Dr. Gridlock

Jul 08, 2013

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. I'm  looking first for questions and comments that could benefit from your comments.

I am the chatter who wrote in last week about riders taking more responsibility to get around problems when Metro is delayed. I wasn't able to reply during the chat, but the person who wrote that "When we board Metro we are paying for a service, and if Metro can't provide the service we expect them to provide explanations and alternatives." seems to forget that we also pay for road use and the like, but we don't complain nearly so vocally when a crash shuts down the beltway at rush hour. Why should Metro be held to a different standard, just because the action of handing over our money to WMATA is more noticeable than when we pay gas taxes that fund our highway use? I think the recent survey results are accurate, Metro does very well most of the time, which is also what most other forms of transportation do.

These are some very smart observations. Many travelers do react differently to problems depending on whether they're driving or riding transit.

Drivers certainly do complain about their travel experiences, but maybe this is part of it: Metro is the greatest of the shared experiences in local travel. If you're driving and upset about something, you might be upset with the Virginia DOT or the Maryland DOT or the Virginia DOT on the Washington airports authority on the toll road or the Maryland transportation authority on an MD bridge, etc.

One thing drivers share with Metro riders: Relatively few check travel information before they leave home. And many drivers have no idea what their alternatives are when something goes wrong on their route.

Also, there's something about paying the fares: People who have a bad experience on Metro often write in to demand their money back. I have yet to hear from a driver demanding a gas tax refund.


Over the past 9 months, traffic on WWB has gotten terrible. Every since the thru lanes were opened, it would take no time to get across the bridge but now the traffic is backed up as far back as Branch Ave exit on the beltway and takes me an hour to get across the bridge. Any idea what has caused the volume increase in traffic? DOT needs to consider building another bridge or tunnel.

No idea why volume might have increased -- or whether that's the cause of inner loop congestion approaching the bridge. From the traffic map and camera views, it seems to disappear by the time drivers reach the bride, which made me think it had something to do with I-295 traffic -- but I don't see any issues on the southernmost part of I-295.

Others have complained about this traffic. But it's always in the form of a question. No one suggests a cause.

I know the Metro is slowly replacing the older rail cars with new ones. The key word is slowly... What is the limiting factor? Are they buying them as fast as their budget allows or do that take that long to build that they are getting them as fast as they can be built and delivered?

I'm not sure "slowly" is the right word. Metro has ordered new cars but none has arrived yet. I wouldn't expect to ride on them till next year.

When they are delivered, they'll need to go through a testing and commissioning process before entering service.

When they enter service, they won't be mixed in with any of the older cars. They are a much newer technology. Can't be combined with older cars to form a train set.

In a recent chat, you suggested that the "best solution [for platform confusion related crowding/rushing] would be return to automatic train operation, under which a six-car train could stop at mid-platform." As a daily commuter, I hope we never return to the days of mid-platform stops. Eventually an all 8-car fleet of trains will make this a moot point. Until then, I like knowing that no matter what length of train, there will always be doors in the same spot on the platform. The door alignment is so consistent with trains stopping at the front of the platform that Metro could paint or put different colored lights along the platform to indicate where train doors will be.

Watch this summer for all the tourists running up the platform when the train pulls in because they had no idea it was going all the way to the front of the platform.

Stopping the trains at the front wasn't done for the convenience of riders. It was to make sure the train operators didn't open the doors of the rear cars in the tunnel.

I like your basic idea here that riders should know where the train doors will be. Don't see why we can't be like BART in that regard.

How would you indicate the door-opening point on the platform?

Why will metro not hold trains at transfer stations if there are large gaps and they arrive at close to the same time? There are very few things with metro that are as aggravating as seeing the train you wanted to transfer pull away and that there is a 20 minute gap till the next one comes. If each train just waited a minute the transfers would be a much smoother process. Its just another sign that shows metro does not care at all about its customers, and that the management just does not get common sense issues. They are more concerned about what color their next generation of seats will be than actual customer satisfaction.

I once asked Dave Kubicek about that. (He's now the former deputy general manager.) Kubicek said he would like to do that -- especially on weekends with the big gaps between trains -- but it wasn't always possible for the operations control center to coordinate the different lines like that.

