Dr. Gridlock chat

Jul 02, 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. Today, we've got some traffic issues related to the storm, some more Rush Plus comments and a variety of other experiences to review. Also, we could address any concerns you have about getting around on July 4.

Avoiding the issue of blame for the power I need to remind everyone to thank the police, crossing guards, and the line workers who have been working all out since Friday to help make our riding and driving safer and easier. And what I do when I approach a dead traffic light is to put on my hazards as I approach. This makes my car much more noticeable to those following. Given that (although neither would be good) I'd rather be rear-ended than t-boned.

Yes, there's no substitute for a human getting out in the middle of an otherwise uncontrolled intersection. They're helping us, but they're also putting themselves in danger.  So pay attention to them.

And just a personal shoutout to the Montgomery County police officers in their cruisers in downtown Silver Spring this morning who came to full stops at darkened intersections. They were setting a good example that I wish more drivers would follow.

Also, I totally understand your concern about being seen at an intersection without working lights. Seems like the uncontrolled intersections were the main danger during this morning's commute. Be real careful this evening and tonight.

OK I gave Rush Plus two weeks before I commented. Here is my objective review. I head to work same time everyday. So for the two weeks prior to rush plus I kept track of the time listed on the platform when I hit the bottom of the escalator. I did the same for the two weeks after Rush Plus. And the results were.... The average listed wait time increased by 67%. So my question "Rush Plus what?" is "more time." I know I'm only one person, but if Metro can provide hard data about travel times since RP came I'll take back my view, but they can't/won't.

I can't tell from your comment what route you'd take, so chime in again if you'd like to elaborate on that.

I did hear from some riders on the Orange Line who said their commutes were taking longer since Rush Plus started.  This was interesting, because there are now more trains on the Orange Line. Several riders speculated that there might be too many trains on the line, messing up the schedule.

Many of you will recall that Metro identified a problem with the number of trains on the Red Line, and reduced the number of trains to balance out the schedule and increase the number of cars on some of the remaining trains.

The situation with Rush Plus is a bit different. The Red Line is a stand-alone line. The Orange Line and the Yellow lines -- the ones that got more trains in Rush Plus -- join up with other lines. It could turn out that the extra trains on shared lines is an issue for the operations center.

I think the least likely outcome is that Metro will decide to cut the number of trains now using the Orange Line. I base that on the fact that Rush Plus is motivated in large part by the need to set up the Rosslyn tunnel for the eventual addition of the Silver Line.

Not a question - more of a PSA Pedestrians need to be more aware of traffic in and around traffic circles, especially when they are trying to jaywalk/cross against the light. This is a huge problem at the Mass Ave crossings at Dupont where pedestrians see the outside circle's light turn red and start to cross even though the Mass Ave/inner lane light has just turned green. But I think the bigger problem is in some of the smaller circles. I often go through Thomas Circle and turn onto the eastbound M St exit. Pedestrians often do not even look to the circle to see if traffic is coming, they just cross against the light.

There's some very risky pedestrian behavior around the downtown traffic circles. In some cases, it looks like people think they know the light and lane patterns when they actually don't. But there's also the natural human instinct to think you can make it across what looks like a narrow space.

But this should also be a plea to drivers to use extra caution near circles, because you know you're going to see this sort of behavior.

Just reporting from the field that my commute from the West side of the Orange Line into the city has been just as bad, if not worse, than before rush plus. Instead of getting stuck in the Rosslyn tunnel, the trains keep inching along the tracks at W. Falls Church and E. Falls Church, and holding at various stations for no explicable reason. If metro can't regulate the increased traffic on the Orange Line, how bad will things get when the Silver line starts running? Do you know if there's a movement to automate trains again? I'm sure it's not just operator error. My commute is becoming unbearable!

Thanks for the report. Every comment I see like this makes me think there might indeed be an issue with the increased number of trains on the Orange Line.

I think it's unlikely that the issue is operator error. Seems more likely that the Operations Control Center would be learning how to deal with a new pattern of trains on the Orange and Yellow lines, where the extra trains were added.

The upbeat view would be that the controllers will get figure out the best way to accommodate train movements with the extra service.

The downbeat view would be that the perceived problem on the Red Line -- too many trains, causing scheduling problems -- has now come to the Orange Line.

The collective experience of riders will be very telling. But it's a little tricky to judge by individual experiences.

On the issue of returning to automatic train controls: That's something the transit authority has been working on since the 2009 Red Line crash. Still no date -- even a tentative date -- on when automatic controls will be restored.

When it happens, it probably will happen on the Red Line first, because the Red Line is just the Red Line, and there's no issue of needing to control trains coming together from different lines.

