Dr. Gridlock

May 12, 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.

Dr. G. Far too many Urban Planner types believe that garages contribute to the congestion problem in D.C. The are far too unrealistic about the realities of most and don't realize the amount of people who would Metro if they could only park. I live a mile near the East Falls Church. Parking fills up well early, I bus isn't convenient (wouldn't do a bus anyway) and not going to bike in a suit. Therefore, I drive downtown. Had ample parking be available, I would certainly be a metro rider and not contribute to the traffic on the GW Parkway and Constitution. Many need to ask, do we want to improve the traffic problem or do we want to keep roads off at all costs.,

From the topic, I think this might be a response to last week's chat and to my Sunday column about Metro garages as car magnets.

Here's a short link to the Sunday column:


What I had in mind was that suburban communities deserve the same consideration as downtown when it comes to limiting congestion.

If we could find ways to let people get to the suburban stations without having to warehouse their cars all day at Metro garages, it would help ease suburban congestion.

Continuing to build more and more parking garages and build them farther and farther out into the suburbs isn't sustainable -- no more so than if we built wider and wider roads and more and more roads. They would just draw more and more traffic and the cycle would keep repeating.


Re: Washington is a walking, biking city headline Dr. Gridlock, As a daily reader of the Post, I am disappointed about the misleading nature of this article. According to the articles statistics, only a slim minority of commuters bike or walk as a primary method. Your colleague should confirm the reality that D.C. continues to be a driving city.

I think this is a reference to a blog posting from last week that starts this way: "Washington ranks seventh in the nation among cities where bicycling to work has gained in popularity and is second only to Boston when it comes to walking to work, according to Census Bureau data released Thursday."

Here's a link: http://wapo.st/1sliE0L

Certainly, the overwhelming majority of commuters throughout the D.C. region drive, and most of them drive alone.

Why are tour buses allowed to drop off / pick up passengers on Henry Bacon Drive, NW, north of the Lincoln Memorial, during evening rush hour? Traffic backs up onto Constitution Avenue, NW. More hazardous, pedestrians do not use cross-walks but step over the low chains on the eastern side, walking into traffic to cross Henry Bacon Drive to reach the buses on the western side. I don't know if there are signs posted to allow buses to park there at any time, but it is particularly difficult to maneuver around them and their passengers during the rush hour. Thank you.

Buses are allowed to park on Henry Bacon during off-peak hours but not at rush hour. There are signs. I believe it's an enforcement problem.

I'm outraged by having to pay a fine for accidentally entering the 495 Express Lane from I-66 to Gallows Road. It was evident from the language on their website that I would be given no consideration for good reasons why I believe I should not have to pay the fine. Not only did I use the lane by accident, I was in it for less than a mile, it was on a Sunday, when I clearly didn't need to use it for congestion reasons, and I was going to visit a friend who was in the hospital for leukemia. I consider the fine to be extremely unreasonable. Have you received many complaints about this kind of thing, have you written about it, and - depending on your answers to the first two questions - could you please mention it in future columns to alert drivers to this unfair situation? I would hope that would influence "Express Lanes" become more reasonable. Scott Davis

Yes, it's come up repeatedly since the lanes opened in November 2012. You mention the express lanes Web site. For all, that's https://www.495expresslanes.com

If you get into the express lanes by mistake, call this number: 1-855-495-XPRS (9777)

Or go to this page on their Web site: https://account.495expresslanes.com/violation/missedAToll.do?cmd=gotomat

Do that within five days of going through the express lanes. After that, you're going to get a bill in the mail that has the toll plus $12.50.

One problem with the system is that the Web site and the phone number don't appear in any place that's visible to drivers. So when drivers without E-ZPasses use the lanes, they have no idea they can go to the Web site or call the express lanes customer service number.

The past week has been particularly for tour buses - as the earlier chatter commented, tour buses stop for pick-ups between 4 pm and 7 pm, which they should not do; tour buses stopped for pick-up on Constitution Ave itself; tour buses "blocking the box" at any number of intersections, including Constitution and 23rd St. Does the DC traffic police department have a complaint line or tip line?

I think enforcement in that area is the responsibility of the Park Police.