After living downtown & walking to work for 4 years, I'm moving to Alexandria (Beverly Hills neighborhood). What's the best driving route for commute to/from Metro Center area? Any tricks to minimize travel time?

I hope people will write in with their own suggestions, but if I had to drive, I'd just get on I-395 and take the 14th Street Bridge into DC.

I don't have any fancier suggestion than that. Taking a bridge north or south doesn't look like it would save any time or hassle.

Would you consider driving to a Blue/Yellow Line station and parking there?

I say I-395 knowing full well that the traffic close to the 14th Street Bridge is terrible at rush hour. I just don't see other driving options saving time. And the only trick I can think of is to travel on the edges of rush hours.

New Hampshire Ave NW between M St and Dupont Circle has been torn up for months now. The entire southwest area below the Circle is a mess. The intersection of M St and New Hampshire is down to two lanes. Traffic in the area is severely impacted. Buses can't navigate or safely make turns. And work continues right through morning and afternoon rush hours making it even worse. How much longer is this going to go on?

That's a fairly extensive streetscape project. The District Department of Transportation is rebuilding the roadway and the sidewalks in that corridor. It's not supposed to be done till next spring.

Work started last fall. This is about the length of time one of the streetscape projects takes.

The District does work on many projects during the morning and evening rushes, rather than limiting work to off-peak hours.

I think the theory is that it gets the projects done faster in areas that have grid street patterns, where it's easier for drivers to find alternative routes than it would be in the suburbs.

Considering iphone apps like DC Metro Transit (and I will assume the WashingtonPost/ Express version and Hopstop) can all predict every lines arrival time within about a minute, it should also be something that WMATA can figure out. I understand there used to be technological hurdles, but if thats really still the excuse its a very poor one.

I think the operations control center is aware of where the trains are. It's likely more a matter of getting through the weekend work zones. The managers are trying to get trains through the single-tracking areas without having them stop to await their turns. Having a train wait at Metro Center or Gallery Place or L'Enfant Plaza for a train on another line would mess that up.

I hope this question makes it to the Nats front office too. Something really needs to change for weekday games. Getting there is fine, but getting back is frequently turning into a nightmare. Last week I spent around 30 minutes waiting for two trains (first green then orange) and I left immediately after the game and was one of the first people on the platform from the ballpark. Since driving to the Nats on weekdays is not an option, then we MUST have reliable transportation in a reasonable time from the ballpark. Otherwise I just will go to far far less weeknight games. Instead of excuses does Metro have any plans to have extra trains on other lines as well? Getting people out of a station is one thing, but its equally important to actually get us home on weeknights without a half hour layover.

I think Metro does a good job of controlling the Navy Yard station, but ever since Nationals Park opened, the problem has been at the transfer stations -- both the crowding and the length of time people wait for the connecting train.

I don't know of any plans to add trains on the other lines late at night. Given that Metro schedules track work on all the lines to start at 10 p.m., I don't believe it's likely we'll see more late-night trains any time soon.

What do the new cars look like inside? Do the designers take into account that people have to hang on to something when they are riding them? I rode in one of the newer model cars this morning and everyone on the shorter side was trying to grab the very few posts scattered by the doors thus blocking the doors (exactly what metro doesn't want the riders to do). Before settling on a new car design, whoever is doing it should be made to ride the metro and see what works and what doesn't.

Use this link to get a look at the new car design and read Dana Hedgpeth's description: http://wapo.st/qk92b5

Before adopting the design for the 7000 series, Metro did a lot of testing and focus groups, and consulted with the Riders' Advisory Council and the advisory panel that focuses on disabled riders as well.

I like the new design. Lots of places to hold onto. More robust doors that shouldn't break down as easily. No stinky carpets. But it's one thing to see a mockup and another thing to ride at rush hour.


