Dr. Gridlock

May 09, 2011

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. Quite a variety of questions and comments in today's mailbag as we start. I'm going to try to start with several I think you might want to comment on.

A reader letter from the paper version of your column yesterday listed all sorts of regionalisms that I don't think were unique to DC. One in particular was not even close. She mentioned that people don't use their turn signals in DC, but do so in most other places. I drive a lot in Florida, Michigan, and California and can say without a doubt that people in these states rarely use their signals. I was surprised that you didn't disagree with her on this one as well as several others.

Some background:  Several weeks ago, I published a letter from a traveler who used to work in Connecticut and said he recalled a local courtesy, in which the first driver at the intersection who wanted to turn left was allowed by the oncoming drivers to make that left as soon as the light turned green. I invited other travelers to name any regionalisms they had experienced, either in the DC region or elsewhere.

I had quite a few responses to that. But I'm still not sure what's a real regionalism, and what's just something we happen to see in a certain area. Also, I'm not sure what's a courtesy and what's aggressive driving.

My bike travels downtown were a little frustrating on Saturday with the appearance of Segway tours in the bike lanes, including on Pennsylvania Avenue. I encountered a rider off the machine trying to fix it, a group clustered around the tour guide in the middle of the lanes, and generally much slower traffic. I realize that all of these scenarios could have happened with bicyclists. But it makes me wonder what the D.C. laws are for where Segways can go - sidewalks, bike lanes, and streets. Did the urban planners have Segways in mind when they set up the bike lanes here?

I believe that the Segways are permitted to use the bike lanes in DC. I think the only place they are banned is on the downtown sidewalks, the same area where bicycles are banned. I know there have been some complaints about the Segway tours downtown, but haven't come across any issues with them in my own travels.

Anyone else have an experience to share?

Could you please address why MD took away one of the left-turn lanes from Georgia Avenue onto Norbeck to apparently allow traffic to enter the ICC? The ICC entrance is over half a mile from that intersection, and the removal of a left-turn lane leads to extensive (and unexpected) backups on Georgia. Indeed, yesterday (Mother's day) I witnessed the aftermath of a 4-5 car pileup on Georgia just before Norbeck that took up 2 of the 3 lanes that was presumably due to the backup from people wanting to turn left on Norbeck.

I'm not sure about this, though I've driven to the ICC and across the ICC many times now.  In my own experience, I've noticed no traffic jams on northbound Georgia that appear to be related to the left turn lanes there. And I stay as far left as I can because I want to use that left-turn onto the ICC.

One time recently when I was heading south from the ICC, I did notice a northbound van cut in front of a car waiting to make the left at Norbeck -- like he might have forgotten that he couldn't make the left from the lane he was in.

Others want to comment on the changes related to the opening of the Intercounty Connector's first segment?

Do you know what Metro is doing to the downtown bound side of the Twinbrook Metro platform? There is a plywood covering on the platform near the tracks and and some tile work going on.

Those stations on the western side of the Red Line are undergoing an extensive rehab as part of Metro's major capital spending on the line. (The other lines also are scheduled to get this.)

As part of the rehab, the platforms are being rebuilt. This spring Red Line riders at some of these stations on the west side should see the tiling replaced -- the bumpy tiling at the edges and the hexagons in the middle of the platform -- with something meant to last a lot longer. The replacement style also should be easier to maintain.

Basically, these are squares that are bigger and deeper than the old hexagons. They're close to the terra cotta color of the old ones and they have the hexagon shape embossed on them, so the style change isn't too jarring.

Please do a column about the laws as well as commonsense regarding allowing emergency vehicles room to get through. Drivers here have little respect for these vehicles. I was taught in a defensive driving class to be aware of what is behind you at all times and yet I continue to see drivers at a stoplight continue to stay put and not move over to provide a way for an ambulance, firetruck, etc. to go through. Yesterday I was the second car at a red light and finally the car in front of me moved--none of the drivers in the other lanes budged--and ran the light after checking for oncoming traffic and then I did the same so the police could get through--their sirens were on.

That's a good one. I think many drivers are reluctant to pull through the red light. One problem I think I'm seeing is that when drivers do the right thing and pull over, the following drivers don't necessarily let them pull back into traffic after the emergency vehicles have passed. In other words, the following drivers treat the emergency as an opportunity to get ahead of other traffic.

Why doesn't your chat show up on the Post home page? And why doesn't your blog show up on the main Local page with other blogs. I love Carolyn Hax but she's not local in any sense of the imagination. Your info is far more local in focus!

