Dr. Gridlock chat

Jun 25, 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.

Welcome, travelers. We've had a lot of Metro news in the past week and the fare increases are coming up next week, so many of today's comments relate to Metro.

But we do have a share of traffic comments as well, and to prove it, let's start with one.

Dr Gridlock. When are the HOT lanes due to open up? You've said July, but that begins next week? Should I order my switchable transponder now?

Whoa. I'm very sure I haven't been saying July for the opening of the HOT lanes, also known as the 495 Express Lanes, on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia. As far back as I can remember, the target for opening the  four new lanes has been the end of this year, and it still is.

The switchable transponder is called E-ZPass Flex, and it should be available in July. A regular E-ZPass will work fine. You need the Flex version if you think you may form a three-person carpool. There's a carpool setting on the Flex, so you can take advantage of the free trip for carpoolers.

All drivers need an E-ZPass transponder of some sort to use the lanes.

Can I take the METRO to Farragut West, get a haircut, buy a cigar, have lunch and then re-enter the system a Farragut North (using the "virtual crossing" option) and return home all on the same single fare?

Just don't go for the three martinis at lunch. You've got half an hour to get between Farragut North and Farragut West to make the free Metrorail transfer with your SmarTrip card.

Dr. Gridlock: This morning, my blue line train to Largo sat at Arlington Cemetery for ten minutes (by my watch) while two orange line trains went through Rosslyn first (according to the conductor). This also happened quite a bit last week, although I didn't time it. Shouldn't Metro give blue line trains the priority to go through Rosslyn since there are fewer of them now and since most people who are already on the blue line trains already likely had to wait for their train in the first place? Also, wasn't part of the brilliance of Rush Plus the theory that less blue line trains would cause fewer delays at Rosslyn?

I'm not sure how your case for a priority would fare if we had 12 Orange Line riders on the jury. But I'd be very interested to hear from them, as well as other Blue Line riders.

That switch at Rosslyn has certainly been a problem. The two lines come together and have to take turns. It seems logical to me that Metro would send a couple of Orange Line trains through before taking the time to change the switch over for Blue Line access. Since there are more Orange Line trains to get through the switch, doesn't that seem like it would cost the system less time than changing the switch for every train?

Probably doesn't seem that way when you're sitting on a train between Arlington Cemetery and Rosslyn.

Using only mass transit, what is the best way to get from Columbia, Md to Union Station Metro on Friday. I need to arrive before 10 am and I must be home by 3:00 pm.

Using only transit -- meaning you're not going to let me drive to a MARC train station and park there -- I'd take one of the MTA commuter buses. Check this link for a list of the routes:


I think if you take Route 915 and get off in Silver Spring, you can board a Red Line train for Union Station, but see what you think. Coming home will be more problematic, because it's a rush hour service. You won't make it by 3 p.m. on a commuter bus.

Anyone have further thoughts?

If the Orange Line train was supposed to benefit from this shift why are there fewer trains and the few 8 car trains that I saw in the AM are gone. Making the 6 car train that replaces it more crowded. How is this helping the Orange Line?

There are more Orange Line trains between 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Rush Plus didn't change the number of cars per train on any line.

Dear Dr. Gridlock: Heading out of town on a summer Friday afternoon..... what time does traffic start getting heavy? I'm assuming it is earlier than usual? Thanks!

It can vary from week to week and route to route. Weather plays a factor in the getaway congestion. But it's going to build up in the early afternoon.

I find this the $1 surcharge (starting 7/1 I believe) to be a little bit outrageous. I'll have 5 family members coming to vist in Aug, does this mean they will be forced to either pay an extra buck for each metro trip they take or go ahead and buy Smart trip cards?? Seems a little ridiculous. Plus, I read recently that there is a limited supply of Smart trip cards left and the manufacturer no longer makes them/no longer exists!

Yes. If they use paper fare cards, they'll pay a dollar extra per trip. So if you think they'll make five trips or more during a stay spread out over a few days, they might as well buy SmarTrip cards. You might also look at the different types of passes to see if there will be any bargains in there.

So, has there ever been any explanation of the reasoning behind sending the so-called silver line trains all the way through DC? Why aren't they just terminating at EFC? That way there would be less congestion at the Rosslyn tunnel. And it would allow for more service on every line. It seems like they should have designed that new line to terminate at WFC to make the most sense.

