Dr. Gridlock

May 05, 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.

In all the endless discussions of escalators, I have a question that I have never seen addressed: why doesn't Metro add more staircases? I'm thinking about the shorter escalators, not the long ones like in Roslyn. For example, in McPherson Square, there is one up and one down escalator on each end of the platform. They frequently break and are out of service for months (like all this year and into at least July). People are then forced to share one narrow escalator that is essentially converted into stairs. In the morning, when loads of people are going up they make it almost impossible for anyone to go down and it is inconvenient and potentially unsafe. I realize that there may be an issue of finding space to add a staircase but this seems solvable by a good engineer. Overall, it looks like a very doable project that would also take a lot of the strain off the escalators.

More staircases are a great idea, especially for the short distance between platform and mezzanine.

Metro is adding more of them for the shorter distances, like the ones added at Foggy Bottom (street/mezzanine) or the mezzanine/platform ones at Vienna and Bethesda.

But they're expensive, too. Wish they could be added faster. The escalators -- however they are modernized -- still have moving parts that eventually are going to break.

It's like the planners of the original system never thought anything was going to get busted.

Good morning, Dr. G. Big fan of your work! I'm not sure if the DC Metro Police read your chats, but the situation at 3rd and Mass Avenue, NW is getting out of control (apart from the recent construction). Drivers on Mass are not permitted to make a left turn to access the ramp to 395, but most completely disregard it. It creates a nightmare for pedestrians trying to walk down Mass and I've seen several REALLY close calls. For the safety of everyone, the DC Police need to start ticketing these drivers.

This is a long-standing problem that needs more attention from both the police and the District Department of Transportation, with its traffic control officers. (I often say that this force needs to be expanded to cover more intersections.)

This is a fearful place to be a pedestrian. You've got to swivel your head like an owl to cover all the possible ways cars can come at you -- legally or otherwise.

I have a rather odd question to ask today. Call it a variation on a theme, if you will. I know it's the law to stop for school buses when they put on their red blinkers. However, does that same rule apply when you're on a roadway that's two or more lanes per side, and there's a grass median dividing the two sides of the roadway? That encompasses a good deal of the roadways in this region, and I never know what to do whenever I see a school bus stopping that's coming the opposite way on roads such as that.

In the  cases I'm familiar with, the median makes the difference, creating a divided highway.

But drivers stopping when they don't have to isn't as much of a problem as drivers not stopping when they do have to. Some jurisdictions are adding enforcement cameras to the school buses.

It seems like there is never enough room to make our area roads wider... Well, maybe it is time to start looking underground. If the subway can go underground, why can't I-66 do the same? Put a few highways underground. There are many other side benefits. An underground road doesn't have to deal with rain, snow, and ice. The surface woudn't get potholes from the freeze/thaw cycle. Drivers wouldn't have to worry about being blinded by the sun as it rises in the morning or sets in the evening. Neighbors wouldn't have to complain about the noise of traffic. Other than the initial construction costs, it seems like a great way to look to the future of transportation.

But that initial cost of construction would be staggering. You're talking about real tunneling, rather than a cheaper cut and cover operation, which is the typical way of building a subway.

There's the ventilation cost, and there's the cost of bringing the underground roadway back to the surface and merging those lanes with the above ground lanes at whatever point you choose to end the tunnel.

With I-66: That's some of the worst traffic in our region. It was awful this morning in some sections by 6:30. There are many proposals to ease that congestion, and many would be very expensive, but I've heard no argument for tunneling to create new lanes.

Is it possible that the inaccuracy of Next Bus is because bus drivers are turning off the GPS? We know that Metro train drivers were turning off the emergency intercoms so it's obvious that bad practices are not foreign to Metro employees. Has anyone looked into this?

Sure, it's possible that some bus drivers are turning off the GPS either accidentally or on purpose. That would contribute to inaccuracy. But that wouldn't be only cause. Downtown traffic congestion is likely to be much more of a factor, because it throws off the computer calcuation that goes into making the predicted arrival times.