Hi Dr: One of the improvements with the express lane construction was the addition of the dedicated lane between I-66 and Rt 7 on I495 north. Do you know if VDOT plans to do the same on the southbound section making a dedicated lane to I-66. It looks like a matter of re-striping as the asphault is already there. I think it would eliminate some of the lane shifting in the area, but also lead to backups on I-66 west exit. Thanks

I don't know of any plans to do that. The addition of the lane on the inner loop side up to Route 7 was terrific, but it was part of the express lanes construction deal -- a bonus for drivers who use the regular lanes. A southbound lane wasn't part of the project, and I don't know of anything in the VDOT budget that would accomplish this.

I would strongly disagree with your first comment. Outside of Rush-hour, the roads are fairly predictable. Major thoroughfares are rarely shut down for days at a time. Also major areas of this city were built near a metro to help relieve or prevent congestion. For this to be effective, metro needs to hold up their end of the bargain. If the main transportation plan for nats stadium is built around limited parking and using metro, then metro has to effectively shuttle people to and from the stadium. Right now metro is worthless on weekends, and not much better after a game. There are also tons of examples of mismanagement from the executives that we do not see anywhere else. A number of the board members have admitted to rarely using the system, which is mindblowing.

You're referring to the comment about how riders can do more to help themselves? I think there's a separate issue of how good a job various transportation agencies do for their customers.

People generally don't write to me to say what a good job a transportation agency is doing for them, but that said, I haven't found that travelers have a higher regard for the highway departments than they do for Metro.

Drivers on I-66, the northern part of the Beltway in Maryland, I-395 north of the Beltway DC 295 and I-295 near the 11th Street Bridge all have some serious issues with the region's highway departments.

Who's to blame for a beltway crash? Is it the driver texting while driving or the big rig driver with only 3 hours of sleep? Is it due to a speeder moving into somebody's blind spot as they are changing lanes? Is it due to a car tire popping and causing a spinout? We don't know and there isn't one focal point for our "anger". However, with Metro, the problem 100% lies with WMATA. WMATA didn't properly replace older equipment. WMATA did properly monitor the rails for damage, etc. Of course, this exludes when a person jumps and while we are upset with the delay, we aren't vocal about it as it wasn't WMATA's fault.

I certainly hear from many drivers who want to complain about each other -- people who don't know how to merge, or engage in distracted driving, for example -- but they're also very ready to complain about poor road designs or the lack of alternative highways or the failure to widen an existing highway or the decision to add tolled lanes.

Metro certainly is the focal point for a lot of anger. All I'm saying is that drivers get angry too, it's just that they have a variety of agencies to be angry with as they travel the DC region.

After the Washington Post published its poll indicating that about 70% of Metro users were satisfied with Metro's services, I wrote in to you saying that I was concerned that Metro would point to the poll as evidence that it doesn't need to improve. I thought about that when I read that the Metro actually paid people -- overtime, on a Sunday -- to pull out the morning glories that a civic-minded man had planted at Dupont Circle. I have to think that Metro would have thought twice about thumbing its nose at Mr. Doctor (code for another hand gesture that I won't expect you to publish during a chat) if its ratings weren't so good.

If you're suggesting that there was any intelligence behind Metro's decision to rip out the morning glories, I must disagree.

For all, here's a link to Robert McCartney's column about Metro's decision to protect us from the flower menace:



The Baltimore/Washington Parkway used to be one of the easiest ways to get from DC to Baltimore and vice versa (also to BWI airport). However, I think the secret has gotten out, and the road is almost contantly jammed between Greenbelt and Linthicum, even during off-peak hours and weekends. What's worse is the road has no cameras to check prior to departure and few speed sensors and group-think traffic reports to provide accurate and reliable data on the current traffic status. I know this road is under control of the US Park Service, but are there any plans to make improvements (extending the exit lane NB between Powder Mill and 197 would make a huge difference in my opinion) in the near future. It's obvious BRAC has had a huge impact on traffic in this area, and virtually nothing has been done to help.

I don't know of anyplans to improve the portion of the parkway controlled by the park service.

And it would be great to have traffic cameras on all the parkways -- apparently that would take an act of Congress.