Perhaps the Virginia planners should have designed it to terminate at West Falls Church. That didn't happen.

The Silver Line trains will connect with the Orange Line between West Falls Church and East Falls Church. Turning back Silver Line trains at East Falls Church during rush hours would really mess with Orange Line service and almost certainly would lead to dangerous overcrowding on the East Falls Church platform.

The current plan is for the Silver Line trains to go through downtown DC. They could terminate at Stadium-Armory, but there's not an official plan yet.

I commute from Columbia to the Mall in DC on MTA commuter buses. I am not aware of any way of getting back by 3:00. the earliest my route will get back is just after 4:00. But speaking of the MTA buses, particularly the Dillon busses, how long before the AC issues will be fixed? MTA announced problems due to a bankruptcy, but did not say when the problem would be fixed.

There's no date for fixing the AC issues. If they do come up again, the MTA says, Dillon's will transfer riders from problem buses to buses with working AC.

It's going to be extremely hot at the end of this week.

Dr Gridlock, What can I do about the constant hotbox issue on the Metro. Riding from Smithsonian to West Falls Church in a hotbox with no A/C in 90+ temps makes me physically ill, and worse we can't even bring water on the train. They say to get off the car and on to the next one, but during Rush Hour this is next to impossible.

I was on an Orange Line train heading for Vienna when the temp on my thermometer reached 100 degrees. I had quite a crowd around me. They didn't need my thermometer to know it was really hot. But no one switched cars, and no one went to the call box to let the operator know the car was hot.

I think the solution is for Metro to have air conditioners that work when the weather gets hot. But riders still can do things for themselves.

If you really feel you can't switch cars, at least get off the train and wait for the next one. But I do think it's often possible to switch cars. Stand by the rear doors, get out, go through the closest doors on the next car. If that fails, wait for the next train.

How long does it take to switch the tracks from Orange to Blue at Rosslyn? If the model train set I had as a kid is any example, it should take half a second to make the switch. If NOT, Metro needs to figure out a way to speed the process. The way you talk, one could image a group of Metro workers having to run out and manually change the switch and then run back to a little hut.

I think it's probably not like our model train sets.

Hope not, anyway.

The example shows why the Metro needs to allow multiple people travel with a single fare card. Why should a family of four needs to have separate cards for the kids? Why should I have to have extra cards on hand for guests that come into town. I know other systems let multiple passengers travel with a single card.

I'm not familiar with systems that allow multiple travelers to use a single fare card. Maybe someone can write in and elaborate on that. Sounds like an invitation to fare jumping.

Dr. Gridlock, You wrote yet again about perceived lapses in WMATA's communications towards its riders this past Sunday. I know it is far easier to complain about problems than to try coming up with constructive solutions, especially in the Internet age, but why don't people also try suggesting (viable) solutions for transportation problems, both with Metro and other modes in the DC area, during this chat and in your columns? I have submitted several concrete suggestions for how WMATA could improve its weekend service advisories that never get posted here, yet each chat usually involves soliciting for reader suggestions that never seem to get posted. Perhaps things would get better if people started trying to think of how to improve all the issues they have right now.

Most travelers aren't engineers, transportation experts or communications specialists. But they are paying customers and they do have a right to complain when they believe they've spotted a problem.

Regarding Metro communications, I think Metro is doing a much better job with its electronic communications, but could do better. For example, if these weekend delays are going to continue for the indefinite future -- as Metro says they will -- then the transit authority should adjust such electronic communications as the Trip Planner and the platform information displays to give us the best possible guidance for those circumstances.

With something like Rush Plus, a dramatic change in the rush hour service, Metro should have personnel on the platforms offering to answer commuters' questions at the time those questions arise.

Having travelers propose solutions is certainly a good thing, but not a requirement.

What really bothers me: When travelers say, "I can't take it any more." And then they continue to take it.

Either get involved in collective action that could change things, or take an individual step -- change your commuting behavior.

It might be cheaper to drive and park in a garage when there are that many people. That's what we found when we have visitors.

Yes, for a big group, I think that's very reasonable.

I'm confused about the end points for northbound yellow line trains. The maps make it look like the yellow line either ends at Fort Totten, or it goes all the way to Greenbelt. However, I still see several trains that end at Mt. Vernon Square. Am I reading the map wrong, or is this a change that hasn't been implemented yet?