Why is it that on the Dulles Toll Road on and off ramp booths there are no lanes reserved solely for EZ Pass holders? Most of these 2-lane entrances and exits have 1 booth with an attendant and the other lane drivers are able to pay exact change. While EZ Pass is accepted in all lanes, I'd say about half of the time I exit the road (I use it every day for my commute) I'm stuck behind someone who can't seem to find their "exact change" for a good while at the booth. It defeats most of the purpose of me having an EZ Pass and can sometimes delay 5-10 cars that all have the electronic pass. Having one lane that was EZ Pass only would not only provide further incentive for the system, it would be good for the environment (cars not stopping that don't need to) and it would improve overall flow of the exits.

That's a good idea for exactly the reasons you state, and I thought it was something that was in the long-range plan for improvement of the Toll Road. Not sure when you'll see it.

(That's always the problem, isn't it? Any time I hear about a long range plan for traffic improvement in the DC area, I file it under "not in my lifetime.")


What is the standard procedure for scheduled lane closers for construction? I always thought crews would wait until 10 am to begin construction and would open lanes again around 4:30 if possible-- to not exacerbate either rush hours. Today on route one in crystal city, crews had closed a lane for construction just prior to 9 am, causing a fairly decent back-up for what should have been a light morning rush hour.

Most of the local transportation agencies will keep lanes open through rush hour. Not sure what that Route 1 scenario was about, but it clearly would be a problem.

(Sometimes, it's difficult to tell exactly who is doing work where. Sometimes it's not a road crew but rather a utility crews. Sometimes it's an emergency repair rather than a scheduled project. None of that diminishes the problem it creates for rush hour drivers.)

I would like to commend the area police who have implemented an approach of blocking the less busy street at high travelled intersections. Treating this as a four-way stop obviously causes some inefficiencies and there are always the self-entitled morons who blow through the intersection behind the car ahead of them. I saw three intersections in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties were there were flares and yellow tape to give preference to the more heavily travelled road and other cars could not make turns across this traffic. The concept seems to be that traffic on the lighter road must make a right turn and then a U-turn and then be able to proceed. It seemed to work much better than having everybody stop.

It does sound like a safe solution at some intersections, but we can't count on the police being able to address the problems at all intersections affected by a massive storm. Sometimes, it's going to be up to us to use good sense and caution.

Or if you're like me, there are some intersections where you simply don't want to be that brave. Last night, I came off the Beltway's outer loop up to University Boulevard. The lights were out. I usually make a left. But said to myself there was no way I was going to count on six lanes of traffic on University stopping so I could get across.

So I made a right turn then a U-turn to avoid that left.

Have you heard anything about Metro's reaction to the first couple of weeks of Rush Plus? Is there anything they have or are going to change? Anything that caught them by surprise? Or, as I fear, is there a big Mission Accomplished banner hanging in Metro headquarters, and they consider the whole thing to be a rousing success?

I do have a lot of Rush Plus questions and comments in the mailbag and will get to more of them.

On this traveler's question: I think Metro officials feel like Rush Plus is a success in that they did indeed add trains to two lines and cut trains on the Blue Line. In other words, they were able to do exactly what they planned with the trains.

The issues I see have more to do with moving people than with moving trains. First of all, I still think Metro needs to have more personnel on the platforms to address the concerns of individual riders at the point where those concerns arise.

Metro officials talk about the logic of taking the next Yellow Line train rather than waiting 12 minutes for the next Blue Line train -- something that would ease Blue Line crowding if more people did it. But I'm not sure riders have bought into this yet.

Another issue -- one we've been talking about here today -- is that at least some riders who were supposed to benefit are saying they don't see it. What's that all about? I hope Metro is studying that. But I wouldn't expect to see a quick change.

It took four years to plan Rush Plus, and it's based on needing to have a service plan for the Silver Line.

So I really don't expect to hear Metro officials say, "Never mind. We'll just go back to the way it was before."

On the other hand, some fine tuning would be reasonable.

We have to travel to Cape Cod this week. What day would be best traffic-wise: July 3, 4, or 5? Thanks

When we talk about getaways, the questions about routes and timing for travel to the Northeast are the most frequently asked. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column answering a reader's question about driving to Cape Cod: http://wapo.st/LG9aHQ

Today's timing question is a little tricky. First off, I don't believe any of those days will be really bad. I do think this is a big vacation week, but a lot of people got going on Friday or Saturday and will be returning next Saturday or Sunday.

Some people might have less free time to work with, so they'll leave Tuesday evening and just make it a super-long weekend that benefits from the Wednesday holiday. Wednesday will probably be a good day to be on an Interstate, as long as you're not driving at night near some city's fireworks display -- that includes I-95 through Baltimore.

