Dr. Gridlock

Sep 23, 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. Have some good questions and comments already. Here goes.

My visitor parking pass is about to expire (September 30), and the only information I can get from the DC DMV website is that I will have to apply for a new pass to be effective October 1. However, the website only says that information on how to apply will be provided "in the coming weeks." It's been saying that for at least two months. Any info on how I can get a new one? I have visitors coming the beginning of October who will need it.

You'll be okay. The parking pass you have right now will continue to be valid into October, District Department of Transportation spokesman Reggie Sanders just told me.

Watch the mail, because you will get a new annual pass, but till then, the old one is good.

That's the bottom line. It's the result of emergency legislation passed Friday by the DC Council, which was getting concerned about the visitor parking program.

DDOT has been working on a much more ambitious visitor parking system, one designed to block fraud and better control who's using the visitor passes, but the council action put this on hold.

I'll write more about this on the Dr. Gridlock blog this afternoon.

MoCo wants to quite a bit of development along US29. The White Oak Bioscience area, the proposed Adventist Hospital, and a proposed redevelopment of Burtonsville are the ones I can think of. I think this is great but US29 is a PARKING LOT during the rush. I live in Calverton and on occasion, have to drive down 29 to Silver Spring. 45 minute commutes to go seven miles are not unheard of. How is MD-SHA/MoCo going to deal with an influx of traffic onto an already packed road?

Readers, see Bill Turque's story on the Montgomery County Planning Board approving the White Oak Science Gateway plan.

Bill notes that: "The plan also includes the stipulation that it will not progress to its second phase unless bus rapid-transit service for the area is funded or other transportation improvements are in place.

"The traffic issue is likely to receive serious scrutiny."

A few years ago, the Maryland State Highway Administration made big improvements in the Route 29 interchanges from Howard County south, but the improvements ended in the Silver Spring area, where traffic between New Hampshire Avenue and the Beltway is particularly ghastly during peak periods.


The start of fall indicates that the days are getting shorter... and that means the sun will start to set in the West during the afternoon commute. It gets worse after Daylight Savings Time ends. When will someone invent a device that reduces the impact of driving into the sun?

Sunglasses and visors?

And this is the season when I realize it's time to clean the fog off the inside of the car windshield. (Though that never seems to work out as well as I'd hoped. Anybody got a recommendation on something that actually gets the glass clear?)

The sun affects drivers in both morning and afternoon commutes. It's most stunning in that first week after the time change. Shows up when I watch the regionwide traffic maps and cameras.

I am a supporter of automated enforcement (red-light, speed cameras, stop sign, pedestrian safety, blocking-the-box, etc.) in the District. Could the District consider photo enforcement of left turns at traffic lights as well. There are numerous locations in DC where turns are prohibited during morning and/or evening rush hours. However, drivers routinely violate these rules. By doing so they not only end up contributing to gridlock (pun unintended) and but also endanger pedestrians in the crosswalk.

I've heard of the others, but a left-turn camera is a new one on me. Is there an example of that anyone can cite?

I don't have a problem with the concept. One place I notice violations is at the DC intersection by the Chinatown arch. No turns allowed, but drivers routinely violate that. It's one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the city.

Dear Dr. G; in a recent traffic analysis, WTOP announced that the DC traffic lights haven't been reviewed/reset/corrected for 4 years. Here's my first choice for this review: the totally unnecessary loooong traffic light at the T-intersection of Military Road and 30th St. Not once in 10 trips is there ever cross traffic--car or pedestrian--that justifies a light that's longer for 30th than for the east-west traffic on Military. If I lived in that block, I'd be livid at the unnecessary toxic exhaust put out by waiting cars. Since the goal seems to be only traffic slowing, put in a speed camera (which the sign says there is!) but either pull out the light or change the timing drastically. EG. on Rhode Island Ave, when you hit a green light and travel at the posted speed, you get all the lights green. If you speed, you speed right into a red light. This is how they could successfully control both traffic and speed. Thanks for making DC-DOT look at this intersection.

My recollection is that people who live along that part of Military Road west of Rock Creek Park are livid about the speeding traffic. The light at 30th may be slowing down drivers through that 25 mph zone. That, and the police car occasionally stationed in the cutout area along Military Road.