Is there any updated on the VA 28 interchange at Innovation Drive? There hasn't been any noticeable work being done on it in the last few years, but it looks like it's close to being done.

I've asked VDOT about this several times. Thanks for the reminder. I'll ask again.

The first commenter used an interesting phrase- 'wouldn't do a bus anyway'. Until we (society, Metro, whatever) can change our views on mass transit it won't make a difference how convenient it is.

My view about the problem of traffic congestion around the suburban Metro garages is not to punish the drivers, who are just doing what local governments have encouraged them to do for decades.

Rather, I think those governments need to invest more in convenient, frequent bus and van service to the Metro stations. And build more sidewalks and bike paths.

It isn't that everyone needs to use a bus, walk or bike to ease the congestion. If even a small portion of the people who now drive alone for under a mile to get to the stations could have convenient ways to leave their cars at home, it would help everyone.

When should people be getting over into the left lane for a left exit? More specifically, the northbound HOV span of the 14th street bridge. Should people taking the 14th street exit be in the left lane for the entire span? Or should they be getting over closer to the end, and leaving the left lane for passing?

I think they should do whatever they think is safest. They certainly shouldn't be waiting till the last possible moment to move left and then jamming on the brakes before merging.

Yes, the tour buses on Henry Bacon are a problem during evening rush hour. However, a similar and constant problem during rush hour at other locations is the presence of large commuter buses, which bring in people from the outer suburbs. They routinely park in front of government buildings (like the RR Bldg between Pennsylvania and Constitution) and block the entire right lane, either waiting for people in the evening or unloading in the morning. As a bike commuter who uses the right lane, it's very frustrating and dangerous.

This is my third time asking this. Hope you you can answer this time. I noticed this road was closed when I brought my wife back from airport a few weeks after midnight. I was forced to take toll road and pay. It was not closed going to airport. It was clearly closed for some type of construction but feel tolls should have been waved since the airport access road was shut. Do you have any info on this?

It most likely was closed for nighttime work on the Silver Line. When the Dulles Access Highway is closed, drivers are diverted onto the Dulles Toll Road. This has been going on for several years during the construction. The airports authority doesn't waive the tolls.

Getting south of Woodbridge most afternoons is difficult. On Thursdays and Fridays, it can take even longer. Last Thursday, it took me about 40 minutes to go from Reston to I95 at Route 123. It then took me 1 hour and 20 minutes to go the six miles down I95 to exit 152. I know the HOT lanes are designed to improve things, for those willing and able to pay, and the auxillary lanes might open things up a bit, but is there any hope that they'll add another lane to 95 south of 123 in the future? The drop from 4 lanes to 3 is simply a disaster.

The only project I know of besides the HOT lanes construction along 29 miles of I-95 is the auxiliary lane/shoulder project that VDOT is working on for completion in 2015.

Here, I'm going to give you the basic information about that from VDOT:

Work began in April 2013 to construct auxiliary lanes and widen the shoulders on a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Prince William County. The project is designed to ease several chokepoints, add capacity during emergencies, and reduce weaving and merging.

The inside and outside shoulders between Dumfries Road and the Prince William Parkway will be widened, both north and southbound, to 12 feet with full-depth pavement to make the shoulders suitable for traffic use during accidents, evacuation, enforcement and detours. New guardrail and lighting will be added.

Auxiliary lanes will be constructed at three locations to create safer access and merging, particularly at the truck scale area. To create the auxiliary lane, crews will extend the acceleration and deceleration lanes between on- and off-ramps.

On I-95 South, auxiliary lanes will connect the Opitz Boulevard on-ramp with the Prince William Parkway off-ramp, as well as the truck rest area on-ramp with the off-ramp to Route 234.

On I-95 North, an auxiliary lane will connect the Dumfries Road on-ramp with the truck weigh station off-ramp.

Dr. Gridlock - Has the entrance ramp from 10th Street to eastbound Route 50 in Arlington reopened? I saw an article that it was supposed to open in late April, but it's hard to tell when driving by if it is open or still under construction. Thanks!

