Dr. Gridlock

Sep 16, 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.

This week he'll be joined by Ron Kirby, the director of transportation planning for the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Hello, this is Ron Kirby. I'm pleased to join this live chat about regional transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. Ron Kirby, the director of transportation planning for the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, is our guest today. He can address your questions, comments and suggestions about the D.C. region's goals and strategies. In other words, What do we want and how should we get it done?


Ron, The Transportation Planning Board plays an important role in decision-making about our traffic and transit systems, but it's not necessarily one that many readers are familiar with.

Can you give us the basic idea of what the TPB and the transportation staff do?

The Transportation Planning Board has representation from all of the local jurisdictions in the Washington region, the state legislatures, the three state transportation agencies, and Metro, and is responsible for coordinating regional transportation planning. Specifically, the TPB is responsible for maintaining the long-range transportation plan out to the year 2040, for forecasting future travel demand on the region's tranpsortation system, and monitorning current operating conditions. The TPB develops and publishes a great deal of useful information on the travel patterns of the region's residents, and alternative approaches for improving the performance of the transportation network.

What's the idea behind creating a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan?

The purpose of the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan is to identify key challenges that the region faces in meeting its transportation goals, and a set of priority strategies for addressing those challenges that the public can support. A major focus of the Priorities Plan has been providing information on transportation challenges to a representative group of the general public and seeking their views on the most promising strategies for addressing them.

As a frequent visitor to the DC area, it is wonderful to see the tremendous improvements for the transportation infrastructure for bicycles in DC. In fact, getting around DC via bicycle is quicker, easier, cheaper, and healthier than any other means. What immediate plans are there to increase the connectively and safety for cycling as transportation in, out, and around DC?

The Washington region has an extensive and expanding system of bike trails and bike lanes. The region has been a leader in the development of Capital Bikeshare, a bikesharing system that began in the District, has expanded to Arlington and Alexandria, and is now expanding into several other jurisdictions. The TPB also manages the twice-annual "Street Smart" campaign focused on bicycle and pedestrian safety.

Most of our transportation plans don't include the traveling public's point of view, but the TPB plan does.

Does the public tend to focus on "What can you do for me today" vs. "What can you do for my children"?

The survey we conducted in developing the Priorities Plan showed that the public is aware of regional transportation issues and interested in strategies that will address them, in both the short-term and in the long-term. In fact, they identified highway and Metro maintenance as the top regional priorities, both of which are major ongoing requirements for our region, not just short-term ones.

In Metro's listing of bus schedule changes, it seems that they want to totally eliminate the 5A bus to Dulles. If so, are they proposing substitute service from some point on the Silver Line to Dulles? Dulles is one of the few major airports where it is difficult for people to get to and I certainly wouldn't want it made worse.

From Dr. Gridlock: Yes, the idea is that there would be bus service from the Wiehle Avenue Metrorail station, the last stop on the first phase of the Silver Line.

I don't like this proposal, which is from the D.C. government, not the Metro planners. I think people should continue to have a one-seat ride to the airport. Keep the bus till the second phase of the Silver Line opens.

At the federal and state levels, there's a great deal of interest today in developing transportation plans that focus on "congestion relief."

Can transportation plans actually ease congestion 10 or 20 years from now?

A number of strategies in the Priorities Plan aim to relieve congestion on both highways and the region's transit system, including Metro. These strategies involve both managing demand on these systems -- by concentrating land-use and encouraging alternatives to driving alone -- and expanding the capacity of highways (more express toll lanes with bus rapid transit), transit systems (all 8-car trains on Metro and station enhancements), as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. All of these components work together as a system to ease congestion and improve mobility and accessibility.

Ron, I find many of the travelers who write to me divide themselves into categories. They're not travelers. They're drivers, or transit users or bikers or walkers.

Advocates for transportation improvements tend to line up that way too, I find.

From a planner's point of view, are there disadvantages to looking at transportation as a set of different travel categories?

We found in our survey for the Priorities Plan that members of the public are aware of the importance of all transportation modes working together effectively, not just the mode that they use most frequently. For example, people who drive to work rated transit congestion as the greatest challenges in the region, while those who ride transit rated highway congestion as the top challenge. From our perspective as planners, it's critical to look at all of these components -- land-use, highways, transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities -- as part of an integrated system. For any of them to work well, they all have to work well.