Friday departure should be fine -- as long as you're not cutting down on time spent at your destination for the sake of avoiding traffic earlier in the week. I think you don't need to do that this week.

Forget Metro and its loser riders!!! When will the stop clsoing the lft lane of the outer loop just sout of the Georgetown Pike? Traffic backs up to Georgia ave as a result. And most dyas there isnt any work happening when I roll thorugh at 215pm. Please answer questions about other commuting issues

I don't have dates for the end of work on phases of the 495 Experss Lanes, under construction in the middle of the Beltway south of the Legion Bridge. That's one of the biggest road projects in the nation. It's scheduled to be done late this year. Meanwhile, midday traffic backs up on both loops.

Settle a bet: Every evening while riding the bus home from DC to Virginia, I see drivers pulled off to the side of 395 by the Pentagon, waiting for 6:00 to hit so they can use the HOV lanes. Is this legal or illegal?

Illegal. Drivers should stop only for emergencies.

(The Internet sure has changed the ways we settle bets. Used to be that two people would call the City Desk from a bar, where they were having some trivia disagreement. The drill was to talk to each of them individually and give each the opposite answer from what you told the other. The Internet way isn't as much fun.)

Would it be a safer bet to take the WMATA bus or Amtrak/MARC with the recent storm issues?

I think you'll most likely be okay either way. But I'd continue to watch the weather forecast for possible new storms, just in case.

As for the Friday night storms, we're past the point where they're a factor on the Amtrak/MARC route or the Metrobus B30 route.

Any rough estimates on best/worst times for travel on the major highways (I-95, I-66, Hwy 50, etc) for the mid-week 4th of July holiday?

You may have seen the related question that I just addressed. But let me expand on that a little:

Like Christmas and New Year's, July 4 almost always creates a three-day weekend. It's either on the weekend, and employers give us the Friday or Monday off, or it's actually on the Friday or Monday.

The really unusual July 4's are the ones that are smack in the middle of the work week. Some people make that a five-day weekend, others take the whole week off using only four vacation days, and some of us just play through.

So I don't think of the mid-week holiday as a true "getaway" event for our local travelers. The biggest issue about July 4 is getting in and out of DC for the fireworks and other events.

Dr. Gridlock said "Metro officials talk about the logic of taking the next Yellow Line train rather than waiting 12 minutes for the next Blue Line train -- something that would ease Blue Line crowding if more people did it. But I'm not sure riders have bought into this yet." The problem is that for riders on the Bl/Or lines, we can't get to Lenfant to make the transfer to Yellow! The service on Bl/Or is so messed up, when we do manage to get to Lenfant, we've missed the Yellow train and have to wait even more time. My commute has increased from about 45 minutes to well over an hour, even with trying to make the Yellow transfer. It's ridiculous to have to pay even more for this "service" now. I am about a hair's breadth away from quitting Metro all together.

Do check out the Blue/Yellow experiment that Mark Berman and I did during the first week of Rush Plus: http://wapo.st/MFht8G

But I recognize that the experience of others may vary. (Our experience might have varied if we had done the same rides 15 minutes later.)

I think Rush Plus leaves some riders worse off, as would be the case with a rider starting at King Street and heading for Ballston, for example. Others, like a rider from King Street heading for Capitol South, will be better off.  Some are in a gray area, where they should experiment with different routes.

If you truly feel your worse off, you can't take it any more and you'd be better off driving, then you should drive. You don't owe Metro anything and should do what's in your best interest.

To stop at out lights. My area isn't totally fixed yet and walking my dog yesterday I saw tons of people just diving through and nearly causing accidents. The police are doing a great job at the intersections they are at, but they can't be everywhere. Maybe there should be some PSAs or something for next time. Do people not know this rule?

Scary, isn't it? With stop signs, you can be pretty sure that the other driver will at least slow down. But when the lights are out, you have no way of knowing whether another driver is familiar with the rule -- which they should be -- or will ignore the rule.

Drivers, bikers and pedestrians need to be really cautious. Just doing the right things themselves isn't a guarantee of safety. Eye contact is good, but again, it's no guarantee.

By the way, I thought our local transportation agencies did a good job of putting out reminders about the dark intersection rules over the weekend.

I have to admit that I have been extremely disappoitned in the Fairfax County police during this extended power outage. While I did see three or four intersections with cones blocking turn lanes onto the lesser travelled road to improce flow on the major roadway, what I never saw even once was a police officer actively directing traffic. If this was a one-off situation I might be more forgiving, but it has been my experience that Fairfax County Police officers never direct traffic, but at most will sit in their car at a darkened intersection with their lights flashing. In this case, over the course of two days I must have driven through hundreds of intersections on both major and minor roads throughout Fairfax County, and not once did I see active traffic control from the police. Do you know if there is some sort of policy that prevents the police from taking the obvious step of proactively directing traffic flow at intersections without power?