The sign at the Metro Bus stop I use was knocked down in December of 2012. Consequently, the bus drivers don't know where to stop, and the next stop is pretty far away. I have reported the missing sign more than a dozen times, and know that several bus drivers have also reported the problem. Metro claims there is a work order to fix the sign, but the work order was generated in October 2013 and nothing has been done. What do I have to do to get the bus stop sign replaced?

Where exactly is the stop?

Just wanted to pass along that the new Metro Rail maps showing the Silver Line phase 1 open and phase 2 under construction have been distributed to the shops and are appearing on trains (slowly).

Thanks. We still don't have a start date for the Silver Line phase 1, though it seems likely now that it's going to open during the summer.

One of the problems for Metro is that there are a huge number of signs and maps to be altered and it takes a long time to do all this. (Meanwhile, Metro also has to change all those fare signs at the station kiosks before the new fares take effect at the end of June.)

So without knowing when the Silver Line actually will be part of the Metrorail system, the transit authority has had to schedule the conversion of signs and the distribution of new maps. Do it too early, and you confuse riders. Do it too late, and you don't get everything done in time for the opening.

I commute by Metro every day. I also know some people who work for/with Metro. They take great offense at my withering criticism of Metro and point out that by every available metric, service is good and improving. I have no reason to doubt their statistical arguments. With that said, I'm so tired of the following process: Getting on a jam-packed train, stopping and starting in the tunnel between every other station, repeatedly lurching forward and causing the passengers to pitch forward onto one another, transferring, waiting inordinate time at rush hour, getting on another jam-packed train, getting off, having to swipe my Smartrip at multiple machines that don't read it on the first try, walking up a broken escalator, and finally escaping the cramped station and the hordes to breathe fresh air and spread my arms into open space again. I am a smart-growth, pro-transit person. But this process makes me want to drive. At least if I'm in traffic, I have the personal space of my car. Metro sometimes feels like something out of an over-crowded third-worlld country. Are my expectations too high? Are my Metro friends right that things are actually better? I want to believe them, but their optimism is simply at odds with what I experience every day.

One issue about Metro metrics is that Metro created them. Wouldn't you like to have written your own report card in school, deciding what you wanted to be graded on and then doing the grading yourself?

For most of the unpleasant experiences you describe, the transit authority has no measure. But you know your experience is shared by thousands of riders.

You're expectations are not too high. And if you think you'd be better off driving -- that driving would get you closer to the commuting experience you're looking for -- then you should drive. Like you, I'm pro-transit. But this the commuting experience isn't a matter of ideology. People should travel in the way that works best for them.

Sitting at the light at Rt 29 westbound and Union Mill in Clifton/Centreville, there's a sign that says U-turn must yield to right on red (from Union Mill to go eastbound on 29). The left turn/U-turn can only be made on a protected green arrow. This sign is counter-intuitive to me. If I have the go-ahead with a green arrow, shouldn't the right-on-red drivers have to yield to me when I'm making a U-turn at this intersection? I thought making a right turn on a red light actually meant you must STOP and yield to other traffic before proceeding.

I can completely understand the logic of what you're saying. In almost every green vs red situation, green wins.

So this is only a guess on why the Union Mill/Route 29 set up is like that: It might be a practical consideration regarding the field of vision available to the U-turning driver vs. the right on red driver. A driver making a right on red may not know that you have a green arrow, let alone that your intention is to make a U turn on Route 29, rather than a left turn onto Union Mill.


Hi Bob: I ride in the first car of the Metro train each day, and on more than one occasion, I have seen other Metro employees sit in the cab with train operators and engage in a lively, animated conversation during the trip. This concerns me for safety reasons. Shouldn't the operator be concentrating on what he/she is doing? Buses used to have signs asking people not to engage in unnecessary conversations with the driver. Train operators chit-chatting along the route while they have people's lives in their hands seems like a bad idea. I wonder what the rules are on this.

My recollection is that Metro rules bar what you describe -- just a couple of employees chit-chatting while the operator needs to be giving full attention to the train's operation.