On the other hand, the traffic signal may indeed need retiming.

I don't love the red light cameras in the area, but it's especially galling to have them set in such a way that if you obey them, you get trapped at light after light because the lights aren't calibrated to be in any synchrony that would ease traffic. This is especially true on Rhode Island Ave and North Capitol - my latest commutes since moving to Mt. Rainier. Is there any hope of a review to make the lights flow better for a 25 mile per hour speed limit so we don't HAVE to go 30-35 to keep moving? It seems like a game that the public is set up to lose.

I'd also like to see  a retiming -- regionwide, not just DC wide. It's probably most difficult to please everyone in the inner parts of the region with the extensive grid pattern of streets. Adding seconds in one direction means taking them away from another direction, and there are plenty of places where the traffic flow is heaving from all ways approaching the intersections.

On-demand buttons for pedestrians also can throw off the sequencing of signals.

This is exactly what we don't need. Outside of the exception where turns are explicitly prohibited the last thing we need is another way for the city council to rip off those driving. There are many occasions where for everyone's safety it makes sense to pull out far past a point of no return into an intersection. There are also occasions where the turn cannot be made until after it turns red (such as running a red light from the other side). You are now going to penalize people for being cautious? What a horrifically bad idea that will certainly lead to more accidents. If you force people to turn on yellow or get a ticket, there will be far greater risk of a nasty collision.

I don't know of any form of automated enforcement that penalizes people for being cautious. If they District or any other jurisdiction can raise revenue by fining people who violate our traffic laws, more power to them.

I have something called a "No Fog Mitt." It's a light blue color (the shade of blue often associated with baby boys) and its primary use is to wipe the inside of the windshield on cars prone to fogging on humid days (such as many Honda sedans built in the 1980s and 1990s). I find that it works really well for cleaning the slight haze of gunk that forms over time, however. You should do this when the vehicle is parked, of course, and I find it's best to do it when the sun is shining through the windshield because it helps me see if I've missed a spot or if I've created too much smudging at the top and bottom. I got my No Fog Mitt at Trak Auto (I suppose I'm dating myself with that reference!), but a Google search prior to typing this comment showed that it's still available through many of the usual channels.

Very good tip. Thank you.

3M Glass Cleaner, in liberal amounts. Works great.

Dr., Maybe you can help me out. Is it me or does this seem to be an odd, if not dangerous situation? This seems to be a MC special. Going down the street, there is a left turn only lane and another lane. Each lane has its own full stack of lights; red, yellow, green. Wouldn't it be logical to assume that if the left turn lane has a green light that the approaching traffic has a red light? In MC it seems that is not always the case. Either that or there are a lot of folks who just plow through their red light. I was riding my bicycle over the weekend in MC and nearly got taken out by a car coming through when I had a green left turn light.

I'm not quite sure if you're referring to a solid green light or a green arrow for left-turning traffic. If it's an arrow, then the left-turning traffic should have the right of way and the oncoming traffic should have a red signal.

Where exactly is this? I'll try to get out to check it.


They should have cameras that capture pedestrians who jaywalk as well. I've noticed this becoming an issue more and more -- people crossing against the light, expecting motorists to stop for them.

Very dangerous behavior, of course, but I'm not sure how automated enforcement would deal with jaywalkers. Taking photos of license plates and mailing tickets to the owners of the vehicles is one thing. But unless pedestrians wore plates, I'm not sure how this would work. (And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want that to work.)

In Southeastern Fauquier County on Saturday mornings there is a local bike club that has Saturday morning rides. Many of the riders are Tour De France wannabees and some are newbees w/o a clue. Problem is they all create problems for folks in vehicles because of their stupidity. Like the newbee who pulled out in front of me from the little convenience store in Bristersburgs or the groups of Tour De France wannabees who arent paying attention to traffic in groups of 6 or 8 and are wearing earbuds. I am willing to share the road but come folks lets pay attention to the vehicles and stop being so arrogant.

