Dr. Gridlock

May 06, 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 spent the weekend in Pittsburgh, watching the Nats play the Pirates at PNC Park. Enjoyed walking around parts of downtown, but there's a great contrast between sections of the riverfront that are wide open to the public and sections that are cut off by highways. A real throw-back to mid-20th century transportation planning, with some more modern thinking in the nice sections.

Let's start today with a question about a potential long-distance commute. This traveler would definitely benefit from your input.

Going to be relocating to DC Metro area. Looking at commute from Gainesville, Va. to the Arlington Key Bridge area. Would be leaving Gainesville at 6:00AM, and Key Bridge at 6:00PM. Can you give me an idea of these commutes via auto, rail, or combination? Thanks

That's a bad trip, and I feel sure others will write to say the same. (I can't quite tell from the wording if you'll be crossing the Key Bridge into DC or working on Rosslyn side. Would you like to write another comment to clarify that?)

It's good that you're starting on the early side, although for a commute from our outer suburbs, 6 a.m. is not extremely early.

The basic route, as you probably already know, is a drive along I-66E, although you'll be driving at a time when you'll need at least two people in the car to be able to use I-66 inside the Beltway, because of the HOV rules.

Many solo drivers exit at the Capital Beltway and find an alternative route for the rest of the morning trip. One common option is to drive north to the George Washington Parkway and take that to Rosslyn.

One alternative is to take I-66 to Vienna or West Falls Church Metro stations, park there and ride the Orange Line to Rosslyn.

This is just an overview, because I want to invite  others to comment on this commute along one of our most congested corridors.

Are there really more Orange Line Trains as a result of Rush Plus? It seems like about half the time when I get to McPherson Square in the afternoon that the trains are running 6-9 minutes apart.

Thinking back to the new commuter's question about options, I hope the new commuter gets out of work in mid-afternoon if taking the Orange Line.

There are more trains on the Orange Line with Rush Plus, the schedule change that went into effect in June. In real life, trains struggle to get through the downtown stations during the afternoon rush, because of the crowding.

Trains bunch up, just like buses, and the first one arriving after a big gap will be jammed. The second might pull into the station just a minute later and be much less crowded. By the time the third arrives, it might be nearly empty.

(The addition of the Silver Line late this year will mean fewer Orange Line trains, though the overall number of Virginia-bound trains would remain the same.)

Dr. Gridlock, As part of the infernal weekend track work, WMATA is closing the following stations during Memorial Day weekend: Vienna, Dunn Lorin, West Falls Church, East Falls Church, Rockville and Shady Grove. I have Wolf Trap tickets for that Saturday evening, and my usual mode of transport to Wolf Trap is the shuttle bus that leaves from WFC. I just want to say how clueless WMATA planners are, in my opinion. Although WMATA puts out extra trains and so on when there are sports events in town, it thinks so little of cultural events that it closes down a train station on which its riders rely for transportation to said cultural event.

I've asked Metro officials about the weekend work schedule in terms of particular events in the past. They say there almost always are many events on a weekend in the D.C. region.

They do sometimes adjust the weekend work schedule to accommodate an event, but to the best of my recollection, it would be for an event that is going to draw thousands of riders to one or two stations. That might be a marathon or a playoff game.

As I'm sure just about everybody knows by now, Metro concentrates a lot of work on the long holiday weekends, when ridership is traditionally low and when the work crews have a long stretch of uninterrupted time to complete the projects.

I notice the Orange Line project is a switch replacement, which requires a great deal of time on the tracks.

VRE from Broad Run, with a transfer at Crystal City to the Blue Line (ha!) could be an option. PRTC operates commuter bus service from Gainsville to West Falls Church Metro Station, and will start a route directly from Gainsville to downtown DC in the fall.

Thanks, and several more are coming on the commute assessment.

I'm sure this commenter adds the "ha!" because of the Blue Line service cutbacks under the Rush Plus schedule, with a bit more coming when the Silver Line starts. That will mean Blue Line trains are scheduled to run every 12 minutes, whether peak or off-peak.


Don't do it. I live in Vienna (considerably closer in than Gainsville) and it takes me at least 45 minutes (usually closer to an hour) to get to/from work. And I've tried at all different times - 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, 10. There's no good/fast solution.

People have so many different reasons for choosing where they live that I don't raise questions about it. There are many two-job families where one person has a shortish commute and the other has to travel a long way. (The Grid Spouse commutes from the D.C. area to dowtown Baltimore for her job at The Sun.)

Others start out living close to work, then get another job. They can't move every time they get a new job.

