Dr. Gridlock

May 19, 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.

Welcome, travelers. This is the day to send in any of your questions and comments about Memorial Day weekend getaway travel issues. But all topics are welcome.

Shortly before the chat began, we got work from Metro General Manager Richard Sarles that May 27 is the target date for Metro taking official control of the Silver Line. Doesn't mean service starts immediately. In fact, it could be the start of 90 days of Metro testing, although Sarles was hopeful it would take less time.

Heading to southern WV via 66 to 81 to 64. Any construction likely to cause delays?

I don't see anything on the Virginia Department of Transportation's list of construction projects that is likely to impede your getaway.

Statewide, VDOT plans to lift its lane closures at noon Friday and won't be back at work in the lanes till noon Tuesday, after Memorial Day.

That means they pull up the orange barrels. The concrete barriers and lane shifts that may slow you down going through long-term projects, those things stay in place.

I'll have more getaway advice, including some of your travel tips, on the Dr. Gridlock blog through this week.


I've lived here for 10+ years and use metro frequently, but has the situation gotten so bad that we now expect/accept it? I was at Union Station yesterday where the trains were sharing the platform, and i helped two different sets of people (one of which was from Berlin, a not-simple transit system) who did not understand which train to board since trains were coming from both directions at the same platform. They both pointed out it would be easier to understand if the electronic board was synced to the arriving train (it was either blank, or did not match the arriving train). I could not offer a reason why, and to be honest just shrugged it off as par for the course. Have our expectations dropped so low that Metro isn't even doing the little things like making sure the electronic signs are working when they close a platform? How do we hold Metro accountable to do better?

Starting with the specific issue you encountered: This past weekend, Metro had a work zone between NoMa-Gallaudet and Judiciary Square, so you were right in the middle of  the zone where trains were sharing a track around the work zone.

The weekend work zones mess with the computer brain that controls the train arrival predictions. It's an old system now, and it wasn't designed to cope with change.

That's a problem, especially on weekends, and I don't know of any corrective except replacing the Next Train system with something more modern, which isn't going to happen any time soon.

On your larger question: I don't believe people have given up on Metro as a transit system, though some have given up riding on the weekends. Over on the Orange Line this past weekend, trains were scheduled to reach platforms every 24 minutes, because of the track work program. That's along time between subway trains.

The aggressive weekend track work program, scheduled to continue into 2017, is based on the premise that the system had deteriorated so severely that a very rapid recovery effort was needed. That's the strategy that's being followed. I think it's important to recognize that it's a strategy. It wasn't the only possible strategy, just the one that Metro chose.

As a carpool that enters and exits I395 at Springfield, will we need an EZ Pass to commute each day. Previous coverage has indicated that EZ Pass Express lanes are new lanes, not simply tolling existing lanes. Would we now need to enter ane exit at Edsall Road to avoid contributing to the privatization of public roads?

If you enter the 95 Express Lanes, which will end northbound around Edsall Road, you will need an E-ZPass Flex on the carpool setting to get the free ride. This applies to anywhere in the system you'd be passing under a toll gantry.

The E-ZPasses will be free as of July 1. No more monthly maintenance fee.

Last week you spoke about the dislike of garages in the outskirts of Metro, but there have been no real alternatives presented (asking 10's of thousands of people to take the bus is not a great option with an infrequent schedule and limited space on them). Whats the real longer term alternative. Asking people to give up their houses and move closer in isn't that realistic nor is asking them to get a new job closer to home. Those is the outer suburbs need a way to get into the city, and going to a metro on the edge is the best of the options.

I'm not asking suburban commuters to change their behavior. I'm asking suburban governments to provide commuters with more options so they can choose to change their behavior if they want to.

Right now, just as the commenter says, the alternatives are limited. In some cases, very limited.

We started out this discussion thread a couple of weeks ago with me saying that Metro garages are car magnets. The suburban Metro stations are mostly set up to absorb the burden of car congestion so that the communities in the core can evolve into liveable, walkable neighborhoods.

Why shouldn't suburbanites have the same right to live in such complete communities? Why do they have to be the places where all the cars get sucked up?

What I'm suggesting costs a lot of money: Add buses and vans to funnel commuters to the suburban stations, so more people can leave their cars at home. And put in some more sidewalks.

But I think that's the direction we need to evolve in.

Streetcars are enemies of auto traffic I’m old enough to remember how it was with streetcars in downtown Los Angeles in the 19490s. Maybe local oldsters can add what it was like in D.C. In Los Angeles the red cars ran well because they had their own right-of-way, no competition from autos and trucks. But in downtown streets frantic drivers played crinkle-fender with streetcars and desperate pedestrians scampered through lanes of moving cars to board the trolleys. Was it like that in Washington? Are today's D.C. drivers and Columbia Pike commuters wiser and less frantic? Noble Stockton, Arlington

The opening of the first modern streetcar lines in D.C. will be a shock to our transportation system. Most drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have no experience sharing the streets with huge vehicles on rails.