Cyclists have a responsibility to comply with traffic laws. So do drivers pulling out of church parking lots on Sundays, pedestrians crossing streets, drivers pulling up to stop signs -- you get the idea. There's no category of people who are particularly good at obeying traffic laws. Watch out for them. Your reward is in heaven.

Stories about the impact of the Silver Line on Metro focus on the shortage of cars and practical limits on the number of trips into Rosslyn. I wonder if it would improve efficiency to change the way the trains are routed. At present, Orange and Blue line trains (and soon the Silver) start at the farthest suburban stations, overlap on the same route through the city, and then diverge to continue to the outer suburban stops. But in the mornings not many passengers are traveling away from the city, and in the evenings not many are traveling toward it, meaning that for large sections of the routes the trains are underused. Suppose the suburban trains only operated between the end of the line and Stadium-Armory or Rosslyn, then reversed, while the line through the city only operated between those two stations? Passengers would board the Orange, Blue or Silver lines at the suburban stations and transfer at Rosslyn or Stadium-Armory to a city train, or board a city train and transfer to the suburban routes. With shorter routes, trains could serve each station -- particularly the most heavily-used stations in the city -- more frequently without increasing the number of cars. Would that work?

I understand why you're concerned about that bottleneck at the Rosslyn tunnel. The addition of the Silver Line makes things worse for the Blue Line riders.

But I'm not sure that setting up a shuttle system would deal with the problem you identify.

Turning back trains takes a while, even if there are switches at the stations where you'd like to turn them back. At rush hour, that would be a real problem for commuters.

Also, riders want one-seat rides. They don't like having to change trains to continue their journeys. That's true right now for Red Line riders who have to get off at Grosvenor or Silver Spring and for Yellow Line riders who have to get off at Mount Vernon Square to continue their trips.

Does VDOT plan to install a sign comparing the travel time in the HOV vs mainline for the southbound commute? The sign for northbound commuters is helpful, but it would be helpful in the afternoon to have a sign before Newington before you have to commit one way or the other. Or if a sign is too expensive, posting this on 511 would be helpful.

I wish there were plenty more travel time signs, including signs on the Beltway that would help the drivers who are trying to decide whether it's worth it to use the 495 Express Lanes.

There's nothing in the works right now, other than that new sign in Dumfries that let's northbound I-95 commuters know the travel time in the HOV lanes vs. the travel time in the regular lanes.

It's a form of advertising. Your trip in the HOV lanes is almost always going to be faster than your trip in the regular lanes. So it's there to create an incentive for solo drivers to pull into the park and ride and either pick up passengers for an HOV carpool or get them to park and board a commuter bus.

The situation for homeward commuters heading south isn't the same.

According to a detailed analysis (http://unsuckdcmetro.blogspot.com/2013/09/new-transit-grade-escalators-among.html), Metro's newest escalators are among some of its worst performing ones. Isn't this troubling?

There's an interesting story on the Unsuckdcmetro blog based on escalator data compiled by programmer Lee Mendelowitz. (See story on him by Post's Nicole Chavez.)

See more of his work with Metro statistics here: http://www.dcmetrometrics.com.

Metro puts out quarterly reports on various issues important to riders including escalator reliability. The latest one showed an increase in reliability overall.

That's good, but Metro's grand averages will remind you of the problem with averages: "When Bill Gates walks into a bar, everyone in the bar is a millionaire -- on average."

Few Metro riders get an overall experience. They pass through just a few stations during their travels. So it matters a great deal where the busted escalators are.

Are they at places like the platform to mezzanine at Vienna, or are they between the Dupont Circle mezzanine and the street? These are very different experiences.

Is there a shuttle service that takes you to the game (NFL) from the Addison Road stop on the blue line?

There's no shuttle bus service that I'm aware of. (Readers, please write in if you know of such a thing, because I'd include that in tips on getting to the FedEx games.)

If I'm going to games at FedEx on the Blue Line, I'd get off at the Morgan Boulevard station and walk the 9/10ths of a mile along the sidewalk to the stadium.

Any chance they'll decide to alter the silver line plans in the future to make it the regional airport connector and possibly even National Harbor?