When you see this, get the car number and either send an e-mail to Metro's customer service center or call the center. I think this is something Metro would take very seriously.

Dr. G. - Noticed that demolition has been in progress near Randolph/Georgia interchange but the SHA website page (http://apps.roads.maryland.gov/WebProjectLifeCycle/ProjectInformation.aspx?projectno=MO8545115) has the old info from 2010, and not much else. Tried e-mailing the contact person twice but no response. Any info?

Yes, that long awaited grade-separation project is finally getting into the road construction phase this spring. For many years, there was no money to ease conditions at this extremely busy junction. Then there was a lengthy process for utility relocation and clearing out the buildings right by the intersection.

If it goes on schedule now, it should be done in spring 2017.

Dr. Gridlock, Are red-light cameras still operating in Virginia? I've passed what I know to be camera apperatus facing red lights, but have not seen the signage that I thought was supposed to let folks know they were being used. I didn't know if I missed a story about red-light cameras being prohibited in Virginia or if the warning signage is no longer needed?

Yes, there are red light cameras in Virginia. (Not speed cameras.) If there's something in the law that requires a sign be posted to tell drivers they must stop for a red light, I missed that.

Some stations have stairs in addition to the escalators (Waterfront) but I read someplace a while ago that the ADA requires WMATA to have escalators.

I'm not looking at a document right now, but here's my guess: ADA requires Metro to have a way for people with disabilities to get in and out of the stations. I think elevators would be the preferred method, rather than escalators.

I know of nothing about ADA requirements that would prevent the installation of stairways -- so long as they weren't the only way in or out.

Hi Dr. i understand VDOT will begin construction of an extended exit lane for Express Lanes north of Tysons Corner. Do you know the length of the extension?

Click on this link for more about the inner loop extension. But the basic idea is that the left shoulder on the inner loop will be open for 1.8 miles north of where the express lanes end. This will be a rush hour only thing, like the shoulders on I-66. The project should be done by the end of this year.

Actually, that is indeed what they thought, especially with regard to things controlled by computers like the automated train operation. They actually thought it would all be 100% reliable! Zachary Schrag's book about the history of Metrorail talks quite a bit about this issue. It's one reason the system doesn't have many sidings or pocket tracks to store disabled trains. It's an example of late-1960s naivete hamstringing the system some 50 years later.

And I second your recommendation of Schrag's The Great Society Subway. If you want to understand why things are the way they are now with Metro, this is a great resource.

http://www.sha.maryland.gov/Index.aspx?PageId=92 Vehicles must stop for school buses when the buses' red flashers are on (except when the buses are on the opposite side of a highway divided by a barrier or median strip).

Just ask Boston about how much putting an urban highway underground costs and how long it actually takes.

Yes, I was thinking of the Big Dig (supression of the Central Artery) in Boston when we were discussing underground highways. But that's most likely a unique project -- at least, we have to hope so.

If we were talking about tunneling under I-66, especially in the area west of the Beltway, the cost would be a lot less. On the other hand, the benefits probably would be a lot less, too.

If you drive through Boston now on I-93, you'd probably think, "This is the same highway -- only underground." The big change really is what it's allowing Boston to do above ground, now that the surface can be used for other purposes through the heart of downtown.

Have you seen the estimated time google maps has for directions within DC. They are hilariously very over optimistic.

When I speak to community groups in the D.C. region, I often start by sharing with them the Google Map estimate on how long it would take me to reach them. It always gets a laugh.

It happens a lot, or must. And I'm not talking on the downtown routes. I'm talking when NextBus says the next bus isn't for 35 minutes and then you walk outside and see a bus go by 5 minutes after th 35 minute quote. I think a lot of drivers turn their GPS transponders off because Metro is pushing for them to be on time. There needs to be a fair way to measure traffic congestion so they're not dinged for being late if it's not their fault, but can also be held accountable if they start their routes late (as many do).