Drivers can't double park on the rails. Cyclists have to be careful their wheels don't get stuck in the track grooves. Pedestrians will have to pay more attention to signals and to these big vehicles that can't swerve to avoid them.

I have heard from longtime D.C. residents who do remember when the city had streetcars, and they raise these concerns.

Do you know if cities are allowed to patrol metro parking lots to give out tickets? I parked in the multi-day section of Greenbelt and noticed a city of greenbelt patrol car going up and down the lanes with the mounted cameras on the car. As I walked to the station, i notices several cars with tickets for dark tint, expired tags, etc

I can't think of a  reason against having city of Greenbelt police enforce traffic laws within the city of Greenbelt, which would include the big Metro parking lot.

Yep and I wrote to metro board members and my local pols to oppose that plan and never heard back from any of them. For a town full of advocacy professionals aka lobbyists and hill staff, we are represented by a bunch of unresponsive shiftless lazy bozos.

The Metro rebuilding strategy goes back to 2011, a time when many of us were looking at Metrorail's problems in light of the 2009 Red Line crash.

I think the crash aftermath may have muted the discussion of the aggressive rebuilding strategy adopted by Metro.

Since then, I've heard from many riders who are angry about the rebuilding strategy, or angry about the condition of the rail system, or both. (People don't often write to me because they're happy about something in our transportation system.)

What I haven't heard much of, either from riders or politicians, is discussion of whether the current strategy is the best strategy. Whether we should have done something different, or should do something different now that we're half way through the rebuilding.

(By the way, I don't recall hearing any local elected official speak during the fare increase hearings this winter. But I didn't get to all of them. Anybody hear an elected leader speak out at that time?)

under your suggestion, what would you do for those who live in suburban developments where houses are spread out? how could bus stops be realistic?

Please keep in mind that I'm not talking about taking away their car keys.

But I think it's perfectly plausible to set up van systems that would offer frequent service to people living within a mile or two of Metrorail stations. If a portion of the people who live in that radius could be induced to leave their cars at home, it would make a big difference in traffic congestion around the stations.

To delay crossing the Bay bridge on Friday nights we would like to go to DC to spend time. Prince George's Plaza usually has parking but does anyone know if New Carrollton fills up or should there be parking available after 5 on a Friday night?

Others may wish to add their comments on this, but I think parking would almost certainly be available at New Carrollton after 5 p.m. on Fridays.

The parking issues I hear about most frequently are at the outer stations late in the morning rush, but that starts to ease up in the early afternoon.

Lots of major cities have streetcar lines - Istanbul, Vienna, Bratislava come to mind - and I am sure Washingtonians will adjust.

I'm sure they will. By the way, I rode a streetcar in Vienna. Enjoyed the trip, but had to get off when it got into a collision with a car.

I understand that the Town of Vienna is allowed to time its own traffic lights (not very effectively), while most of Fairfax County's traffic lights are controlled by the state. It seems to take forever to navigate Maple Avenue (Route 123) in Vienna, while 123 traffic typically flows much more smoothly in Oakton and Tysons Corner. Do you have any insights on this situation?

I've talked to traffic signal engineers in Northern Virginia, but not specifically about Vienna, so this is just a guess for the sake of discussion:

Drivers on Maple Avenue in Vienna are going to encounter more intersections and more cross-street traffic than they will as they continue on Route 123 through Tysons Corner.

That's not to present Tysons as a role model for traffic engineering. It's just a different situation, with different problems.

I'd like to put this comment together with the next comment to make a statement about traffic enforcement.

Is there any chance of greater enforcement against that subset of cyclists who are basically crazy? Late Friday afternoon I left my office in the district and waited at a crosswalk to get a walk signal on a one-way street. When that happened, I looked to my left to confirm that there were no cars coming. I did not contemplate a vehicle going the wrong way. I started to step forward and a guy on a bike going the wrong way sped by right in front of me and into the intersection (through the red light). He was going so fast it was pointless to even yell a few choice words at him. If I had stepped a half-second sooner I'd probably still be in the hospital. BTW, I bike to Metro in the morning so I am not an anti-cycling person. But there is a certain segment of the population, mostly males in their late teens or early 20's, who need to have their bikes taken away for a while and get a timeout.

It's tough to get enforcement just right, whether we're talking about drivers, cyclists or pedestrians.

There isn't enough enforcement of traffic rules. Some of the enforcement we do have involves the issuance of bad tickets (which people should fight).

Meanwhile, I don't find any type of traveler out-performing any other type of traveler.