If a new set of tracks could be placed in Rosslyn, trains could bypass the existing station and travel between Dulles Airport and Reagan National Airport. There is such a proposal in Metro's long-range Momentum plan. Tell your children to watch for it.

Just finished reading the article regarding the end of 5A service. It's interesting that the proposal came from DDOT. I would have suspected from Metro itself and or MWAA. The 5A is often used as a Fairfax Connector 980/950 substitute by those of us at Herndon Monroe. With 980 all but ending, is it possible that they want to eliminate the service just to make sure those of us in the western 'burbs catch the Silver line? If so, there seems to be a simple solution. Keep 5A, but don't stop at HMPR.

I think DC just wants to have those bus resources redeployed to other routes. It has nothing to do with getting more people in the outer suburbs to ride the Silver Line.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County is putting a great deal of effort into redesigning the Fairfax Connector routes to take advantage of the Silver Line. Fairfax wants not only to keep current transit riders on transit but also to get more people onto the buses and trains.

That's one of the great transportation stories of this year and next: Will this sort of behavior modification work?

I commute to work via bike. Part of my trip takes me on the hiker/biker trail that runs alongside Rock Creek Parkway. I'm grateful that the path exists because it keeps me away from cars and them away from me. What I'm not grateful for, however, is the relative lack of maintenance on this trail. There are numerous tiny sinkholes, bumps, cracks and rough patches in the pavement, particularly on a long stretch between Thompson Boat Center and Connecticut Ave. These can make for a very jarring and potentially jarring ride, and causes excessive wear and tear on my bike. Do you know if DC has any plans to fix any of this? They recently patched a very small stretch of the trail and have temporarily diverted part of it around a particularly bad spot that collects water after it rains. Other than that, though, the trail seems to be headed in the wrong direction, from a maintenance standpoint.

I think that task falls to the National Park Service.

Sometimes, I hear from drivers on the parkway complaining about bike riders. They ask why the bike riders aren't using the bike path.

Bike riders tell me the trail is in poor shape. It's not good for bike commuting. So they ride in the regular lanes.

I didn't hear about last week's guest until too late, so I'll send it to you. In the last five years I've lived in two places, Beltsville and Laurel, just west of Route 1 near the Prince Georges/Montgomery County line. Bus service between the US1 and US29 corridors outside the Beltway is almost non-existent. Laurel-Burtonsville and Beltsville-Tech Road area, are very common trips for people with cars. But as buses, the former only runs in rush hour and the latter requires inconvenient transfers between hourly routes. Why isn't there anything like Laurel's CMRT (which links Prince Georges, Howard and Anne Arundel) between PG and Montgomery?

My guest last Monday was Ron Kirby, the director of transportation planning with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Kirby and his staff are working on a Regional Transportation Priorities Plan, which includes strategies for improved bus service in certain corridors.

My guess on why there's not more service between corridors in the counties: Not enough people are asking for it. I'd direct such ideas to the Metro board members from your jurisdiction, the Metro Riders Advisory Council, or your county council person or county department of transportation.

Dr Gridlock, To address your comment to a different poster, while there is no issue with those who break the law, cameras can't interpret surrounding circumstances. Numerous jurisdictions make it increasingly difficult to protest their tickets and due process when charged with a fine should still be something a driver is entitled to. It would be even harder for a driver to prove this, since parking and camera tickets are basically the only thing where the burden of proof is shifted to the driver.

Drivers should certainly be able to protest any ticket, whether it's an automated enforcement ticket or a ticket issued by a police officer. I'm not aware of any jurisdiction that restricts that right.

I do hear occasionally from drivers -- primarily in DC -- who say they got a second notice about a violation without every having received the first notice of a violation.

I commute on Military Road, east in the morning and west in the afternoon, and I can tell you that there's a small camera (which looks like a box mounted on a stick) facing east on Military Road that was recently installed. I believe that it's at the intersection with 30th Street or within a block of that light. There's also another small box camera on North Capitol Street, facing north. Both of these appear to replace the off-duty police cars that would sit there with mobile cameras (and an often-sleeping police officer). Just a word to the wise that when you see a sign announcing photo or radar enforcement, they mean it.