First, if a crash shuts down the road, drivers are more likely to blame the driver(s) who caused the crash, unless there is some reason to believe that poor road engineering or maintenance caused it, or that emergency personnel are not handling the situation appropriately. Metro riders can often see a more direct attribution of responsibility to the operation and maintenance of the Metro system. Second, if you're stuck in traffic, you may well be able to find a detour eventually. If you're sitting on a train in a Metro tunnel, you are stuck there with no alternatives at all. Your best case is getting out at a station, when you eventually get to one, and then searching for a bus or cab.

If you're stuck in a Metro tunnel, there's definitely no alternative. But many drivers stuck on the Beltway or I-66 have no idea what their options are -- if indeed they have options. They feel just as trapped as a transit rider in a tunnel.

Here's something I notice, and you might want to comment on it: It seems to me that people blame Metro for allowing the system to deteriorate. And then they blame Metro for trying to repair it.

The train system shouldn't have been allowed to deteriorate. Service should be better. But if you agree with me on that, are you also blaming Metro for scheduling track work and rebuilding the equipment?

People tend to be more forgiving when WMATA is shut down due to something like someone deciding to jump in front of a train. When a crash shuts down the beltway, its not because the beltway malfunctioned or something. When WMATA has big problems, its often because of WMATA, not because of the users of WMATA. BIG difference.

I think people do tend to blame a crash on other drivers. Not all of them do that, but many do. After a crash, I get complaints about road design, as in "this crash was bound to happen because ..."

Metro problems are often caused by Metro and people are right to complain. But I certainly see many complaints from riders when there's a delay train delay because of a sick customer, which seems like the equivalent of a highway crash in terms of unpredictability.

When you're delayed on the road, it's usually not the road's fault-- it's because of an accident caused by other drivers. When you're delayed on Metro because the train doors won't close, or there's a switch problem, or a train is disabled, it's a direct result of Metro's lapses in maintenance and oversight.

I agree with the part about Metro, but I've heard from hundreds of drivers who are very willing to blame the roads and the highway departments for their delays.

There's an example above regarding the road work on New Hampshire Avenue in DC. That's the sort of thing I hear allthe time.

I think all the comments on the difference between road and rail are very interesting. Trying to express my own view: People should hold all transportation agencies responsible for the services they are supposed to provide. Travelers should expect more comfortable, more reliable service on the Orange Line, and they should expect Maryland to ease the ghastly traffic on the west side of the Beltway, where there aren't enough lanes to handle the volume.

Many commenters have been defining road problems in terms of crashes that cause delays. Most of the drivers who write to me aren't complaining about crashes. They're complaining about road designs and lack of alternatives.

To the original poster, it appears to me that the stations were designed with the trains stoping in the middle of the platform and not at one extreme end. The escalators and stairs tend feed to the middle, which now makes the last two cars on a six car train the most crowded.

Yes. The most extreme example of a station NOT designed to accommodate six-car trains pulling to the front is the Red Line platform at Gallery Place.

So Maryland jacked up all their tolls last week. Does that mean replacements for the Harry Nice and Bay Bridges will get off the drawing board? With nearly double the revenue coming in to most of those facilities, that shoudl be able to at least get some concrete plans in motion right??

No.  Look at the Bay Bridge. There is a study  underway. But don't look for any actual proposal soon. It's a hugely expensive proposition and would require the rebuilding of the approach highways as well.

Folks who have been commenting on the difference between rail and roads, please look at this commenter's viewpoint. This commenter isn't concerned with a crash, and isn't blaming other travelers for a problem. The problem here is with something the government has failed to do for drivers.

Route 1 or the GW Parkway are alternatives. The GW Parkway in particular doesn't back up until right before the 14th St. Bridge entrance, and even then, it's a pretty quick ride.

Thanks. I was wondering about the time it would take to reach the parkway or Route 1 -- and then you still wind up at the 14th Street Bridge, right?

Also, I was thinking about the difficulties of driving up the ramps near the bridge and needing to shift lanes to continue up 14th Street. That might be just me. I like having a long distance to get in the correct lane in heavy traffic.

I've seen, (don't remember which system), angled lines with 'wait here' on the non door space.

You're reminding me that Metro did consider putting down markers -- but this was years ago. Seemed like people couldn't agree on what riders should do: Line up at the doors or line up on the sides of the doors.  (Seriously.)