I was in Boston last week. They have traffic and a public transit system. However, garages in downtown Boston charge at least $20 - $40 a day. In DC, it is cheaper for some people to drive in and park than it is to take transit, even with subsidies. Perhaps if garages raised their rates, more people would carpool or take transit. Your thoughts Doctor?

I moved to DC from NYC in 1988, so I've always been very aware of how cheap it is to park in downtown DC. (When I left New York, it cost $20 to park in midtown Manhattan.)

I also know that many employers throughout the DC region offer a huge subsidy to their employees by providing free parking.

This is an enormous incentive to drive.

Metrorail also provides an enormous incentive to drive by surrounding its suburban stations with massive parking garages.

At the same time, I resist the idea of punishing people for using the systems that were built for them. So I don't like the idea of just jacking up the price of parking and then declaring a win. The region's goverments would have to make transit travel a lot more convenient to match any new disincentives for driving.

I see the same thing as the other writer - Almost every day there are Metro employees coming in the cars at the work areas between stations and one or two going into the cab. One person reporting it when they see it will not help what seems to me to be something that train operators and Metro staff do on a daily basis.

The intersection of Georgia Ave and Connecticut Ave in Aspen Hill was repaved several months ago but the dotted lines that showed how south-bound Conn Ave lanes were to go through the intersection were never added. This is a dangerous intersection because the lanes do not go straight, but jog to the right to meet with the corresponding lane on the other side. Many times the car in the right lane go to the center lane on the other side, therefore cutting in between the cars that know the correct way to go. I always proceed very carefully so the larger vehicles do not run into the side of my lower-profile car. Who would I contact to get this job done?

Contact the Maryland State Highway Administration's District 3 maintenance shop: 800-749-0737.

There might possibily have been a delay in applying the pavement markings because of winter weather.

Bus stop where the sign was knocked down in Dec. 2012 is the 17G stop on Burke Lake Rd. and Rolling Rd.

Thanks for the follow up. I'll ask Metro about that.

(There's an issue throughout the region with bus stop improvements. Metro controls only a portion of the many thousands of bus stops and works with local governments on some of the fixes and upgrades. That may not be an issue in this particular case. But I wanted to mention it, because the topic is much-discussed now.)

The statute the prior commenter wants is Va. Code 15.2-968.1(M), which provides as follows: "M. Any locality that uses a traffic light signal violation monitoring system to enforce traffic light signals shall place conspicuous signs within 500 feet of the intersection approach at which a traffic light signal violation monitoring system is used. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that such signs were in place at the time of the commission of the traffic light signal violation." (The term "rebuttable presumption" means the courts assume the signs were there unless you can prove otherwise.)

I take the Orange line from Landover to Farragut West. It is not unusual for our train to have to sit in the tunnel while a blue line train is in front. This creates a "speed up - slow down" on the entire line. It can add upwards of 20 minutes to a 30 minute ride. Can't these trains be on a better schedule? I just think the matter will get worse when the Silver line starts. Thanks!

I think that in the past few weeks we had a comment from a Blue Line rider complaining about the train getting held up at Rosslyn to allow an Orange Line train through.

Yes, it would be much better if the trains could stick to their schedules, especially at the points where lines come together. (And all lines but the Red Line merge at some point.)

I don't believe the addition of the Silver Line is going to make that particular problem worse for you.

"Metrorail also provides an enormous incentive to drive by surrounding its suburban stations with massive parking garages." What? Metro's garages give people an incentive to ride Metro into the city and keep their cars out. What do you think downtown traffic would be like without Metro's garages? How are people supposed to get to the subway, unless you think Metro operates bus routes within walking distance of every home in the region? One of Metro's biggest failings is that it didn't build enough suburban garages (like their absence from the new Tysons stops). Every car parked in a Metro garage is a car off K Street.

I think it would be much better if people had alternative ways of reaching suburban Metro stations. Today, the Metro garages are car magnets.

Thanks for joining me today. I spotted a few questions and comments in the mailbag that I still should address, or just let everybody see. I'll try to post those on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

And if I can't get to them, let's do it again 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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: