Dr. Gridlock

Jun 06, 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. Did you see Dana Hedgpeth's story Sunday about Lance Wyman, hired by Metro to redo his original map of the rail system? She's going to do an online chat with Wyman at 1o a.m. Tuesday. You can use this link to submit questions and comments:


But first, let's talk traffic and transit. (We also can discuss the plans to remake the Metro map, if you like. I was one of the jurors on the very interesting contest sponsored by Greater Greater Washington to recreate the map.)


Dr. Gridlock, several times in the last few months you've written that "drivers run stop signs too, but at least they slow down" as though that is a sign of greater virtue. But isn't different behavior by different modes just a result of the technology, not the virtue of the operators? Drivers slow down because they're going faster to start with, they can't see or hear as well as cyclists, and they aren't as maneuverable. In short, they slow down because they have to to avoid a crash. The prevelance of other illegal behavior seems to negate any claim to higher virtue. Would you not agree that cyclists, drivers and pedestrians do what they feel they can get away with without getting caught or being in a crash. So no group is more virtuous than other, right?

My point exactly: Travelers generally comply with traffic law when they think there's a reasonable chance they'll get caught for a violation. Drivers complain about cyclists. Cyclists complain about drivers. But I don't see any class of travelers having the moral high ground on complying with the law.

As in: The law doesn't say "slow down" for a stop sign. It' says "stop."

We've heard so often that the Humpback Bridge replacement on the GW Parkway is supposed to be finished soon. The last news report I heard said that it should all have been done by Memorial Day... last week. When can we expect this project to be done?

The National Park Service project, which began in January 2008, is way, way behind schedule. But the only announcement I saw regarding Memorial Day was that work would be suspended for the holiday weekend.

For at least a few months, the park service has been saying the project would be done in "late spring." We're running out of spring now, but the project is in its final phase.

Here's a new announcement that some parkway users may find useful:

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, construction crews will close the ramp from southbound I-395 to the southbound George Washington Parkway between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.  This ramp closure is necessary for the contractor to complete storm water drainage repairs to the ramp, but the ramp will be open during rush hours on all three days.

Dr. Gridlock, ever since the exit-only lane has been added to the outer loop at Eisenhower, that section of the Beltway (from the Mixing Bowl to that exit) has become a miserable drive. Instead of merging soon after Van Dorn, too many are waiting until the last possible moment before the Eisenhower exit separates from the main freeway. Most days, the backup begins as you exit the ramp from I-95 north and crawls to the exit point at Eisenhower. I recall it being a trouble-free ride before that lane was added (and please correct me if your readers have indicated differently). Is this just how it's going to be, or are there further changes in store as part of the Wilson Bridge project?

The traffic pattern on the outer loop in that area remains in flux during this last stage of the Wilson Bridge construction project, which not only involved the bridge but also four interchanges. We won't see the final traffic pattern for more than a year -- but it can only get better.

Here's one thing coming up this weekend:

The outer loop THRU/LOCAL lane split is scheduled to shift east of its current location to make room for work on a new portion of the THRU lanes. About 9 p.m. Friday, one THRU lane will be closed, leaving two LOCAL lanes open. Then starting at 9 p.m. Saturday, one THRU lane and one LOCAL lane will be closed, leaving only one LOCAL lane open to traffic. At 9 a.m. next Sunday, all lanes will reopen.

What's up with the US Open (which the Washington Post is hawking tickets for) offering shuttles for free from a bunch of far-away satellite parking lots, but charging $8 a day to take a shuttle from nearby Grosvenor Metro? Trying to keep out the rabble?

We're talking about the US Open Championship returning to Congressional Country Club on June 13-19. If I understand the setup correctly, it's the ticket prices that will keep out the rabble, like me.  The ticket price includes parking and the shuttle. Why not make the shuttle from the Metro free, too?

The "new" configuration that started last week is a poorly designed and dangerous disaster. How long will this new configuration last? (It's gotten so bad at rush hour in the morning that the airport police are standing right after the toll plaza every morning, waving over all the people trying to break free of the mess by illegally cutting over to the airport lanes.) The signage is typical VDOT - completely incomprehensible. "BELTWAY NORTH - LEFT LANES" - HUH? Followed by "BELTWAY NORTH - CENTER LANE" - which is right where lanes add/drop so good luck figuring out the center. Traffic is backing up on the DTR for miles each and every morning now. One poorly marked lane for the Beltway North, at rush hour? Seriously?

In the past few days, I've seen a bunch of complaints like this about the set up for the HOT lanes project. Most of the complaints have been about the confusing signs. I'll take a ride out there and see for myself. (That was a difficult area to navigate to start with.)

On New York Ave, on the same bridge where they have gone down to 2 lanes in each direction, they have also eliminated the pedestrian walkways on both sides of the bridge. This happened before it went down to 2 lanes, but when there were 3 lanes it was easier to move over so as not to hit a pedestrian. There are/were signs saying that there is a pedestrian detour that goes around the block, but everyday there are pedestrians on the bridge (usually pulling a suitcase) creating a dangerous situation. Is anything being done about this? enforcement or plans to bring back a pedestian walkway soon?