There is an easy answer to that problem: Live east of where you work.

As a regular bike commuter I will state for the record that I hate and despise the riders who wear headphones, and do not make at least a pretense of obeying the traffic rules. And I know that that attitude runs deep in my local bike shop.

Don't travel angry.

For cyclists' own safety, as well as that of pedestrians, they shouldn't be wearing headphones. I love biking, but if I've got a good audiobook going, I'll walk, with the volume low, so I can hear approaching traffic.

Dr. Gridlock, I liked your answer to the person suggesting that Metro trains run shorter routes, and I'd like to add that turning inbound trains at Stadium-Armory and Rosslyn won't work. There's nowhere to turn trains at either place. If you ride the Orange or Blue Line, surely you've noted how whenever they single-track, the single-tracking begins between Farragut West and Foggy Bottom and extends beyond Rosslyn. That's because those are the only switch locations. (Think about how Rosslyn's platforms are elevated on different levels and you can see why it's set up that way. You don't build sharply-sloped switches!) WMATA explored the option of turning Silver Line trains on the elevated track east of Stadium-Armory near the Langston Golf Course driving range but scrapped the idea because there wasn't enough room. The best analogy is to the current Yellow Line service. The Yellow Line terminates at Fort Totten only during NON-rush hour because turning the train means it has to cross to the other track, then sit idle while the conductor walks all the way to the other end of the train to start going the other way. Every other train on that track has to wait. At rush hour, that's simply too much delay....and imagine how that would cause problems if you tried to do it on tracks shared by three lines (Orange/Blue/Silver).

I think many improvements to Metrorail could be made by adding pocket tracks and switches. We often talk about the need for new tunnels through the core, but there are other things that could be done to improve capacity and flow that are somewhat less disruptive and expensive.

We have an 8:10 am departure at Union Station on Thursday the 26th. When should we leave Richmond to avoid traffic and ensure we don't miss our train? Also - is parking at the deck at Union safe? I hear there is a lot of vandalism that occurs in decks in the district in general - not there specifically.

Readers know I'm very conservative answering questions about getting to places to catch planes or trains. You'll see that here: I'd leave Richmond at 4:30 a.m. That may give you plenty of time for coffee and donuts at Union Station. But I worry about the traffic on northbound I-95, even before you reach the heart of the DC area. (This morning's traffic through Stafford was terrible.)

About parking, all I can tell you is that I've never had a problem at Union Station and have not heard from any reader who has. But might you be better off checking train and bus schedules for Richmond-DC?

I watched a woman jog directly into traffic of a four lane road when she was too busy listening to her ipod to notice. Luckily the cars were able to stop for her, but that could have been a really tragic result. I wonder if she even realized what she did or why she didn't notice?

The Grid Sister, who works with head injury victims, likes to share audiobooks and podcasts for me to listen to, but she's reluctant to give me something I'll be too absorbed in, for fear I'll pay more attention to the audio than to my surroundings. (She also wants me to wear a helmet while driving the car.)

Hi Dr Gridlock, I just started using Metrobus for commuting and part of my route is up for elimination. I did go to a public hearing last week to plead my case. I'm wondering if you know when the final decision will be made so I can plan accordingly (will probably end up buying a motorcycle if the change goes through).

I believed that the bus route changes will go before the board this fall. (Not September, but beyond.)

If the biggest obstacle to turning trains is the conductor's lengthy walk, then how about having a separate conductor, already stationed at the other end, ready to take over. The Conductor leaving the train could then proceed to the other end, ready to take over the NEXT train that needs to turn around. This would require two extra conductors stationed on that section of track, to allow one at each end ready all the time. (But I think the single-seat ride is a bigger issue, correct?)

I think the biggest single issue is the layout of the tracks and the time it takes to move the train to a siding and then reverse direction. At rush hours, with the trains so close together, that backs up train traffic.

Thank you all for joining me today. We'll do it again next Monday. By the way, if you have suggestions on guests, or topics you'd like to see explored on the chats, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Stay safe.

In This Chat
Robert Thomson
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He offers therapy for that most intimate relationship: the one between you and your commute. You can read his work on his namesake blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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