more and more riders will be going through the station and I am very worried about train crowding.

I had a question from a Rosslyn rider last week about this issue. The Rosslyn rider was worried about increased crowding with the addition of the Silver Line.

At least in the early going, I'm not seeing that.

You're talking about convincing more people in Northern Virginia to give up car commuting and go for transit. That's going to be a slow process.

More likely -- again, in the early going -- some commuters who now board at Orange Line stations are going to be boarding at Silver Line stations, either at the west end, at the Wiehle Avenue station, or at the four Tysons stations. Because no parking garages are being built in Tysons for the Silver Line, it's possible that some of those early Silver Line trains will be less crowded than some of the current Orange Line trains.

I love the Inrix traffic app - use it on a daily basis wherever I go! And when I did have issues, the CEO of the company actually responded to me... and still asks for my input!

Thank you. I should have mentioned INRIX in my previous comment. It's one of the apps I use.

(Maybe I should say again that I don't check anything -- won't even take a phone call -- while driving. I do take voice directions, but that's mostly from the Gridspouse.)

Has Transurban changed their philosophy on their customers for the Beltway Express Lanes? I seem to recall that you were reporting that they expected their typical user to be the occasional driver who needed to get to a meeting or pick up their child from daycare. However, in recent ads it seems that Transurban is marketing the lanes as an "everyday to ensure a reliable commute time" product. With average tolls steadily increasing, do they really think their core customer is someone who's going to pay that every day for the one time a week when the lanes will save significant time? Or, have they just thrown in the towel in trying to promote the lanes as a way to circumvent traffic on days when it gets bad?

I haven't detected any change in Transurban's marketing concepts. It's a private, money-making operation, and I think the managers would be happy to have anybody using the lanes for any reason.

The lanes opened in mid-November, and Transurban has a 75-year lease, so I don't believe they're going to make any dramatic changes based on a few months' experience.

They hear the same things from drivers that I do: Some drivers are just flat-out confused about how to use the lanes. Others don't know how to make the instant cost-benefit analysis at the access points so they'll know whether paying the toll is worthwhile for a given trip.

A limo driver in Philadelphia introduced me to Waze last year.. I have used it on a number of occasions since then. It is pretty good - but not completely reliable. I drive from New Haven, CT to JFK on a regular basis. There are two main routes I can use - I95 and the Merritt Parkway. Waze doesn't always recommend the most optimal route. I think it may depend on how many people are submitting real time information. I have used the Waze voice controls (via bluetooth) and that helps when you are alone. If you a passenger or too it can be annoying. I have found GoogleMaps (on iPhone) to be a nice alternative and better predictor of traffic.

You raise a point that I wonder about also. Waze is a social network, relying on its users. If there aren't too many users on a given road -- like the four-lane Merritt Parkway, as opposed to eight-lane I-95 in Conn -- maybe the overall report on traffic conditions won't be as accurate?

First are you going to DC proper ie downtown? Okay here is a back way. Take Rt610 heading west and stay on Rt610 until you get to the stop sign, The turn left on Bristersburg Rd. At the t intersection take a right turn on Elk Run Rd. Stay on Elk Run Rd until you reach Rt 28 and make a right on Rt 28. Take rt 28 to Prince William Parkway and take that North and then take I 66E.

That one is for our traveler going north from Richmond to DC on Tuesday afternoon.

Love the Waze app and use it when ever I need directions. The real-time traffic info form other Waze users just can't be beat. I haven't yet joined or reported a traffic problem -- but love to use the app when I need directions.

I sent in my first traffic reports to Waze when we were trying to navigate around that I-95 traffic jam in Delaware. It felt good to do it, like being part of a solution.

Again, I was doing this from the passenger seat.

What's the deal with 295 near the 11 st bridge? The new traffic pattern heading North is horrific. 6 lanes squeeze into 2 with people in the far left lane trying to get over to Pennsylvania Ave. Going south is bad too. the 11 st bridge backs up so that only one lane squeezes by to the left. Will it be better when the construction is over? It has already been 4+ years. When will they be done? I hope somebody gets fired over this. It was fine before the started messing with it.

The big problem, I think, is the weave many drivers have to do once they get on the bridge. That slows traffic to the north and the south. One more through lane coming in the inbound bridge, but not till work on the Capitol Hill side advances and we're into next year.

(This is the first time I've heard from anyone who said the 11th Street Bridge was fine before the reconstruction. In fact, it was one of the top 5 bottlenecks in the D.C. region that readers complained about.)

If everyone could agree with one method of merging, traffic would move faster. If everyone merged at the earliest possible point or everyone merged at the last possible point, either would be fine. In my opinion, the problem comes when one car merges at the first possible point and the next car drives on to the last possible point.

Yes, that's a good statement of a key problem. That's the issue I was attempting to describe when I talked about the advantage of having the highway departments put up signs telling drivers what they should do. Which format they pick may be less important than having everyone know what rule is in force.

Thanks for joining me today. We're into OT now, and I think I should give our producer a break. Thanks to Haley Crum for filling in today for Mark Berman, who's away.

We'll be back with you next Monday. 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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