There are no plans for a pedestrian walkway while the construction is underway. I've seen people walking across the bridge rather than use the detour. I've also walked the detour route. It's quite a bit out of the way, but it's still a lot better than taking a chance of getting hit on the bridge.


Dr. Gridlock- What are the times that one driver can use the 14th street bridge HOV lanes to go into the District from NOVA? If I get on at Shirlington, then there is a sign indicating all lanes are open, or HOV only. However, if I get on elsewhere, there is no sign indicating the times - particularly near the Pentagon/Pentagon City - only a sign that says "HOV-3". Logic would say that if it's okay at Shirlington to enter, then I should be okay, but applying logic to VDOT seems like a risk. I've looked online to no avail - could you please shed some light on this issue so I don't get a surprise ticket in the future.

I-395 is open to all vehicles northbound from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays.

(Notice that the work zone is going to move again on Wednesday on the regular travel lanes of the northbound span? This new area, to the right of the current one, will be the last phase for the work zones.)

Dr. G- Do you think the Capitol Bikeshare, in some way, may put negative strain on the transpo system? I've noticed that many (I'd say most, but it would not be statistical) do not wear helmets and pads. They seem to be even more cavalier than most people on bikes as far as obeying the traffic laws. In other words, it introduces novice people on bikes that are unfamiliar with the rules-of-the-road (or where they are going) as it relates to bikes and traffic. I feel the same is true about people driving Zipcars. They tend to be unfamiliar with the car they are driving (e.g., where the windshield wipers are in a down pour) and are often unfamiliar with the driving rules or where they're going. I try to avoid being near a Zipcar for fear of sudden, unexpected movements.

I think Capital Bikeshare -- or something like it -- is here to stay and believe that's a good thing. I was pleased to see how much of the traffic on the 15th Street cycle track is made up of these rented bikes.

I do wish they'd all wear helmets, though.

I'm not sure -- not denying it, just not sure -- that Bikeshare riders or Zipcar drivers are any less skilled than the average street user. (I don't have a high opinion of the average street user's skills.)

If a Bikeshare rider or a Zipcar driver does something dumb, it stands out and you tend to remember it. You may be seeing just as many dumb things done by other cyclists or drivers in rental cars not as clearly marked as the Zipcars are.

What's the solution here? Requesting riders to take their newspapers with them doesn't seem to work, and by 5 p.m. each day the metro is littered with abandoned papers. Why does everyone leave the mess for the metro staff to clean up, when it only takes a second to grab the papers that others have left behind and put them in recycling? I'm also curious: do the publishers of these papers (Washington Post and the Examiner, primarily) pay for their collection and recycling?

I think The Post pays for the bins. Doesn't help if people won't take their stuff with them when they leave the trains. Leftover newspapers are the most noticeable, but there's also the rolling soda bottles and the food wrappers.

The excuse I often hear about the newspapers is that, "I wanted to leave it for the next person to read." That's just lazy. The next person doesn't need your crumpled up paper.

Hi, Dr. G. Twice in a two-week period I experience overcrowded trains during rush hour that had either the first or second car's light's dimmed. I'd like to know what kind of employee in Metro's logistical or planning departments would make a crappy recommendation to senior management that could have been better if a senior manager had said no. As in, "No, we're going to these two rail yards, find working cars, switch-out the fouled-up cars, insert operational cars and thereby avoid the overcrowded conditions." One other thing: Can Metro transit police do a better job of patrolling cars during rush hours, looking for potential violators of the no eating rule? I've advised visitors not to do so, but to do that with regular riders is a waste of breath. Thanks, Dr. G!

I think I probably wouldn't take a car -- actually, it would have to be a pair of cars -- out of rush hour service just because the lights were dim. We don't have enough rail cars as it is to meet the demand.

In fact, it's going to be many years before Metro has more cars than it does now. The ones on order, the 7000 Series, they're just going to replace the oldest cars in the fleet. Not much gain in capacity.

I understand the escalator repair at Foggy Bottom limits the station to one escalator in each direction, but why oh why do the station managers not stop the down escalator during morning rush hour so that people may walk up as well? I've seen them do this once in the past two months. There are huge crowds in the morning waiting to exit the station and the one time they allowed us to walk up the 'down' escalator, it helped immensely! Is that why it is not repeated daily?

That Foggy Bottom exit is one of the biggest bottlenecks in the system. It's also one of the few stations getting brand new escalators this year -- and they're building a staircase there, as well.

I think you're point about the direction is correct. It's Metro policy that, under most circumstances, if there's just one escalator moving, it should be going up.

I was talking with a friend yesterday who said he is still going right in on New York Avenue during his commute. This sounded crazy to me, but he said he thinks most people have been scared off from that route. Have you heard if they have managed to divert enough regular traffic from this route to keep the lanes flowing or has it become the nightmare we all though it might be. I don't really want to test it myself.

I've been very surprised about the relatively few complaints I get regarding the narrowed New York Avenue bridge. That hasn't been the nightmare I thought it was going to be. Maybe we did scare some commuters onto alternative routes. Maybe they took up DDOT's offer to use "Bridge Bucks" for a transit commute during the lengthy construction project.