I should write an update about this project, one of VDOT's biggest in Northern Virginia, but for now, here's what VDOT says about it:

"Virginia Department of Transportation crews have opened several long-term closures at the Route 50/10th Street and Route 50/Courthouse Road interchanges. Drivers now have the following movements:

  • 10th Street to eastbound Route 50 via the newly constructed bridge and eastbound frontage road through a new, signalized intersection at Courthouse and eastbound frontage road
  • Courthouse Road to westbound Route 50 via the westbound frontage road
  • North Fairfax Drive to westbound Route 50"

The new Dupont South escalators have an unacceptably high failure rate. A car or appliance that preforms that poorly would be called a lemon. Can WMATA sue the contractor and use the funds for a competent install? Is that possible in the public sector?

There's a very interesting and helpful Web site called DC Metro Metrics with information on the service history of Metro's escalators.

Here's the page for Dupont Circle:


Two of the southside escalators seem to be doing pretty well, with 93 and 94 percent availability. But there's one that looks much less reliable, with an average availability of 87.6 percent.

Nearly daily, I wear a suit when biking around McLean going to customer sites (about 5.5 miles daily). My bicycle is designed to protect the pants from grease and mud (fenders and enclosed chain ring). I carry a rain coat in case I get caught in the rain. I suggest to your dear readers that they consder an appropriate bike for short trips. I smile everytime I ride, its a great perk!

That's something I really like about the design of the Capital Bikeshare bikes: They're also well made to protect the rider's clothing.

One thing I wish is that a way could be found to provide bike renters with helmets.

"not going to bike in a suit?" First of all, plenty of people who commute short distances do that. Secondly, lot of us who bike farther to work actually bring a change of clothes... it's really not that hard.

You are a big advocate for public transportation and have opposed Metro building or expanding garages to make it easier for suburbanites to use Metro. So what's your daily life like? Do you commute to work, or work at home? How do you get to the office, if you do? Do you shop after work? Do you drop kids off at school or pick them up afterward? Do you take kids to soccer practice and music lessons? Do you and your spouse go out to dinner, or catch a show and a late supper? How would you do all this with public transportation?

I work from home when I need a phone and computer. I have a bike. I also just bought a new car. And I like to walk, including the two miles to the nearest Metro station.

I enjoy being able to use all forms of transportation, and would like everyone to have the same access so that they could choose the travel methods that work best for them in particular situations.

Not everyone has such luxury today, and that contributes to traffic congestion.

As urban planners, people need to be more realistic about expectations. Yes a magical world where there were bike and bus lanes for all would be a planners dream. However there are plenty of people who don't want to bike (or can't) and the Bus is very unpredictable and aggravating if its not the circulator. Until planners get past the idea that they are actually creating small improvements and not enabling bad habits we will have a hard time finding real solutions.

I don't believe in magic, and I don't believe planners make better use of crystal balls than anyone else. Plenty of today's traffic and transit problems can be traced to confident plans of the mid-20th century that haven't matched reality over the long run.

You see that with urban interstates that encourage sprawl and with Metrorail designs that didn't take long-term maintenance into account.

And yes, a key problem with bus service is that it can be unpredictable in congested areas and then almost unavailable in farther out suburbs.

A number of the posters should really think about their comments. Just because something works well for them, does not mean it will work for everyone. Saying someone should just bike because they are ok with it is wreaks of smugness. I live close enough to bike, but don't trust the cars and I am not stupid enough to try to take up a whole lane during rush hour. Each situation should be handled on its own merits, and one of the best solutions to DC traffic issues is driving to a metro station as opposed to driving all the way in. The bus just isn't happening for a lot of people.

First, I very much appreciate all the commenters who are willing to let fly with their views for the sake of participating in an online chat. Let's air it out and see different points of view.

Local travel is a very personal experience. People seek the solutions that are best for them. And I think that works, as long as they have the opportunity to make real choices. Often, that's not the case.

And it's not like everybody needs to do the same thing every day. Mixing up travel modes during the week would make the overall outcome better for everyone. A big problem now is that too many people feel like they have no choice but to drive. Some people really don't have a choice, but others would appreciate having more options.