But this commenter's central point is painfully clear: There's no good/fast solution.

Virginia needs to act on improving travel in the I-66 corridor. There are plenty of studies underway.

(One possibility: HOT lanes on I-66.)

Taking I-495 to GW Parkway in order to bypass the HOV requirement is not a realistic alternative. GW often backs up, sometimes all the way from the Beltway merge to the Key Bridge itself. If there's a bad accident, you're looking at 90+ minutes in traffic JUST on that road. I have stopped taking this route, and I live in McLean. If you're tied to moving to Gainesville due to a property or family concerns, my best suggestion is VRE (via Manassas) or metro, but ultimately, moving to Gainesville to save money on housing is not going to justify the commute you're getting yourself into. If it's plausible, even moving Centreville or Manassas would be more advantageous. Hopefully this helps.

Thanks, and thanks to the others who are sending in helpful advice.

I agree about the difficulty of the GW Parkway. Each weekday between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m., I look over the traffic maps and cameras to see where the worst traffic is. (I figure very few people can do that. You're usually stuck on one route and have no idea how it compares with others in the region.)

The GW Parkway is almost always very slow on nearly the entire route to Rosslyn.

Another very slow part is I-66E in the Fair Lakes/VA 50 area. Why is that? Traffic from the Fairfax Parkway?

About the only part of the "station redesign" debacle that I think should be kept is the re-lighting of the stations, but I disagree with the architecht and the preservationists. Forget "dim ambiance"... I don't ride a subway for the ambiance, I ride it to get somewhere. So long as the lights aren't shining directly in my eyes, I vote for the brighter the better. Other than that, I want trains that run on time, a system that is even marginally usable on weekends (shorter headways and fewer track closures), and an employee culture where helpfulness is the rule rather than the exception. I don't know how much metro is spending on this redesign project, but instilling a sense of customer service and open and honest communication with customers would be far cheaper and have far more impact on rider satisfaction.

There's no station redesign debacle. There are a lot of people saying they prefer ugly stations, as long as Metro attends to maintenance.

It's as though they thought they had to choose between a pleasant environment and working escalators.

Metro plans to spend $10 million on using Bethesda as a lab for station redesign, including many elements that would make the stations brighter and more appealing. Metro has $5.5 billion to spend on rebuilding the system.


I understand that people think Metro would be better off fixing the escalators than "redecorating". But isn't the station design project more than that? It seems to be that it is about improving safety in addition to aesthetics. I am disappointed though that the Commision of Fine Arts has veto power over modernization and wants us to be stuck in the 1970s forever. I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's public transportation, not a church. We should have a modern, efficient system. Not one frozen in time forever. Most subway systems are utilitarian for a reason. Their function is to move people safely and efficiently as possible. It baffles me that somehow Washington has to be different in that regard and we are required to have some sort of unchanging, Monumental station design. I just want to get where I am going as easily as possible. And I'd like to be able to see while I am doing that.

Our stations with their vaulted ceilings are like cathedrals, and they look like they're lit by votive candles.

If Metro can come up with a design that improves the look of stations in a way that's sustainable and can be replicated at all the stations over time, then Metro should do that.

(And as this commenter notes, there's going to be plenty of review before any design changes are accepted.)

If the questioner is driving solo, I recommend parking at the Vienna station and taking Metro into Rosslyn or DC. Parking is no problem if one arrives at the Vienna station by 730 AM. With a passenger, Metro may still be quicker than crawling on 66 East in the morning between Nutley Street and the Beltway, as the non-HOV traffic finds its way to 495. Also, regardless of the weather, there seems to be a sunshine delay on 66 near Ballston as the interstate bends to the left.

Thanks once again for all the practical advice on the Gainesville-Rossly commute.

If the new commuter does want to check out the ride-sharing option, one good source of information and contacts is Commuter Connections, at www.commuterconnections.com.


There is plenty of discussion here on Metro's use of money and employees. Last week, I counted NINE Metro employees on Washington Street in Alexandria counting buses and marking their arrival times in a clipboard during the morning rush. In the age of NextBus and GPSs, is there not a better way of measuring how quickly buses travel on a route? The same thing happens on occasion in metrorail, where I will see four or five employees on a train platform and, when a train arrives, all five will glance at their watches and write down the time on their individual clipboards. Wasteful when there are other ways of finding out this information.

Just a guess, but I think they're probably trying to count bus and rail riders, not just the arrival times, which as you say, can be handled by electronic means.

I do share your concern about this use of employees, and I'm also suspicious of this method of counting riders.