Dr. I saw the new Metro map in the Express last week. Am I the only one who notices several mistakes on the map? Hint, what do the different shaped dots mean? And where are they.

From Dr. Gridlock: When I looked at the new version of the map last week, I was focused mainly on the addition of the Silver Line, and thinking what impact it would have on travel through the center of the region.

I didn't notice any errors. Please share.

Dr, I was approaching a red light in Montgomery County recently, I was going a bit quick, but I did stop before the stop line. As I stopped, I noticed a flash from the red light camera (annoying as I HAD safely stopped), but never did receive a ticket. Do the cameras take one picture if they "think" you might run a red light, and then a second one if you actually do? That is the best explanation I could dream up for why I saw the flash even though I did stop. Thanx!

From Dr. Gridlock: I've had that experience too. You should not get a ticket.

I'm not a frequent Metrorail rider. My wife is, however, and thus I get a regular dose of early-evening rants when a train gets offloaded or single-tracking causes delays. I keep seeing proposals for continued outward expansion of the Metrorail system, whether that be the Silver Line, an Orange Line extension to Centreville, a Yellow Line extension to Fort Belvoir, a Green Line extension to BWI, whatever. It seems to me, though, that all those suggestions are short-sighted because they just exacerbate the fundamental problem of inadequate capacity at the system's core. Consider how adding the Silver Line to the Orange/Blue mix has already caused Blue Line service to suffer even before Silver trains begin to run. But I also understand why the suburban jurisdictions (I live in Fairfax County, BTW) aren't eager to help pony up massive amounts of money to add capacity in downtown DC, even though it might benefit suburban riders by increasing capacity. At what point do we have to draw the line and say "no more" with respect to funneling ever more people into the system's core without making improvements there?

The focus of the strategies in our Priorities Plan is on improving the operation of the existing system, and adding capacity to the core of the system before entertaining any new proposals for further extensions of the Metrorail system. This prioritization is consistent with the key components of Metro's recently released strategic plan, "Momentum."

In a few weeks I'll be driving on Friday evening to Milford, PA from Union Station in D.C. How is traffic leaving D.C. on Friday evening on I-270? Should I wait until after 7pm to start the drive to avoid it? Thanks.

From Dr. Gridlock: Though we've moved out of the summer vacation season, the outbound traffic from DC on Friday afternoons can still be pretty heavy. I'd wait till 7 p.m., but I'd also monitor news radio and check the online traffic maps for real-time updates.

Have you considered trying to encourage lawmakers to implement policies to get drivers off the road? Tax incentives for businesses who allow working from home, structuring local libraries to provide rental "offices" so people can work close to home, etc. transportation planning should be about more than just adding more roads.

The TPB's Commuter Connections program is focused on just that -- promoting alternatives to driving alone, like ridesharing, telecommuting, transit, and bicycling and walking. Over the longer term, the Priorities Plan envisions more concentrated development near transit hubs, providing opportunities for people to live closer to their jobs and other activities and reducing their need to drive.

I have been told that the first flash at a red light camera is triggered by speed, on the assumption that many speeding cars run the red light. You have to get both flashes before you worry about a ticket.

From Dr. Gridlock: Yep. When I've talked to traffic officials about how the cameras work, they note that you break the law when you go through a red light. A sequence of photos accompanying the ticket would show a driver entering the intersection on a red signal. The first flash would be the set-up shot.

As far as I am concerned, most of our transportation system needs to be updated to handle the number of people who moved to the area during the past 10 years. Roads need to be wider, turn lanes need to be improved, people in the further out suburbs need access to the Metro. But, all too often, I hear people say they don't want new lanes built or roads to be improved because that will only encourage more people to move to the area or people to move further out of DC. I think the roads need the work, now. Planning for future growth should be included, but doing nothing should not be an option.

The Priorities Plan recognizes the need for more capacity across all modes, including highways, but also focuses on making more efficient use of the system we have by promoting concentrated development around high-capacity transportation corridors throughout the region. This will allow the region to accommodate growth in a more sustainable, balanced, and cost-effective manner than we have in the past.