I have been a commuter on the Orange Line for the past 4+ years, and have begun to notice recently a larger gap in times between the trains in the morning. It used to be the case when I got to WFC in the morning (at various time), a wait of 3-4 minutes for a train to come through was common. Now it is more like 6-7 minutes each morning, and the gaps have begun to grow to 5 minutes in the evenings as well. Is this Metro starting to adjust their schedule to get used to these 6 minutes windows that will be the case when the Silver line opens? It has started to lead to more crowding in the mornings...now no one past Dunn Loring will see an open seat.

There's been no change in the rush hour schedule since Rush Plus added trains on that part of the Orange Line.

The odds are better that you are encountering disruptions in the schedule. That isn't necessarily because of a train problem, like brakes or doors that can get a train pulled from service. The normal loading and unloading of trains through the busy downtown stations can mess up the schedule, and then you would experience the consequences out at West Falls Church in the morning.

The opening of the Silver Line will mean a change for you on Day 1. Orange Line riders between Vienna and West Falls Church will no longer have those Rush Plus change. That's the effect of adding Silver Line trains at East Falls Church.

Should happen this summer.

How on earth is this even slightly realistic. Metro has had problems with their handicapped program as it is that does a similar thing and thats on a much smaller scale. You are now proposing to do this for 10's of thousands of people each one in its own micro-community. You often say people should do whats best for them, why not propose something that actually has a chance of working? You are supposed to be a transit advocate, not just a public transit advocate. We can't even get the basic things right so this massive expansion is unrealistic at best.

House to Metro is a bit more plush than what I had in mind. Van systems -- whether operated by Metro, a suburban transit agency or a private company -- would use neighborhood bus stops.

Hi Doc - Any chance DC might consider enforcing the no standing/parking rules in the far right lane of outbound 14th Street during afternoon rush, now currently occupied by at least one but up to three ice cream trucks daily? I've long given up on Friday enforcement, but it is simply unacceptable to lose a whole lane of a critical artery each day to these vendors parked illegally!

The way I would do it is by increasing the size of the DDOT's Traffic Control Officer force. They do a good job where they are deployed, but there aren't enough of them to get to all the problem spots at rush hours.

I've often wondered why the subway cars are freezing in the winter and often hot during the summer. Who/what regulates the temperature and how come they can't get it right?

Metro has a winter and summer temperature standard for the cars. The standards are reasonable for the seasons. Sometimes the equipment is busted. And on some extreme days, the cars are going to be too hot or too cold because of all the doors opening and staying open at outdoor stations.

I've seen you type the word "aggressive" to describe Metro's rebuilding strategy countless times. Time for a new word. Yes, they are doing work virtually every weekend, but there are still so many problems apparent to riders. No, we can't see the track ties and switches they replace, but aggressive to me means they would tackle things we see every day like dim stations, constantly broken escalators (hello, Dupont South!), and broken promises on when things will return back to service (look at virtually every escalator/stair worksite, they have the estimated completion dates changed several times). That's not aggressive.

They should also get rid of he cars parked for the slugs.

I used to work in DC across from one of the McPherson Square metro entrances. I used the metro website that had live updates of when next trains were arriving. I knew how long it took for me to leave my office and get to the metro platform, so it was a great feature. Is it still there? I cannot find it. I have a friend who just started working downtown and I've been looking for this link to show her. Can you assist? thanks.

You're talking about the "Realtime Arrivals" button. Metro still has that information on its Web site. Go to this page for McPherson Square:


Look for the image of a digital clock. (Black, with red numerals.) Should be same for other stations, as well.

Also, there are plenty of smartphone apps that will give you that same information on train arrival times, including Metro's smartphone Web site.

21st between E and F always has a right lane or two blocked by the Coke and Pepsi delivery trucks at the 7-11, slugs, commuter buses, random delivery vehicles (UPS and FedEx usually DOUBLE park there to avoid the slugs). The commute would be considerably better if enforcement were up (as would revenue).

Wow- did not expect this reaction. I agree with you. We suburban dwellers should petition our county to provide more bus routes and car alternatives. Most counties have bus lines, call and demand options.

You can reduce traffic congestion by 50% by removing 10% of the cars from the roads. I think that is what causes people's confusion with various proposed solutions. We're not asking everybody to take the bus - we're asking that enough buses be provided to reduce the number of cars on the road by some small but crucial amount. If you do choose to take the bus, you are relieving traffic for ten other people... That's why we subsidize public transportation. Try driving down Georgia avenue when one of the metro stations on the red line is closed. All that happens is the 5% of people who would have taken the metro are now forced on the street. And yet the effect is that traffic grinds to a halt for 100% of the traffic in the affected area.

That's the idea.

As someone who has lived in both of the suburbs of DC, I don't disagree that we can build out a system where there are more options for suburbanites to leave the cars at home. But the real problem here is a chicken and an egg problem - outside of rush hour, buses run every 30 minutes along most of the major roads in the region (Lee Highway and Connecticut Avenue being the two I'm most familiar with). If buses ran every 10 minutes all day, then more people would ride. But buses are expensive, who is going to pay for them at today's ridership levels? I don't have an answer, just a comment.

