Dr. Gridlock

May 07, 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 see many good questions and comments on both roads and rails. Let's go.

Dr. G., Great article on Saturday. Cabbies refusing service has been in issue for a longtime. I have had problem not only from Union Station, but from coming from Georgetown late at night (I live right over the Key Bridge). Enforcement need to be stepped up. Do you think this issue will be addressed?

This was a really good story by our colleague Robert Samuels about the late-night taxi situation at Union Station. Here's a URL for it:


I'll believe in stepped up enforcement when we see the results.

It seems like the Metro only helps people trying to travel into or out of DC. Has the Metro ever considered having a new line that circles the beltway? Let people get from Tysons to Rockville or Springfield without having to go into DC and back out to their destination.

Many travelers like this circular Metro idea, but I'm not one of them. Huge, huge investment, and the results would be uneven.

I do like the idea of a transit link -- whatever we can afford -- between Tysons and Rockville, but I don't see that happening any time soon.

Look at the Wilson Bridge: We've got lanes in the middle of the new bridge designed to support transit, and no serious plan on how to use them.

But here's what I think I'd make my top priority for a big new transit investment: Looking at what we should build to relieve the congestion at the Rosslyn tunnel and through downtown DC.

What priorities for investments would you travelers set?

Do you feel it is telling of Metro's view towards both its users and its role in the community that it refers to its users as "customers" instead of "passengers" or "riders?"

I thought I'd publish this question early, because it sets the tone for some other comments I see in the mailbag and because some of you may want to respond.

My recollection is that Metro's use of the term "customers" dates back two general managers, to Richard White.

The idea was to get the work force thinking of the ridership as people who paid for a service. I thought that was fine as a concept, but in practice, if Metro is going to call it's riders customers, then they're going to start thinking of themselves as customers -- as in people who pay for a service and expect to get the service.

Think of how Americans view their status as customers, as in, "The customer is always right," or "Satisfaction guaranteed or you're money back."

Metro has never been able to live up to the American standard of "customer."

You see it today in the difficult rebuilding program. On an intellectual level, many of us get the idea that the system is in very bad shape and requires this massive reconstruction program. So far so good. But riders think of themselves as today's customers. They're taking their rides today, not 10 years from now.

Telling them that comes across as, Sure, we're mistreating you today, but your children are really going to have good service when they grow up to be commuters -- that just doesn't cut it with many riders.

Dr. Gridlock, The weekend of May 12/13 will be the third consecutive weekend when trains will painfully single-track between Van Ness and Dupont Circle. Too bad if I want to make a quick trip downtown -- add 30 minutes! I might as well walk. The reason I find this endless track work so aggravating is that I never see or experience any positive tangible results from it. None. All I experience is the inconvenience, delay and confusion caused by the single-tracking/track work/escalator outages/take your pick. If there were one or two ways that I as a regular Metro rider could see/feel/experience any improvement or positive outcome of any sort from this infernal work, I would be far less angry about it than I am. I'm curious to know what you and other riders think about this.

Is this not a better way to say it than what I just said?

There are some places where things are getting better, and Metro should highlight them. I think it's odd that Metro doesn't spend more time doing that. It's one of the ways I think Metro doesn't get the customer thing.

If something is "new and improved," Metro should go nuts in highlighting it. That shows respect for the customers.

Okay, I believe that, but noting improvements only goes so far. Metro officials will talk about riders gradually getting a smoother ride thanks to the track work. But riders on the west side of the Red Line feel beseiged by week after week of disruptions to make such thing happen.

And to the riders, a disruption is a disruption. It may be because of the orginal problem, a result of neglected repairs, or it may be the result of the repairs themselves. To today's customers, a disruption is a disruption.

So when will the escalalor rehab/rebuild from the Orange/Blue lines up to the Glenmont side of the Red Line platform be completed? The mass of humanity crowding up that one escalator was quite impressive this morning.

To address this, I'm simply making a quick check of Metro's escalator status report. What I see is that two escalators are out of service at Metro Center.

There's one between the upper platform and lower platform to Blue/Orange Lines F and 12th St Entrance. That's a modernization scheduled to be done July 24.

There's another one between the platforms that's out for a service call, which usually means it just busted and will have to be repaired. That is scheduled to be done Thursday.