There's certainly no policy preventing officers from doing that. I a complaint similar to yours on Twitter this morning, but about another department.

Officers, and their supervisors, might decide that certain traffic situations would benefit from active control, while others don't.

I definitely recommend that some Metrorail riders take this opportunity to try other options. RushPlus is still a work in progress, fares are up, railcars are hot, platforms are hot and people filtering out of DC for the summer. This is a very good time to try driving for a while.

Driving wouldn't be the only option. Some people might be better off using buses, bikes, or their own feet. But I certainly wouldn't rule out driving. (And you didn't mention the delays on weekends because of the track work.)


as a pedestrian who deals with two traffic circles during the day.....I'd just like to point out that I see a large number of drivers who either deliberately ignore the "No Turn on Red" signs or just don't look for them. Too often, I find I'm coming from the drivers right and they are looking left for a gap in traffic to make their illegal turn and never see me. I haven't been hit....yet.

I'm not trying to make excuses for anybody's behavior. Just want to urge extra caution around the circles.

And I also want to highlight one of your points: Too many drivers are looking only for other drivers. They'll look left, or right, or straight ahead for other cars, then turn their vehicles into crossing pedestrians they haven't bothered to look at.

Thanks for the response. We'll leave tomorrow. I'll send you some empirical data.

Thanks, I always appreciate getting feedback about how things actually worked out. It's my version of what the Car Guys do on NPR when they play "Stump the Chumps."

Has there been any discussion of how much it will cost to ride the Silver Line? Considering how far out it is, could we see the first fares over $7 to go from Reston to Shady Grove one way? What are the estimated ride times to get from Reston to the downtown core (60, 75, 90 minutes)?

I haven't got a good estimate on ride times from anywhere to anywhere on the Silver Line. (One thing that bothers me: We've talked a lot about the Silver Line as a construction project but not very much about actual operations, other than the idea that Metro needed to clear room in the Rosslyn tunnel.)

About fares, there's no special charge for using the Silver Line. It will be the same rates, peak and off-peak, as the rest of Metrorail. But if you were doing Reston to Shady Grove, you could count on that reaching the max fare -- whatever that happens to be in 2014.

What terrible advice from your first poster. Hazard lights are not designed to be used while driving down the road unless you are a hazard, and, if you are a hazard, you shouldn't be on the road. They cause a distraction. It's not something you should ever (ever) do. I am continually perplexed by how so many licensed drivers think it's ok to make up their own rules. I can't count the number of people I saw all weekend who were ignoring a basic law: if the traffic lights at an intersection are not working, all vehicles coming to the intersection must stop, and then yield to the vehicle to your right. This isn't just common sense or good driving etiquette; it's an actual requirement of the law.

Personally, I wouldn't do what the earlier commenter did. Travelers and I have had some discussions in my columns about when to use emergency flashers. My view is more in line with yours -- they're for emergencies. But many drivers think it's up to the driver to identify what constitutes a hazard and deal with it accordingly. That's what our earlier commenter was doing.

In the dark intersection situation, drivers need to be alert and thinking, and ready to deal with the unexpected. I'd at least have headlights on, and would be very careful to make sure that cars in all lanes of a multi-lane intersection were yielding to me.

Has VDOT made a decision about charging a monthly maintenance fee on EZPass accounts? I'd like to know before I go through the hastle of getting a EZPassFLEX transponder.

Haven't seen any announcement yet from VDOT regarding the controversial plan to charge $1 a month maintenance fee for E-ZPass accounts.

The E-ZPass Flex that the commenter refers to is the new one for drivers who think they may be carpooling in the HOT lanes.  (No need to get one right away, since the 495 Express Lanes won't open till the end of the year.)

Dear Dr. Gridlock, I've noticed a lot of drivers behaving very erratically around traffic lights which are out thanks to the power outages. Some drivers just blast right through the intersection, while others stop and seem unsure of what to do. I always thought a traffic light which is out is, by law, supposed to be treated as a four-way stop, regardless of the relative sizes of the roads. What is the proper thing to do at a non-functioning traffic light?

You've got it. And that's what everyone should do as long as these outages continue. Relative size of the roadways doesn't matter.

Travelers, I have to break away now, but want to address some of your as-yet unpublished comments on the Dr. Gridlock blog. Will switch over to that a little later this afternoon, and on Tuesday.

Thanks for joining me today.  Join me again next Monday -- assuming we all get through those dark intersections later today.

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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