The Yellow Line is the most confusing part of Rush Plus, I think. Depending on the time of day, the northern terminus for a Yellow Line train can be one of three stations, and you can't tell that from the new maps.

During Rush Plus hours, the YL trains may terminate at either Mount Vernon Square or Greenbelt. During the rest of rush hour, they terminate at Mount Vernon Square only. At off peak hours, they terminate at Fort Totten.

This is one of the compromises made by the mapmakers to keep the map as clean as possible. (Another one was not showing the free transfer between the Farragut stations.)

NYC Transit allows it. You can get up to 5 people through on one Metrocard at a time. But they also have one fare for anywhere you go. That is likely the difference.

Thank you. Got similar responses from several people, who also noted the difference between a flat fare system like New York's and a time an distance based system like Metrorail.

Could the Silver Line trains stay in Virginia and go to National Airport? Or even turn into DC at the Pentago station?

Couldn't do it without rebuilding switches, tracks and tunnels. Maybe someday. But there's no plan to do any of that work.

I live in Columbia. The short answer is it cannot be done easily. Getting back by 3 on mass transit alone is almost impossible. Commuter bus is a good option generally, but the earliest bus in the afternoon gets to Columbia after 4,. The MARC Camden line also is rush hour only. My best guess would be to take a Howard Co bus to BWI rail station and then the MARC Penn Line to Union Sta. It would be a long haul. Really, better option for those hours is to drive to the Odenton MARC station (Penn Line) or Greenbelt metro. Or find a friend to drop you off/pick you up from one of those spots.

Thanks for this advice on the Columbia-Union Station trip. The questioner set some pretty difficult conditions: All transit, and a round trip in by 10 a.m. and back by 3 p.m.

My brother was surprised when I told him there were parking garages near down town. He had business in town. Three employees and himself. I told him it was cheaper to drive and park. He remembers when he was young and the Metro was fun and cheap. No more.

Early selling points for Metrorail included comfort and reliability. Many riders today don't see those characteristics in the transit system.

I just keep a couple extra smart trip cards on hand for guests. They go in the folder I have with maps, guidebooks, etc. They almost always leave them with more money than when tehy came, so it is no big deal for me to keep them on hand.

I've heard from many people who do that and agree it's a good idea. But don't forget to explore the pass options. If the group goes from place to place to place in a single day, for example, a day pass might be cost-effective. And under that circumstance, Metro riding could be better than driving and parking in a garage.

For a while (at least before Rush+) yellow trains were going to Greenbelt off peak, although that was never acknowledged on any metro maps. Should we now assume that to no longer be the case?

I believe a few trains a day still go between Huntington and Greenbelt. That's because Metro is repositioning trains, and there's no point sending through an empty train while relocating it.

Two followups to questions you had - In a fare system like ours, where the fare is based on both origin and destination (as opposed to a flat fare), it is pretty hard to do multiple fares on a single card, because the second swipe is supposed to be the exit swipe and thus actually deduct the money. In a flat-fare system like Boston or New York, though, you can just swipe the card, pass it back, and have the next person swipe in turn. Each swipe will deduct a fare. As for the AC, if you have twitter access, make sure to tweet the car number and line with the tags #wmata and #hotcar. They're going into a database, and believe it or not, WMATA is starting to look into these things, it seems.

Thanks, and I think the Twitter method is good, but if you've got the time, try multiple things. Start by hitting the intercom button and telling the operator. That could result in the car getting closed off, so no one else has to suffer with dangerous heat. And it could result in a Metro mechanic getting on board while the train is still in service and possibily fixing the problem.

If Metro is able to handle a free transfer between the Farragut stations, then why can't they let riders hop off (exit the gate) and back on (enter the gate) on at the same station within the 30 minutes. For example, I like to get off the train at Union Station, get takeaway food and then hop back on at Union Station headed home towards Glenmont.

I like that idea. Sort of like the Metrobus transfers. But the fare gate readers aren't that sophisticated.

Notice how many of the customer-oriented services in Metro aren't as modern and helpful as we'd like them to be?

Dr. G, you said, "Most travelers aren't engineers, transportation experts or communications specialists" - that is certainly true. But it's also hard to make a case that all those "experts" are doing things right...if they were, we wouldn't need you! I'm not just talking about Metro either. You can ceratinly include DDOT, VDOT, MDOT, MWAA and most of the local and county government transportation folks in that group. They are doing a poor job overall as a group...that's why we have the nation's second worse traffic and a somewhat disfunctional mass transit network.