I commute between Gallery Place and Forest Glen Monday- Friday, and I don't have too many complaints about my commute. Occasionally there are disruptions, but I can honestly say more times than not Metro has been reliable for my commute. It's a completely different story on the weekends. I traveled to the Nats game on Saturday and it took my husband and I three times as long to get to the stadium because of the single tracking on the red line, delays on the green line and a host of other issues due to crowds for the Nats and Capitals. To add insult to injury, while on an escalator at the Fort Totten station, it sped up while we were on it and suddenly stopped causing many people to fall. I reported this issue to metro. As a defender of Metro for my commute, I really have a difficult time defending them on the weekends. Safety, improper planning for crowds frustrate so many passengers.

I can think of a few things we can talk about here, and you can probably think of a few more.

Despite all the protests from riders about the state of weekend service over these last few years, Metro hasn't budged on its basic stand: The system needs massive repairs. The best times to do this are on weekends, when the ridership is lowest. (I certainly do receive complaints about the midday and late night maintenance on weekdays, but no where near what I hear about the weekends.)

One of the groups that staunchly supports Metro, a citizens group called Transit First!, urged Metro to delay this past weekend's disruptive track work because of the Caps playoff game Saturday and the Nationals series with the Phillies.

Metro wouldn't budge on that either. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel was consistent with what transit authority officials have said over the past few years when he told me:

"The weekend projects are planned months in advance and are critical path, meaning rescheduling one weekend has an impact on future weekends."

Some of this past weekend's work, he said, had to be done in advance of a switch replacement planned for the three days of Memorial Day weekend. (Switch replacements are big  jobs that often are scheduled for three-day weekends.)

He also noted that weekend projects are expensive -- riders and taxpayers pay those expenses -- and canceling them means wasting money, because of all the scheduling and logistics that go into them.


Hello! I moved to Capitol Hill about a year ago. Do you know what construction is going on in front of Union Station and when it will be done? It's messing up my car when I drive through it.

That's still got about a year to go. The District Department of Transportation is rebuilding Columbus Plaza, the big area in front of Union Station along Mass Ave.

Driving, biking and walking around there now is a real mess, but I'm glad to see this project underway. The area was a mess before this work got underway. It should wind up looking better, and travelers should find their movements easier and safer when it's done.

Someone read your article! Our operator this morning (inbound Red Line from Glenmont, around 8:30) spoke slowly and clearly while announcing every station.

Glad to hear that -- and glad you could hear the announcements.

We're talking about my Sunday column:


It began with a letter from Marilou Donahue of the District, who teaches voice and communications skills, with some advice on how train operators could announce destinations more clearly.

Other letter writers also noted that the audio equipment varies from train to train. (One thing Metro notes about this, and I didn't mention in the column, is that when different generations of train cars are linked up, it may mess with the audio systems.)

The column ended with a letter from a rider praising a Red Line train operator. The letter ended this way: "If I was on the Metro when there was more than a few minutes of delay, I’d want Kristina to be the operator. She’d calm me down."

I think that's one reason we spend a lot of time talking about the operators' announcements. A clear and pleasant voice can improve a commuter's whole day.


I have a meeting in Richmond on Wednesday May 16 at 10:00am, being new to the area and never having done this drive before, can you give me an idea of when I should be leaving DC to arrive in Richmond by 9:30am? Thanks.

Long-time readers know I'm conservative in addressing such questions, because my main goal is to avoid having travelers tell me later that they were late for an appointment or missed a flight.

With that in mind, I would leave three hours and 15 minutes for the DC-Richmond drive, even though this one is in early morning and against the main rush-hour flow.

The key thing is: You never know. This is one of the most congested regions in the nation. I-95 south of DC is often congested, and for no apparent reason. If you have to be someplace at a certain time, you want to build in some buffer time for traffic accidents up ahead, or any other unforeseen circumstances.

But what do other travelers think on the time estimate?

How bad is I-95 south on a Saturday morning in August? Is it better on Sunday?

Your wording gives me a lot of territory to cover, but I'll assume you're talking about I-95 immediately south of DC.

I think you'll be okay on a Saturday morning in August, though the earlier the better. The local traffic in the DC region diminishes as August progresses, because so many people are on vacation. But the number of long-distance travelers increases, and I-95 has lots of long-distance travelers who might be starting a week's rental in the Outer Banks on Saturday.

But I do believe you'll be okay early Saturday morning. I wouldn't wait till Sunday if it means you get less time at a vacation destination, and I wouldn't leave Friday evening, because I think the traffic will be worse then.

Another think about summer weekend travel: Just because you escape the DC area traffic okay, doesn't mean the entire trip will be smooth. A long-distance trip in the summer, even leaving here in the early morning, can put you into somebody else's bottleneck later in the day.