Your last answer raises a new set of questions. You work at home WHEN YOU NEED A PHONE AND A COMPUTER? The Post doesn't provide these things in the newsroom? Or you just take your laptop wherever you happen to be? How many days a month do you actually commute to the office during rush hour?

I don't commute. As soon as I turn the ignition, or walk to a bus stop, or go through a fare gate, I'm at work. Travelers ask me to see what they're seeing and write about it.

At 93% the escalator will be out of operation 25.5 days a year. For something brand new I would say that is unacceptable. Hopefully Metro has a performance bond on the contractor. Just think if you shopped for a new car and were told 25.5 days a year it would be broken down. Who would buy a car like that?

Dr. G., you said earlier "Continuing to build more and more parking garages and build them farther and farther out into the suburbs isn't sustainable -- no more so than if we built wider and wider roads and more and more roads. They would just draw more and more traffic and the cycle would keep repeating." I take strong exception to your comment. As a Fairfax resident, I see our County Board has indebted us to the tune of $3 B for the Silver line, with NO garages at Phase 1 stations, and also recently voted to DOUBLE Tyson's square footage development with NO plans to add lanes in that area. Apart from Metro's crappy service, which many others have noted, this is insane.

Where in Tysons Corner would you add lanes? On Route 7 or Route 123? Where would the extra cars go when they got off those routes?

Tysons is going to get bigger. The entire D.C. region is going to get bigger and become more congested. The transportation network needs to get smarter, not wider.

I chose to use bikeshare to commute to work after many years of walking to a metro and riding that in. The only time I ever commuted was an 18 month period where I had to commute from Wheaton to McLean. That experience has turned me off to rush hour driving entirely, and when I had to change residences I deliberately chose a location close to a bikepath and a metro so that I could minimize the amount of driving I had to do. I spent many years wishing I could do this and when I got the chance I had to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of size of residence and location and so on. In particular I was in a situation where I no longer had to worry about the quality of my kids' schools, so obviously not for everybody.

Nothing about our transportation system needs to be for everybody. Travelers divide themselves into categories based on the way they get around. They think of travel as a zero sum game. If somebody else is winning, they must be losing.

(Seems like somebody could make a fortune designing more practical travel clothing -- things that would be durable and visible, but presentable enough to wear into meetings.)

If you can't rely on the schedule and if missing one bus means that you might wait 15 minutes or more for the next one, taking the bus to the train is not an alternative to having enough parking. Not if you expect people with busy schedules to use it. I walk to the Metro, but I can live in a one bedroom apartment. People with families can't do that.

No, not everyone can do that, or wants to do that.

Something about missing the bus: Commuters express fear of transit delays. But one of the biggest -- maybe the biggest -- frustrations among drivers is fear of being late and having to build in buffer time to guard against the unpredictability of driving in the DC region.

I resent that everyone on here thinks that we're trying to make their lives that much more difficult by limiting parking garages. Frankly, there is a very limited amount of space around each Metro station that is walkable, so having a large amount of that space taken up by parking may, or may not, be the best use for that transit station area, depending on if the development market would actually provide more housing units/work spaces than just a parking garage. Garages are a part of suburban mobility, development is a tax revenue source and a source of transit riders. Ideally each station should have a good mix of parking for commuters, bike and pedestrian access from a little further away, and dense development. Also, look at WMATA, every time they solicit for development at one of their stations, they ask the developers to provide the existing number of spaces in a garage before planning out the rest of the site for development. This is part of creating communities and commute patterns for the future, not only maintaining the status quo. If those Metro station apartments were not built, they'd surely be built somewhere with car only access - furthering the congestion to the already limited amount of station parking.

No matter what the clothing is made of until I can figure out how to ride a bike in the heat and humidity of DC without sweating biking to work is out of the question.

Thanks for contributing today. I've got to break away now. (Am hoping to go out with a paving crew in Maryland later today, depending on the weather.)

There are a bunch of comments still here in the mailbag that have to do with our main theme of the day, whether commuters can or should be encouraged to travel in ways they don't use now.

So my hope is to use the Dr. Gridlock blog for posting some more of them, either later this afternoon or on Tuesday.

And I'll be back with you next Monday, when I suspect you may have some questions and comments about the Memorial Day weekend and summer getaways.

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: