Oct 04, 2010

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, was online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues. Today he discussed blocking the box, four way stops, Metro escalators and more.

Welcome, travelers. I see a bunch of road questions and comments, plus some on transit issues. I'll search for ones that could benefit from your responses and post them first, but feel free to comment on anything or make follow up points.


Hello, Do you (or any readers) have any idea what time of the morning the parking lot at the Falls Church metro gets filled? I have a meeting DC and would like to park and use Metro. Thank you.

I'm sending this one out early for group review. I assume the questioner is talking about West Falls Church, since that's the station with about 2,000 parking spaces, rather than East Falls Church.

I know there's heavy demand for parking at West Falls Church. I've gotten spaces at around 7 a.m., but haven't tried it this month.

Here are some other things of note from Dr. Gridlock and the Post's Transportation team.

The Week Ahead In Traffic And Transit: Dr. Gridlock looks at the Douglass Bridge, carpooling and more.

Police activity at Foggy Bottom: Metro riders are reporting that they can't exit at Foggy Bottom due to police activity. The Post's Ovetta Wiggins reports that the escalators are blocked, but you can use the elevators.

Transportation In Trouble: A new report does not seem optimistic about our transportation systems.

In the early 80s, New York announced lots of "Gridlock Alert Days" with the idea of raising awareness of the trouble caused when people "block the box".


Since the biggest problem I see around here is cars (and especially buses) blocking the box, has the area thought of something similar or at least enforcing the rules?

A couple of NYC traffic engineers created the term "gridlock" around 1980. It came into wide use in New York during a transit strike, when many more people tried to drive into Manhattan. The term refers specifically to blocking the box at an intersection. (You can't have gridlock on a highway. No grid, no gridlock.)

The District now has signs warning drivers not to block the box. Some travelers tell me they don't understand what the signs mean.

But the rule should be a matter of common sense. Don't enter the intersection if you aren't sure you can clear the intersection before the light turns red in your direction.

We don't have enough traffic officers to enforce this during rush periods in DC. I wish we did.

Dr. G -- At a four-way stop, whether with stop signs, lights, etc., those who are going to make a right hand turn get the right-of-way, correct? Then why, when I'm making a right-hand-turn, am I constantly competing with left--hand-turners entering the same intersection simultaneously? I've never seen that happen any place but here in DC, and I'm wondering how many accidents are caused by this? I'm waiting for the day when I'm hit by someone making that turn at the same time I am. It's very dangerous, especially when you're also dealing with pedestrians crossing as well.

I just took a quick scan of the DC drivers manual, but don't see a specific reference to right turn vs. left turn at a controlled intersection.

I do want to highlight this very sensible line from the manual: "Laws govern the right-of-way, but never put these laws ahead of safety."

If you both stop at a stop sign simultaneously. I don't see anything that specifically gives the right-turner the right of way. Certainly, left-turner must yield to oncoming traffic, and if I were in that situation, I'd let the right turner go first.

Others may know of specific rules. My personal rule is, Don't "compete" for space in an intersection. I'm happy to let the other guy go first if it means we won't wind up in the same space at the same time.


A great place to get a view of the Metro and HOT lanes construction in Tyson's Corner is the top level of the parking garage. I got some shots there Saturday. Here's the URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitcase/sets/72157624956026427

Great photos from a great spot. Sometimes when I need an updated photo for the Dr. Gridlock blog, or for a Commuter page feature on the Tysons construction, I go to the same spot you were at. There's a sweeping view looking east, north and west that shows what the Virginia planners refer to as ground zero for road construction in Northern Virginia. This is the point where two of the biggest projects in the nation intersect.

And the view seems to change daily.


Once again, the Escalators at the Dupont Circle (20th and Q) were down again at 8:45 am today. One was working in the up position, but they had it blocked off. This is the same escalator that has been going through "rehab" for the last several weeks. I don't care that they are down, I care when I'm already through the gate, and no one has said anything about the escalators being down.