That's a very interesting point about the limits of expertise, and I'm sure you could apply it to more spheres than transportation -- but it's certainly true with our transportation systems.

It's always bracing to look back at transportation decisions made with such sureness a few decades ago. Many of them haven't worked out as the sure people thought.

You can count decisions about Metro and the DC region's highway network among them.

Wait - not all Rush + Yellow line trains go to Ft. Totten? Why not? that seems dumb. And how do they decide which ones do and which ones don't?

I have trouble saying this Yellow Line stuff every time I try to explain it. Something in what I say always winds up confusing people.

Even as I type this, I realize how confusing it is:

Rush Plus Yellow Line trains travel between Franconia-Springfield and Greenbelt. (So those trains stop at Fort Totten along the way.)

Throughout the entire rush period -- including the more limted Rush Plus hours -- Yellow Line trains also travel between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. (This is why Metro officials keep saying, "Watch the destination signs.")

At off-peak hours, Yellow Line trains travel between Huntington and Fort Totten.

For many, Metro is the only option and WMATA isn't exactly known for being receptive to suggestions (i.e. lack of reaction after the public hearings of the past year). If WMATA doesn't even follow the recommendations of the NTSB and TOC, the individual or group of riders doesn't stand much of a chance in changing their procedures.

I think there's a very low level of rider activism. This round of hearings, just like every other round of hearings, was poorly attended. Very few riders address the board during its regular meetings. Very few people participate in the Riders' Advisory Council.

The board isn't elected -- though some of its members are elected officials -- but it does react to political pressure on the rare occasions when it's applied.

Often you and others refer to the "option" of public transit. But for many of us, and especially young people, there is in fact no other option. Car sales are at an all-time low among us. We WANT to take public transportation. But what are we supposed to do when WMATA is overburdened already, providing a pretty inferior service, and there are seemingly no plans whatsoever for real core expansion or improvement? It seems like all we can do is impotently complain.

I think the growing number of young people who rely on transit could make a serious difference if they got together and applied pressure to the Metro board and to the government leaders that appoint people to the Metro board -- and I don't mean just sending angry Twitter messages.

But we're expert riders. A lot of metro officials don't use the system. A lot of the 'solutions' we give are directly related to riding experience.

Let's take something like the issue of getting Orange and Blue Line trains through the Rosslyn switch. We're not experts on designing switches. But as you say, riders are experts on the fact that it takes too long to get through the train junction.

Riders don't have to come up with a new design for the junction. But they do have to mount a formidable campaign to get leaders to address the problem they've identified.

Wait--are only NEW farecards a dollar, or do they also charge you when you add value to an existing farecard?

When you go through the fare gate as you exit your station, you'll be charged a dollar more than you would have if you'd been using a SmarTrip card.

I know this is a frequent topic, but I see it getting worse as the weather improves. Every morning I run around the mall downtown and I find myself constantly dodging bikers. Some use the roads, some use the sidewalks, and some use the walking paths on the mall. Sometimes I get a 0.05 second warning with a bell or a "on the left". Usually it's just a brush-by. I understand that I need to be on alert as I cross a street, but having to run with my head on a swivel because the bikes are everywhere seems crazy. To your knowledge, has a biker ever been cited for riding on the sidewalks/walking paths? I know an Arlington biker recently killed a woman who made the mistake of getting in his way, but I understand he wasn't even cited.

Yes, bikers have been cited. The times that come to my attention are mostly during police safety campaigns. Many misdeeds on bikes go uncited. Same as with car drivers, right?

In the case you're referring to, I believe the biker gave a proper warning about passing on the left. I've noticed as both a biker and a walker that people sometimes react by stepping to the left, as though all they heard was "left." So I don't like that as a warning and think cyclists, like drivers, need to slow down and be careful with other travelers.

We have to wrap up. There were so many Metro comments today, that I got a note accusing me of being Mr. Metro instead of Dr. Gridlock. But looking over the remaining comments, I see that virtually all are about some issue or other regarding Metro -- it's just the news cycle.  I'll go through the mailbag again and try to get more of your comments onto the Dr. Gridlock blog this week.

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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