That's how long it took me to get from Springfield to I-66 this morning at 8:30 AM with the bottleneck finally removed at I-66. Could you please explain why exactly these Express Lanes are needed? All VDOT needed to do was untie some of the poorly designed interchanges, not build Lexus Lanes. So exactly who is going to pay the tolls for these lanes when the regular lanes are barely clogged? Is Transurban, the operator and builder of the Express Lanes, have solid financial footing, because this project looks like a big loser from where I sit.

Let's go over the immediate and the long-range.

First, this is great news about the restoration of the fourth lane on the Beltway's inner loop at the I-66 interchange. VDOT and the 495 Express Lanes project also opened a fifth lane in that area leading north to the Route 7 exit.

Earlier, the project opened a new flyover ramp from eastbound 66 to the right side of the inner loop, so drivers no longer have to enter the inner loop on the left side.

Longer range: It's a very, very rare thing to hear from a traveler who says that things are pretty much okay at rush hour on the west side of the Beltway.

Virginia won't raise taxes to finance significant improvements in the transportation network, so the commonwealth is likely to rely more and more on public-private partnerships, where the private partner invests significantly in the construction and operation of highway lanes and is compensated through toll collections.

This project is about building the four high-occupancy toll lanes, but along the way to completion of them, drivers are getting some side benefits, in the reconstruction of Beltway bridges and interchanges that the commonwealth would not have paid for on its own.

The express lanes are scheduled to open at the end of the year. This is not Transurban's first experience operating such lanes, though it's difficult to judge how any corporate enterprise will play out a few decades from now.

Will the speed limit in the Beltway Express Lanes be the same as the normal lanes (55 MPH)? I'm trying to figure out why anyone would drive in them when there's no traffic. Even a 25 cent toll is not going to get drivers to drive in lanes that offer the same resistance as the normal lanes. Aside from a couple of unique exits (US 29 in Merrifield and the 2 in Tysons), what will Transurban do to encourage non-rush hour use of the lanes?

Speed limit is the same. I've asked Transurban officials about that sort of thing, the overnight travel. My sense is they don't expect drivers to use their lanes unless the drivers see some time-is-money benefit. They'll make their money when the Beltway is congested.

As I think will become obvious to you as this year develops, Transurban will have a very good marketing campaign for the new lanes, explaining when and where the benefits are. I'd expect any smart company with a product to sell to do the same.

A particular focus will be on travel to and from Tysons Corner, where there will be three exits on the 495 Express Lanes.

With Metro fares increasing, and the Federal Worker transit subsidy stuck at its former level from years back of $125 since January 1. Is there any move by our loyal public servants in Congress (who have their own free subway) in the forseeable future to increase the amount of the program to meet the steadily increasing fare schedule? What about my non-Federal DC friends who are capped at the amount of money they can contribute before taxes?

Metro leaders are optimistic that Congress eventually will raise the transit benefit, but I'm not so sure. I have trouble imaging congressmen from, say, Texas or Louisiana being terribly anxious to help out DC commuters in this way.

Nice job to Metro on Saturday. Perhaps there were other problems in the system, but going from Pentagon City to Nats Park on Saturday with 40,000 while 20,000 also went to Verizon Center was an easy experience. There were 8 car trains on both the yellow and the green lines before the games and again after the game.

I'm very glad to hear you weren't crushed. However, I suspect riders coming from other directions, including those who dealt with the Green Line disruption, or who transfered at places like Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place might not have fared so well.

So far, I've heard some complaints about weekend service, but not a very great number.

Relieving crowding here should definitely be a priority. But eliminating rush-hour-quality Blue Line service (which is what 12-minute headways between trains is, in reality) isn't the right answer. Rush Plus is actually Rush Minus for a lot of us.

The publicity campaign for Rush Plus definitely puts the emphasis on the zones where riders get more train service. The segment of the Blue Line between Pentagon and Farragut West does not benefit.

However, the benefits are significant for the west side of the Orange Line, for Blue Line riders whose destination is on the eastern side of downtown DC and for riders in the north-south corridor in the middle of DC.

I know I'm not covering all the possibilities here. For example, I heard recently from a rider who starts in the middle of DC and rides east on the Blue Line toward Largo. No benefit there, as far as I can tell. Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com if you think we've overlooked particular routes in describing Rush Plus.

We'll certainly be writing a lot more about it before and after the start of the new rush hour services on June 18.