There are many mysteries surrounding the redesign of our Web site. For example, I write two columns a week, one for Sunday's Metro section and the other for the Local Living section. The one for LL no longer shows up online -- unless you're willing to search through "Today's Paper", and even then, it's visible for two weeks.

The chat has a link from the Local home page, which is appropriate. I mean this page: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local

Let me know if you're having trouble finding other things. Our folks have fixed a lot of the initial problems.


When driving 295 South to Alexandria/Arlington, how come there's no exit at Pennsylvania Avenue that merges onto 395? You have to exit stage left, then make a u-turn.

I think you might find it a bit easier to continue south on 295, exit right at Suitland Parkway, swing under 295 and take the ramp back onto 295 northbound. You could go across the 11th Street Bridge.

The issue you're describing is one of the many missing links in the DC highway system that stem from the days when the federal government planned to have over most of the District to accommodate drivers. After protests, the money wound up going to create Metro instead.

But some of the most vexing missing links will be forged when the new 11th Street Bridge opens, around the end of this year.

One of the regionalisms that was mentioned was moving over to the right if the driver behind flashes their lights. This is the law in Virginia but my understanding is that it is not in MD. The only way to get most MD drivers from cruising in the left lane (though not recommended) is to tailgait.

One thing that definitely isn't a regionalism: There's no state that authorizes speeding, not in the left lane or anywhere else. A driver who wants to speed has no privileges under Virginia law or anyone else's law.

Another Pittsburgh regionalism that was phased out in the 1980s was the green-yellow light. At most city intersections the sequence was green, then yellow and green together, then yellow, then red. The yellow and green together was eliminated because it was non-standard, although my folks taught me that it was OK to speed up to get through a green-yellow but you really needed to stop at a yellow. Of course, our car also had a non-functioning switch on the dashboard that my dad would press to "change" a light to green. Fooled us every time.

I've realized lately that traffic engineers are extremely cautious concerning signal variations. They lean heavily toward national standardization, so no one gets an unpleasant surprise at an intersection. There are some occasional experiments -- careful experiments -- that sometimes wind up in creating new options nationwide.

But I'm not sure I like the green/yellow sequence. Seems like that would encourage speeding. These days, it seems like the solid yellow light encourages speeding, too.

I've seen a couple of the proposals for freeways encircling and dissecting the city--I can't imagine how anyone would want to live in a city like that. Or maybe that was the point back in the 60s. Anyway, Metro was a much better use of the money. Despite all the complaints we have, we're so much better off.

It's difficult for us today to put ourselves into the mindset of planners in the 50s and 60s -- and that's a good thing. The car was king. Pedestrians and their communities were just in the way. Call in the bulldozers.

There were flaws with the Metro design, too, that have become more apparent over the years. Not sending the Orange Line through Tysons Corner was a mistake. Surrounding the outer stations with those concrete fortresses we call parking garages was a mistake.

I think what a lot of people are going to see as "regionalism" is really just that they notice their pet peeves more often when driving somewhere else. I grew up in Virginia and my dad used to complain all the time about Maryland drivers. If he got cut off, "there's a Maryland Driver for you." I think he just noticed more when the plates weren't VA. I'm sure plenty of Virginia drivers also cut him off, but he ignored it since the license plate didn't jump out at him.

I agree completely. We look for patterns in other travelers' behavior and latch on to whatever stands out, like a Virginia plate in Maryland, or a Maryland plate in Virginia -- or an SUV or a Beemer. I think it's a bad idea to base your expectations of others on their tags.

The law says speeding is one mph over the limit. However in the real world there is about a 10mph gap where people are allowed to go anywhere up to that speed. If you want to go exactly the speed limit, there is no way you should stay in the left lane. Same if its raining out and you believe due to road conditions and your care you want to go below the speed limit. These people cause lots of problems and they should not try to impose their will on other people. Its not that hard to get out of the way.

What I always say: Don't self-deputize. Don't try to enforce traffic law. Let the police, and the traffic cameras worry about the speeders.  They're already showing one symptom of road rage. Don't encourage them to display others.

When I was in Portland and Seattle, no one ever changed lanes except to get off the road. It was mind boggling annoying and it slowed down traffic overall.

One thing I don't like about our highways in the DC region: We've got way too many left exits and entrances. In some areas, cars have no choice but to get in the left hand lanes.

The traffic light variation I love, and that I wish were used in the United States, is the European standard of having a combined red-yellow phase that tells you that you're about to get a green light. That is, the green-->yellow-->red is the same as it is here, but then at the end of the red cycle the yellow will come on in addition to the red. It allows you to shift into first gear and to move as soon as the light goes green--and European drivers do indeed move as soon as it goes green. Some American drivers are so slow to react to the green that I think they must be waiting for an invitation.