OK, I know this chat isn't about flowers at metro stations, but it seems to me that this is a PR disaster, yet again, for metro....

The Grid Spouse often talks about setting up a PR consulting firm for just such situations. She would name the firm "What Were You Thinking?" (Only I think she wants to put an expletive in there somewhere.)

"Since driving to the Nats on weekdays is not an option, then we MUST have reliable transportation in a reasonable time from the ballpark. Otherwise I just will go to far far less weeknight games." Must? I'm pretty sure that Metro cares not where we are going and I'm also fairly confident that your attending or not attending a baseball game doesn't really sway their planning. To address your issue, however, I can't imagine any system where the glut of thousands won't put a strain for the first 30 minutes or so. Go grab a drink or snack somewhere, cool your jets, and then catch Metro. It's so much less stressful. I've never had an issue with getting home after a game (even the late games).

As someone who regularly takes the inner loop of the beltway to I-295 in the morning, I can agree that the backup is unlikely to be traffic exiting onto I-295. The backups on 295 usually start beyond the Suitland or Malcolm X exits. And there are very few cars exiting onto 295 along with me - most of the traffic in the exit only lane are cars with the "me first" attitude that jump into the exit lane in order to pass a few cars and then jump back over. Not sure where the backup is, but it definitely does not let up until past the 295 exit most mornings.

Hi Bob: I planned a Metro trip using the trip planner on Monday July 1. I needed to go from King Street to Van Dorn on the Blue Line after arriving at King from the Yellow Line. The trip planner says trains leave King Street at 12:52 and 1:04. Well, the train left at 12:56. How are people supposed to plan trips when the information isn't accurate? Thanks--Alexandria

This is just my best guess on what was going on there: The Trip Planner tells you the schedule. It's not a real-time monitor. The Blue Line train might have been four minutes late. There are apps and mobile Web sites that show real-time information.

Checking Trip Planner is a good idea, but it won't tell you everything you need to know.

I live very close to the Beverly Hills area. I-395 is the only way to go. Get on and off via Quaker Lane Exit.

WMATA recently added more S2s to the 16th street line in the morning which has helped congestion on the S2/S4 line, so I give kudos to WMATA for that. But (you knew that was coming), the S1 remains severely overcrowded. I often see half empty S2s go by and then an S1 that's so full it passes the stop. Often bus drivers yell "there's another bus right behind me!" as if they don't understand that the S1 goes to a different location than the S2 or S4 after K Street. Lots of people get off on 19th Street or at the State Dept. Would love to see just a couple more S1s in the morning rush to alleviate this (but am willing to say that adding S2s did help the overall situation).

You commented at the end of last week's chat, referring to Potomac crossings: "Also, I'm not sure why Maryland officials would prioritize a project that helps Marylanders get to jobs in Virginia." It might encourage Virginians to consider living in Maryland. Every evening I take the Beltway south from the GW Parkway, and the congestion going the other way toward MD looks like complete hell. It makes me think I'd never ever live up there if I might even occasionally have to cross the Legion Bridge to get home on a weekday evening.

The inner loop across the Legion Bridge to Bethesda is one of the most congested parts of the p.m. rush, but much of that traffic is Marylanders going back home from their jobs in Northern Virginia.

I'm still not seeing why Maryland would set a high priority on getting MD residents to VA jobs and back.  But that's a comment I'm making on transportation politics. I do believe Maryland should be working on a fix for the west side of the Beltway because that's just a ridiculous situation every afternoon.

(Here again, I'm thinking of today's discussion on the different perceptions of road and rail problems. This commenter is reflecting on highway design and government inaction, not on a crash that causes extra heavy traffic.)

How would you indicate the door-opening point on the platform? That's easy. You could replace the flashing red lights along the platform with green or yellow lights at the points where the doors would open.

I kind of like that, because it doesn't mess with the platform, doesn't require that the granite edge or the bumpy tiles get torn up.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I hope we exchanged some information on routes and it was fun exchanging views on the roads vs. rails issues.

Please stay safe out there and rejoin us next Monday. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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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