A couple of summers ago, at Farragut North, I saw a crew of employees filling up a platform bench each afternoon. Only the crew chief would get up when a train arrived.

I asked her why the rest of the crew just sat on the bench. "It's hot," she said.


Where can I see it for upcoming weekends, not just the next weekend? I tried searching their site which was no help.

Here's a short URL that will take you to Metro's schedule for major weekend track work through June:


Metro puts out the major track work schedule for six-month periods. (So I should now ask when the next one is coming out to cover the second half of 2013.)

And please keep in mind that this is "major track work," the kind that shuts stations and splits lines. The full schedule, including all the single-tracking, isn't set till the Monday before the weekend in question. (And then it also appears on Metro's Web site, at www.wmata.com.)

Have you received any feedback from people who are NOT using the 495 Express lanes whether they are seeing less traffic in the free lanes, or having shorter commute times? That was the primary purpose of the express lanes I believe. Thanks.

That's a very interesting question, and the answer is, No, I haven't gotten any feedback from people using the regular lanes who say their travel times have gotten better.

Some thoughts:

First, people don't usually write to Dr. Gridlock to say what a good time they're having out there.

But my guess is that many drivers are having an easier time on the regular lanes since the express lanes opened.

Why? Because the project added four lanes to the Beltway. Any time you add four lanes to a major highway, you're going to get some travel time improvement, at least in the early going.

It's very unlikely that since mid-November, the express lanes have drawn a lot of new drivers to the west side of the Beltway. It's much more likely that the project has spread out the existing traffic.

This could be one reason the express lanes look so wide open. If  you're getting a better ride than before in the regular lanes, why switch?

But this is just a theory. I'd love to hear comments on that, either during the chat, or any other time at drgridlock@washpost.com.


This is the third weekend in a row with Blue trains every 30 minutes. 2 of those 3 weekends also had Yellow every 30 minutes. I give up. I don't know why Metro's years of incompetency mean I can't go anywhere on the weekends. Time to clear house.

The weekend rebuilding program is going to continue for about four more years at an intense pace, though the areas of concentration are likely to shift around.

It's awfully disruptive. On the other hand, I haven't heard of a good alternative -- like how Metro would make all the repairs everyone says they want without disrupting the late night and weekend service.

Now, I wouldn't ride a train on a weekend unless I absolutely had to. It's much easier getting most places by car, bus or foot. (Many would add by Capital Bikeshare.)

I do see Metro trying, slowly, to reduce the effects of the disruptions on riders and to get them the information they need to use the system on weekends despite the disruptions.

The alerts are better. The disruption information now gets incorporated into Trip Planner. The splitting of lines usually means that Metro can operate regular weekend schedules on the parts of the line that remain open. The single-tracking schedule now appears to be designed so that the extra wait time is on the platforms rather than aboard stopped rail cars.

Don't do it. After 12 1/2 years of commuting from Bristow to Tysons, I can attest that it is soul-sucking & frustrating. In the past 3 weeks, my commute almost doubled. Today it's back to normal. I don't know why. I'll never know. It's a roll of the dice every time that I head out -- will this be an hour drive, or 3? & every year it does get a little worse, as more people move out here. & beyond -- Gainesville/Bristow is no longer the edge of the world like it was in 2000 when we moved.

I think that's the second response to "commute assessment" that includes the phrase "Don't do it." And I have a feeling those commenter speak for many who use the I-66 corridor.

The commenter stopped short of explaining this, but I wonder how commuters can endure more than a decade of a "soul-sucking and frustrating" experience. I feel pretty sure the answer would be, "no choice." That's bad enough. But even worse would be if the answer had to so with force of habit, and acceptance of a bad situation.

I have tickets to the Kennedy Center and 9:30 Club this weekend and see online that Red, Blue and Yellow lines are operating 2 trains an hour. How are we supposed to get around? I want to cry when I think of trying to get around this city on the weekends.

It's very difficult. Especially at nights on weekends. I ask people to consider alternatives, like driving, taxis, or buses, but I know those aren't options for everyone.

On the Metro policy question: Would you prefer to slow the pace of repairs, so they get stretched out over a greater number of years? Or do you think Metro should step up the pace, adding more disruptions for the sake of getting the work done sooner?

(Now that I think of it, this is exactly the question that comes up when I talk with drivers about major road projects. Project managers talk about these options, too. Very occasionally, they will shut down a route completely and even build a bypass, for the sake of getting a job done in fewer months or years. Not sure that's realistic for Metro. Can't build a bypass tunnel.)

I'd rather the line be shut down entirely and shuttle buses ran than have 30-minute waits for trains. That way more work can be done at once and transportation will be more reliable. And there's no way in heck you can convince me to ride a bike in D.C.'s traffic.