I noticed that public feedback on the draft priorities plan includes suggestions from some people that we toll existing highway lanes.

That would be an interesting threshold for our region to cross.

What are the pros and cons?

In theory, tolling existing highway lanes could help address congestion in the region and raise significant revenues to support both the highway network and our transit system. In practice, however, recent federal transportation legislation limits tolling on the Interstate system to newly constructed lanes or conversion of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to tolled lanes. Reduction in the number of toll-free lanes available is not permitted under the federal law.

By chance, does Kawsaki make a 7000 series of escalators?

From Dr. Gridlock: One of the problems with the escalators is that there have been so many manufacturers over the years. Some have gone out of biz.

Repair crews get to the scene of a breakdown and sometimes don't know what manufacturer they're dealing with till they tear the thing apart and see.

Sometimes, they have to manufacture a replacement.

Thinking about "making more efficient use of the system we have": The TPB also is involved in planning for broader use of highway shoulders at peak periods so buses can get around the traffic?

The TPB has a task force looking into the use of "bus on shoulder" strategies for the region. Virginia is in the process of developing a pilot program for bus on shoulder on I-66 inside the Beltway. The task force has found that careful analysis of the benefits and costs of this approach is essential for selecting locations where it can be applied. Shoulders have to be strengthened to handle buses, in most cases, so it's not a cost-free strategy. Careful attention also has to be paid to safety by limiting the speed differential between buses and the traffic in the congested lanes.

Readers know from my columns over the years that I've been very supportive of bus priority corridors as a way of providing some congestion relief in the lifetime of my readers.

But progress seems slow. Is that just my perception, or are their difficulties in setting up a bus priority corridor system?

The region's first bus rapid transit corridor is due to open next year between Braddock Road and Pentagon City Metro stations in Alexandria and Arlington. Efforts are underway to provide traffic signal priority and other strategies, like queue jumps, in other locations throughout the region. It has taken a considerable amount of time to develop and implement these strategies. They're often not as simple as they sound.

The camera has to take 2 pictures. One of you behind the stop line when the light is red and a second with you in the intersection with the light red. The camera uses a speed radar and if you're going above a certain speed, the programming takes the first picture (you behind the line) and then a second picture at a time where you would be in the intersection based on the speed you were going. In your instance, the camera has two pictures of your car behind the stop line so there was no violation and therefore no ticket in the mail.

From Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the explanation. While Ron Kirby has been dealing with your big picture questions and comments, readers and I have been exchanging views on here-and-now concerns.

Hi, I'm a great supporter of public transportation and someone who depends on it on a regular basis in the DC area. It is therefore disappointing to see recurrent proposals for reductions of bus services -- especially for those connecting people in the neighborhood to the metro stations. We fought against one such proposal a year or so ago with the E6 bus -- which required written statements/petition and participation in public hearings. And now we hear of a new proposed reduction for that bus service. What is the take of the Transportation Planning Board on such changes -- especially since they will inevitably discourage use of public transportation?

The Priorities Plan is strongly supportive of improving transit service throughout the region, both rail and bus. The Plan does not, however, focus on specific routes or locations, recognizing that those decisions require a great deal of local input and analysis, and are the responsibility of the agencies that operate the services.

As hard as it is to perceive this while stalled in traffic, many studies show vehicle-miles-traveled per capita have peaked and are falling. I can attest in my own life this is not just because of tele-commuting, but tele-shopping, tele-banking, tele-chatting-with-friends, tele-billpaying, tele-rechecking-my-books-from the library (you get the idea). While mobility--and the multi-modal emphasis on "move people not cars"--is important, how we can we better encourage, and account, for the many ways our economy is changing due to the overwhelming role of the Internet and smart phones in our lives?

The landscape is definitely changing. Our data show that total vehicle-miles of travel in the region has not grown over the past few years, even though population has continued to increase. Teleworking and other changes related to electronic communications have played a significant role in this. How this will play out in the long-term is still uncertain, but we are continuing to monitor these trends on an ongoing basis, and adjusting our forecasts accordingly.