Now, if everybody hears we're saying this and comes back to NY Avenue, the original predictions will come true.

As a cyclist and a runner, I can already see the improvements to the trail that uses the bridge. By widening it and eliminating two very steep climbs and drops, it will be safer for all. Still trying to see what it will do for traffic though.

In a way, it's the same thing. Driving over the bridge won't be quite the circus ride it used to be. One of the problems with the old design was that cars would be speeding along and, because of the hump, they wouldn't see the red tail lights ahead of them till it was too late.

OK, as a driver, I admit to being occasionally prone to the "I totally paused" stop-sign behavior. (TM: the movie "Clueless) However, what I don't see from drivers is regular and deliberate running of red lights in heavy traffic, which I not only see from cyclists on a daily basis, but I hear the behavior defended on forums like this one. "Stopping makes me lose momentum!" they say. Hey, you know what else makes you lose momentum? Getting hit by a bus. Or mowing down a pedestrian.

Exactly: Drivers think there's a chance they'll get a ticket for running a red light. They think that's much less likely if they slide through a stop sign, though it's also illegal.

Of course, when it comes to making a right on red, many drivers will simply slow down for that turn. Maybe they're afraid of losing momentum?

It does in Idaho. Cyclists in Idaho can treat stop signs as yield signs. Can we make that the law here? (DC/MD/VA) It makes a lot of sense.

I know many cyclists would prefer to ignore those bothersome stop signs, but I'm not sure what works for Idaho would work in DC.

Dr. G - With all of the current construction and planned growth in the Tysons area, will there be any assessment of and adjustment to traffic patterns and road "rules"? For example, throughout Tysons, there are many lanes that go from a lane of traffic to a Turn Only lane without warning. Well, actually, you do get a warning - that lane is completely empty while the others around it are jam packed. Just seems that there might be a smarter way to manage the road closures and added pressures on the other streets.

The main change I'm aware of in the plans for Tysons is the elimination of the service roads on Route 7, creating a wider roadway with a big median for the new rail line. The general idea with the traffic pattern, at least as I understand it, is to make it closer to an urban grid. That won't end the congestion in Tysons, but it would give drivers more escape routes when things are bad up ahead.

As the construction evolves, is this what I think it is? Will this new lane off 295 South take commuters into 395 South without all the U-turns, unauthorized access roads and other rigamarole? If so, how long will it be before completion? If it's not what I think it is, then can you explain that construction in that area?

It's what you think it is. The two new through spans of the 11th Street Bridge and their ramps should be done by the end of the year.

We plan on getting an EZ-Pass soon. We have heard that some states charge maintenance fees and others don't. Can you tell me where we should get the pass so that we will not have to pay fees? Thanks.

Travelers say they like the deals in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Last Tuesday, around 1 pm I was driving WB on I-66 from the Beltway to Fairfax. Traffic was slow moving from the ramp onto 66, and then for a few miles. This in itself was not surprising. What was surprising was a huge contributor to the slow traffic: the multiple signs indicating that the left lane of I-66 was closed and that cars needed to merge right. These signs went on for about a mile, and then.....nothing. No lane closure, no "End construction" sign, nothing. There were not even any construction vehicles in sight to make it look like something may be about to commence. Just a mess of angry drivers who were backed up in traffic for no apparent reason. Is there someone who I could have called and alerted to this situation?

I wonder if that might have been signs left in place for the overnight work hours on the I-66 resurfacing project. That would be very annoying indeed.

One thing you might try under any circumstances where you see a road problem. Call the VDOT hot line at 800-367-7623.

But the legality isn't really why drivers complain. The problem is, bicyclists are the only operators of slow vehicles who blow through stops. Operators of other slow vehicles, such as construction equipment or buses, stop at the stops. What bothers drivers is when bicyclists ignore stops and then are slow afterwards. If bicyclists understood this it would help everyone use the road together.

I can see why that would bother many drivers. What bothers this driver is that cyclists blow through stops signs and create a hazard for themselves and others.

I think what the cyclists would say is that it's more of a hazard for them to come to a full stop, and then try to regain speed. On a city street, the difference in speed between them and motorists is most apparent when the cyclists and the motorists are accelerating from a stop.

As "cool" as the new map might be, why don't they take the $50 K and fixed the Rosslyn escalator that is out of commission and has been at least since April. Or the Metro Center ones coming up from the Orange Blue line. With all the things desperately broken on the metro system, it astounds me that THIS would be a funding priority (not to mention secondary costs in replacing the maps).

There are plenty of things worth spending money on in the Metro system. But I got to say, when I saw that Wyman was redesigning this widely used map for $50,000, my reaction was, "He works cheap."

I think it's a bargain that Metro was able to get the person who did the original, widely praised design to do an update for that amount.

Travelers, we've covered a lot of ground -- though as usual, not as much as I wanted to. There are still about 30 questions and comments on a variety of topics. I have to sign off now, but will try to address some of these lingering issues on the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

Don't forget about Dana's chat with Lance Wyman on Tuesday. And write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. 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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