There's no single scenario for making this work. As you are saying, it's not a question of just adding a lot of buses all over the place and hoping the riders will come.

You'd want to add buses on some of the busiest commuter routes, where you're most likely to draw additional transit riders -- people who would find it immediately convenient to leave their cars at home, or perhaps just don't have cars.

In some places, you'd need additional infrastructure. (Bus lanes, and traffic signals that give priority to buses.)

In some places, you'd need to work land-use policy to encourage the creation of critical masses of people who could then use mass transit.

Those things are a bit different from the idea I've been floating in the recent chats that we need more short-trip buses and vans to cater to Metrorail users who live near Metro stations. In many communities -- not all -- that's a ready-made market of people who would just as soon not pay to warehouse their cars all day at a Metro station.

It's not that people don't want walkable neighborhoods. It's that none of the solutions proposed work in a single family home environment. These neighborhoods are much more spread out to give people the added living space that is desirable for families. All the proposals from transit experts ignore this and assume people would be happy moving to townhouses or condos where everyone can just walk to different places. It's a gigantic assumption to assume families who need extra space are willing to downscale, (since the cost of a 3-4 bedroom home in a high density area is outrageously expensive). There needs to be a long term plan that incorporates the fact that some people will not live near public transit that accomplishes their every day needs. It's like the planners have decided if they make parking hellish enough, people will just stop driving. That's a little backward thinking and not realistic.

I agree there's some unrealistic, or wishful thinking among planners and advocates.

Those proposals don't often get to be reality, because people rebel and block them in time.

But on the other hand, if we find places where we can create new transit options for people, why not do that? It's not necessary to take away something people use successfully now in order to create new options for them.

Some will see the new options and say great. Others will see them and say, Not for me. Others will say, It doesn't work for me today, but might tomorrow.

I commute down Connecticut Ave via car to work and back and have noticed that cyclists are increasingly hostile to cars, confrontational and dangers to themselves. They now ride two abreast, one in each traffic lane, taking two of the four lanes available. The only reason they do this is to be hostile to drivers and express aggression. They also weave in and out of all traffic lanes at high speeds with no hand signals. Today I had to slam on my brakes to avoid a bike that moved into my (the second) lane of traffic. More and more of them are wearing cameras on their helmets. This is not a pleasant, friendly, share the road situation by any means. When I was in my 20s I biked exclusively and did not even use a car till I was 34. Now that I do, am I to be harassed by angry cyclists daring me to do something that they can record on their cameras? I also echo the earlier poster that they speed the wrong way on one way streets, which is extremely dangerous. I am nervous that I am going to hit one and don't know if they realize how dangerous their riding style is.

I understand what you're saying, and could give you back some examples.

I can give you examples of all sorts of travelers behaving badly and aggressively.

One thing I've never figured out how to measure: Is any category of traveler performing any worse than any other category of traveler, or getting worse over time?

The thing I feel more certain of is that we can't match bad behavior with bad behavior. I don't hear as much as I like from safety campaigners about defensive traveling. (We used to talk about "defensive driving," but that theme should not only be enhanced but also expanded to include all sorts of travelers.)

I think too many people have lost sight of Dr G's original point when he said suburban metro parking garages are car magnets. No one is advocating we remove these parking garages for those who need them, what I think we're advocating for is increasing ridership of metro in a situation where we're out of parking and building more may not be the answer. Metro did a lot of studies showing how many of the cars parked at parking lots and garages across the system were coming from houses less than 2 miles away, many even less than a mile - in part because the pedestrian paths and bus routes were lacking. Not everyone will or should take the bus, but I bet there are some who would if it were more convenient. That frees up parking for someone else who can't or won't take the bus. Same goes for walking, biking or any other way someone could get to a Metro station without driving themselves. If you want to see an idea of what I think Dr G means by having more buses or vans take you to Metro - look at Montgomery County's Ride-On service. It's whole route design is to go through neighborhoods collecting people, then taking them to transit centers along major WMATA bus or train routes. The transit routes are there, the headways may be too far apart to be useful to many. Just because your situation means driving is and may always be the best alternative - there are plenty who drive now who really do not need to and may chose not to with some investment in access.

That's it!

The graphic for Bike to Work Day on the information screens above the station manager's kiosks were well-designed and eye-catching. That's a good use of those screens.

Thanks for joining me today. We'll be off next Monday for the Memorial Day holiday, but I'll be back with you the following Monday.

If you've got any getaway issues you'd like to discuss this week, please write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. I've got some pre-getaway blog postings coming up.

Stay safe, whether your upcoming journeys are long or short.

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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