It seems to me the most efficient investment in reducing congestion in the DMV would be to get rid of the traffic altogether. It seems that many jobs today could be done from home, which would reduce strain on our road and trasnportation systems. Why not do more to encourage business to let employees who can work from home do so, instead of pumping more and more money into building roads to accomodate unncessary commutes?

I think you're on the right track. One of the cheapest ways to reduce urban congestion is to make it easier for workers to telecommute. It certainly beats the staggering price tags we see for current or proposed transportation projects.

One thing I argue in my columns is that we've shown beyond a reasonable doubt that we're unwilling to pay the bill for big new projects. If we know that, what do we know? We know we've got to find other solutions. Telecommuting is a very big part of the solution.

".... but in practice, if Metro is going to call it's riders customers, then they're going to start thinking of themselves as customers -- as in people who pay for a service and expect to get the service...." So why is that a bad thing? When you go into a retail store, or even pay for a professional service, you and the provider enter into an agreement to exchange money for a product or benefit. Metro employees, at least the ones the public most often encounters, often see "customers" or "riders" as problems to be dealt with as curtly as possible. The station attendants don't care whether the escalators are running the right way or even working at all, and the train operators don't care whether they are slamming doors in customers' faces, because they don't care whether the rider gets the service he is paying for. The problem goes back to the original premise that train operators and station attendants are just bus drivers with seniority. From the beginning, the train operators should have been hired for that specific purpose and trained as an elite unit apart from the bus operations, and the station attendants should be hired for their ability to provide cheerful public service. Keep the bus drivers on the buses. And the maintenance people should take it as a mark of personal shame if one customer has to walk up or down a broken escalator. Calling riders "customers" is the right management philosophy; employees who refuse to get on board should be replaced.

Calling riders customers isn't a bad thing, and I didn't say it was. If Metro chooses to identify them as customers, then Metro has to treat them like customers.

Not just the western side! I live in Silver Spring and the entire red line as been torture the last few years, and I've heard that this won't end for years. Why is the red line getting picked on so bad? Why doesn't metro share the wealth and have track work on ONE line for ONE weekend. Then the enxt weekend do another. That way riders woudn't have to worry about the metro every single weekend. You could simply plan around your lines scheduled weekend work.

A couple of years ago, Metro targeted the Red Line for its capital improvement projects, because the Red Line is the oldest and the infrastructure is in particularly bad shape. At the time, Metro officials said the rehab of the Red Line would take many years. We're still within the "many years" for that work.

But Metro also has become more aggressive about repairs on the other lines. So I doubt there are riders left on any line who think they have not been targeted for disruptions.

Speaking of Silver Spring: I hope Metro is going to replace the bumpy tiles on the platform edge at the south side of the station. They were in such bad shape that last year, Metro removed them and just patched the area with concrete.

That was okay as a short-term solution to the danger presented by the crumbling tiles. But the bumpy tiles were there to provide a warning for disabled people and they need to be replaced.

There is one out for service between platforms (Glenmont Side) There is also one out for rehab surrounded by the great green box - also between platforms (Glenmont Side). If its not marked on the Metro website the website is wrong! Its been like this for months. The broken elevator is new.

Thanks. The Metro list depends on reports from station managers and repair crews and is not always accurate.

Most other subway systems do a great job of communicating with passengers through low tech communication. Boston, NYC, and Chicago all use simple pieces of paper taped to doors, fare gates, pilars, and the like to alert passengers to changes in the system during construction. Why does Metro insist on gonig the high-tech route of using text messages, e-mail, and the useless in-station screens to notify passengers of construction changes? It seems like a monumental waste of money compared to some pieces of paper tape throughout the system that actually communicate the correct message before someone steps into the station.

I think you're making an important point: Metro has improved its electronic communications, which is a very good thing. But the most important form of communication occurs aboard the trains and on the platforms -- and just outside the fare gates.

That's where I think there's plenty of room for improvement. (And why I've devoted a lot of space in recent columns to riders who want to discuss the train and station announcements.)

Metro knows that, given the state of the train system, breakdowns and repairs will be part of our traveling lives for years to come. That means Metro has to concentrate not only on the repairs but also on real-time communications about the repairs.

You can't depend on people getting electronic messages.

We're deeper into OT than the Caps/Rangers were last week, and I should wrap up this week's conversation now, despite many remaining questions and comments.

As usual, I'll look to see what more I can post on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next couple of days -- I always get plenty of ideas here at the start of the week through our chats.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. And let's meet again next Monday at noon.

Stay safe on the roads, rails and sidewalks.

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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