I tend to watch other people when I'm stopped at red lights or when I walk or bike somewhere. So much of what I see causing congestion in the DC area seems to come from bad or just plain dumb behavior by people. For example, some people are so eager to send their dumb text messages that they leave way too much space between cars at a red light and the people behind them can't access the turn lane to go left. Or pedestrians ignore the "Don't Walk" light and prevent drivers from turning, which then causes the drivers to run the red light because they'll never get around the corner if they don't (example: 18th & L NW, where a right turn is allowed only on a green arrow). Some of this goes to a point Dr. Gridlock often makes about how people will do whatever they think they can get away with regardless of whether it screws over other people, but I think a lot of it is also just flat-out ignorance. People simply don't pay any attention. I wonder to what extent the Transportation Planning Board might seek any input into things like driver education or driver's license renewal. When you think about it, it's probably not all that logical that you only have to take driver's ed and the knowledge exam one time and then you can renew your driver's license over and over with only a periodic vision test (if you learned to drive in the 1960s, for example, you didn't learn how to handle antilock brakes).

The Priorities Plan addresses the need to review and revise traffic laws to reflect changing travel trends such as the increased use of bicycles. The Plan emphasizes the use of  public education campaigns (like "Street Smart") to promote better and more considerate behavior by drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike.

How have other major metro areas that cover three or more states (NYC, for example) handled the challenges of planning at a regional level? In devising your plans, do you guys examine successful models from other parts of the country/world?

We're always looking for good ideas from other metropolitan areas in the U.S. or abroad. Having a three-state region requires cooperative efforts to effectively pool resources from the three states and the local jurisdictions to support regional transportation strategies. The Metro system is a perfect example of this.

When oh when will another River Crossing be built ot connect Route 28 in Virginia with I-370 in Maryland?

Additional river crossings are proposed from time to time, but rarely receive the sustained and serious attention that would be needed to reach a consensus on moving forward.

I was somewhat alarmed to read in the Post an article about the infrastructure to support the Purple Line that will need to be built in the nearby neighborhoods, and apparently the people who live are a bit alarmed, too. The Purple Line and the new trolley car system that the District is spending so much money are just seem to me to be too expensive and too disruptive compared to BRT (bus rapid transit). Why are local jurisdiction yielding to the pressure to NOT use BRT, which tends to be both cheaper and quicker to implement than light rail or trolley cars?

BRT systems are receiving considerable attention in a number of corridors throughout the region. The pros and cons of BRT versus other strategies like light rail are very location- and/or corridor-specific and need to be weighed through local studies and input. This choice has been debated in Alexandria and Arlington for the corridor between Braddock Road and Pentagon City, for example. For the short-term, the decision has been made to proceed with BRT, recognizing that light rail will be an option in the future if conditions warrant.

I'd like to second Dr. Gridlock's point about keeping the 5A bus going. It sure sounds like some evil genius decided setting up a new route would give folks an incentive to take the Silver Line who might not otherwise do so, but please don't penalize those of us who live in D.C. and can't afford to spend $50-60 on a cab.

From Dr. Gridlock: Here's a link to my Commuter page feature on the proposed changes in Metrobus routes and schedules. There are six public hearings scheduled for this week.

Thanks, everyone, for your questions. I really enjoyed this discussion and invite you to learn more by visiting the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' website. Any further input you might have on our Regional Transportation Priorities Plan would be especially welcome.

And I thank Ron Kirby for joining us and also you travelers for submitting your questions and comments on this busy day.

I'll be back with you next Monday for a solo show. Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com -- and stay safe out there.

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.
Ronald Kirby

Ronald F. Kirby is director of transportation planning for the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The council is a regional organization of 22 Washington area local governments.

Mr. Kirby, who joined the Council of Governments in 1987, is responsible for projects that include long-range planning for highway and public transportation systems in the Washington metropolitan region, assessment of the air quality implications of transportation plans and programs and a regional commuter assistance program. In addition, Mr. Kirby participates in airport systems planning for the Washington region.

Previously, Mr. Kirby directed the transportation program at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization in Washington, D.C., where he conducted several analyses of the performance of federal highway and public transportation programs. He also on policy studies and demonstration projects for the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration.

Mr. Kirby is the author of many papers regarding urban transportation planning and financing, and served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Transportation Research Board, National Research Council. He received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the University of Adelaide, South Australia.

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