Not sure there are many Americans left who drive standard transmission cars.

I sympathize with drivers who at least wait long enough to make sure the drivers in the other direction are actually going to stop for their red light.

What exactly is going on over by RFK stadium on 395? They seem to be building some sort of flyovers. This project has been going on for a while now but I am not clear on what they are trying to accomplish.

That's part of the reconstruction of the 11th Street Bridge and its approaches. By around the end of the year, there will be two new spans between the old ones for long-distance traffic. This is the project that will close some of those missing links. So, say, you live in Bowie and work at the Pentagon. You can stay on highways to get across the Anacostia River.

Then about a year later, a third new span will open for local traffic, traffic just trying to get from one neighborhood to another across the river.

Huge project. Very high impact.

My commute from Kingstowne to Bethesda is going to be miserable with the move of workers to Fort Belvoir and the Naval Hospital. I currently take the Beltway from Van Dorn to Old Georgetown. Any recommendations on alternate routes? GW Parkway? Through DC? Helicopter?

That commute is no box of chocolates now, is it? And as you say, traffic around the medical center in Bethesda will be much worse when the base realignment moves are completed in September.

Would a Metrorail ride be easier than that? If not, I'd go with the chopper.

Over the last 2 weeks, I've witnessed a new (to me, at least) trend: motorcycle riders hogging the Beltway to perform stunts. Last Tuesday evening, a group of about 12 riders, blocked all 4 lanes of I-495 northbound in Maryland and took turns doing wheelies,figure 8's and hand-stands. The bikers manuevered to take over the road, some doing stunts while others blocked each lane to prevent drivers from passing them. They ignored the backed up traffic and horn-blowing only egged them on. This continued from the National Harbor exit all the way up to Central Avenue. Just past Pennsylvania Avenue, we passed a Maryland State Police officer who had pulled a driver over. The bikers sped past with impunity while the officer did nothing. Eventually, most of them exited at Central Avenue. Has anyone else witnessed that sort of thing? Where are the police? I called the State Police and although they said they would "send a car over" no one ever showed up.

I'm sure many other drivers will confirm your observations. Must be springtime. I saw some similar trick driving on Saturday on I-95 south of Baltimore.

Police aren't going to see most of this, and when they do, they've got to worry about creating an even more dangerous situation by giving chase.

The Grid Sister works with head injured people at a rehab hospital in California.  Some of her patients spent their last ambulatory moments on motorcycles.

One regionalism I remember is speeding through the yellow--Massachuesetts. I also remember they have the shortest yellows I have ever seen.

We must have a lot of Mass. drivers around here.

Dr. G - Starting a new job that will take me to Bethesda from my home around Springfield/Kingstowne M-F during rush hour. Is the Beltway through Tysons going to be the best/only option or should I explore 395/GW Parkway/495? Just in case anyone is curious, the commute is the only downside of this new job, everything else will make it worth it. Thanks!

Seems like we're building up a trend today with these Bethesda-bound commutes across one of the most congested areas in the nation.

There's probably a reason our commenters can't take Metrorail for these trips, but I sure wish they could.

I can't recommend commutes that are going to take people along I-395, with all those new BRAC employees going into the Mark Center at Seminary Road. So if I were driving, yes, I'd go around the western side of the Beltway. But that's no fun either. THere's all the construction for the HOT lanes and the new Metrorail line. Even when that finishes up in 2013, there's still the problem of the Beltway narrowing on the Maryland side.

The Segway tours also use the sidewalks on Pennsylvania Ave. I have had to dodge them numerous times as I try to get to Archives Metro station.

They shouldn't be there. I'm sure pedestrians aren't looking for them.

Original poster. Every time I've driven Georgia Ave since the ICC opened, there's a backup for the left turn lanes at Norbeck that spills over onto the left through lane for the ICC. Also, it will clearly take 2 or 3 light cycles for traffic to turn onto Norbeck rather than just one, so I wonder if the intent isn't to drive traffic onto the pay road? And, why not lower the current toll since the ICC is basically empty now -- if the goal is to raise revenue (through tolls, rather than speeding tickets), this would seem to be a no-brainer.

I don't believe the Maryland SHA would deliberately create a dangerous traffic situation for any reason, let alone to drive up ICC revenue.

Yes, I think the Maryland Transportation Authority could consider lowering the toll rates till the whole ICC opens. It's possible that might increase revenue by attracting more drivers.

Travelers, I have to break away now. We had a bunch of questions and comments come in late in the chat, and I'll try to hit them on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next two days.

Thanks for joining me, and stay safe.

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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