I hope OP is planning to have a compressed workweek. Otherwise, it sounds like they envisage 4-hour drives each way, which may be horribly realistic but makes for a dangerously long work day from door to door. (Leave home at 6 a.m., leave work 12 hours later??? 5 days a week?)

As you point out, making the stations brighter is one of the goals. If it was just making them pretty, I would be against it. But there are safety issues with the dark stations.

Yes. My commute has gotten better. I commute from Van Dorn to Bethesda and though there are those random days that are miserable, the average is about 45-50 minutes. That's about 15-20 minutes less than before and only on rare days (running late, really bad traffic, stopping off on Westpark Rd.) do I take the Express Lanes. Now, if they could just expand the bridge and fix the traffic flow to 270W...

This is like putting a checkmark on just about everything Virginia had in mind for the express lanes project: Improve the commute for everyone, but provide an option for drivers willing to pay a toll in exchange for a more reliable trip on the bad days.

And I agree with the commenter on the need for Maryland to do something about the awful traffic on the west side of the Beltway and up I-270. Maryland is about to get a lot more money to spend on transportation projects because of the gas tax increase.

Commuters should be lobbying now to see that some of that money goes for Beltway relief. If it all goes to build the Purple Line and the Baltimore Red Line, that's not going to cut it.

I don't know how you can defend spending money on station redesigns when the trains don't run. I had to leave 1.5 hours in advance to get to an event in Waterfront over the weekend, thanks to the Blue and Green lines running every 30 minutes.

This is how I explain it: I want the trains to run on time. And I want the stations to look good.

I prefer to see people held accountable for putting Metro in this situation. We shouldn't have to choose between a safe system and getting around when we need to.

There's just about nobody left around among top Metro managers, the Metro board, or the leadership of local governments who was around for the years when more money should have been spent on Metro maintenance.

Those were the 1990s and early 2000s. It's about decisions that didn't get made and money that didn't get raised and spent.

But adding more lights shouldn't cost $10 million. That's my beef.

It's not just about screwing in higher wattage bulbs. Do that, and you've got ugly stations that are brightly lit. (See Farragut North.)

Metro needs to figure out a comprehensive lighting system -- maybe call it a brightening system -- using a variety of design elements that riders will like and that can be replicated throughout the system at a reasonable and sustainable cost.

I was in Chicago this past weekend and they have closed down one of the major lines for a section going towards the loop for a month to do repairs rather than stretch it out over years. They are running shuttles in the meantime. Its an inconvenience but because its only for a short period of time, people can make adjustments and know that it will be better shortly.

I'm not sure what the Chicago transit authority is fixing. But trying to think of some Metro equivalent, how about this: Shut down the east side of the Red Line for a month to rebuild the platforms, which are undergoing a slow reconstruction now.

Shut the Orange Line between Vienna and East Falls Church for a month to complete all work on making the Silver Line connection.

Would that be acceptable to riders?

You mentioned that Metro puts all the weekday trackwork on its website at the beginning of the week. That's just not true. Last Thursday, there was no mention anywhere on the website of trackwork that night, even though there was such work on a number of lines. And if you go on their website right now, there's no mention of any trackwork this week.

For the week night work, look under "rail advisories." Here's a short link:


For the weekend schedule, use this link:



For some areas yes, but if people are living 50-60 miles away from a job location, they can't expect States to just pave everything in sight to ease commutes. If people choose to live far away from their work, and do not want to take public transit, than sometimes the answer is "Yes, you will sit in traffic for 2 hours."

I agree that people need to be realistic about the consequences of living 50 or 60 miles from work. But I don't believe any part of the solution should be punishing people. For example, transit development has not kept pace with highway development. We talk about giving people options, but haven't always delivered those options.

Commute Assessment talks about traffic times varying for no apparent reason. One variation I have seen is an increase in morning traffic at the beginning of college semesters and in the week or two before exams, when, presumably, students go early to study or attend study sessions. As a result, I have seen longer commute times in early December and late-April/early-May, and to a lesser degree, in September and mid-January.

I think this is a good point, and I often hear from commuters wondering why they're route suddenly got worse without the addition of any road work. Then after a while, it goes back to normal (or our version of normal).

Sometimes there are subtle and temporary changes in travel patterns, just as you describe.

Travelers, Thanks for a lively discussion about the difficulties of riding Metro and commuting in the I-66 corridor, and especially for all the helpful suggestions that could benefit other travelers.

Please stay safe, and we'll gather again next Monday.

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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