It would be helpful that if at say pulling out from Farragut north, the driver of the train could say, "currently all escaltors at the Q Street exit of Dupont Circle are out of service. Please exit at the south end of the station or use the elevator." Thanks for your time today Dr. G. It's been a true Monday.

I hear your complaint about Dupont Circle's escalators more than other stations. I figure it's a combination of the heavy traffic at the station, the length of those Q Street escalators and the fact that they're busted so often.

Signs in the stations would help. Metro does use the electronic displays on the platforms to scroll through the busted escalators and elevators. Some people complain to me that they don't want that, because it's a long scroll when you want to see the information on upcoming trains.

As you probably know, Metro has a page on its Web site that lists the escalator and elevator outages:


(But who's really going to check that every day before a train ride?)

I commuted home on the Red Line Friday evening for the first time in quite a while. I read your columns and chats regularly, but normally I'm paying a bit more attention to the road info.


Although I got on a train quickly and had no difficulty getting a seat (Farragut North to Bethesda at about 6pm Friday), I was astounded at how dingy and run-down everything looked. The stations were dark and the cars seemed dirty. The Bethesda Metro escalator was also a mess -- luckily it was the short stairway from the platform to the exit -- but everyone still had to stack into a long and untidy line to walk up.


So that was my little snapshot experience, but it did make me wonder what in the world can be done to provide Metro with the assured funding it needs to keep investing in its infrastructure. Although I haven't been a regular in recent years, I had been a regular user often over the past 25 years. It saddened me to see how neglected it looks. I certainly gained understanding of the frustration of regular commuters. (And I'm glad I have a strong stomach -- the jerking of the train as it braked into each station was enough to make anyone nauseated!)

That's a good summary of how many frequent riders view the current state of the transit system.

You probably read  about the long process of raising the transit fares this year, but Metro is never rolling in dough. The budgets -- operating and capital -- are not big enough to finance the repairs a lot of riders would like to see in their lifetimes.

(Pretty much the same is true right now about our roads. The gas tax isn't cutting it as a source of revenue for maintenance and improvement.)

All Foggy Bottom escalators have reopened. More information at the Dr. Gridlock blog.

I was pulled over by a Park Police officer inside the National Zoo last weekend, and told that I couldn't talk on my cell without a hands-free device. Isn't the National Zoo inside Rock Creek Park, which is National Park Service property, not DC property? And is there a Federal law against using cell handsets while driving? Does DC law apply somehow?

I believe that that drivers on park property are subject to local traffic laws. That would mean the National Zoo is a sanctuary for animals only, not for drivers.

Dr G - It has been slow between the Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom Metro stations for the past year. I just read on a local blog's Twitter feed "Slowdowns b/w Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom caused by "corrugated track," according to #wmata. The equivalent of potholes." This is the same work that was canceled last winter. Any idea if this slowdown (restriction) could be contributing to orange line woes every morning?

I had not heard about a problem with the track inside the Rosslyn tunnel. Will check. (I'm not familiar with the term "corrugated track.")

I know Metro is putting in new rail during midday work between East and West Falls Church.

I recall that Metro had planned to use the President's Day weekend to install a new track switch at Rosslyn. That got canceled because of one of our big snowstorms. (I think Metro did the work later, over several other weekends.)

I don't have to tell any rider on the Orange or Blue lines that there are frequent delays getting through the Rosslyn tunnel because of train congestion at rush hour.

Reaching back to my Drivers' Ed days, the rules are those that stop first have the right-of-way. If two drivers stop at the same time, the driver on the right has the right-of-way. If four drivers stop at the same time, then I have no idea.

Reaching back in my own driver's ed memories, I think the vehicle on the right would have the right of way. (Have you ever been in a situation where four vehicles stopped at exactly the same time?)

When is the work on Ohio Drive going to be done?

Every Monday morning, I do a Dr. Gridlock blog posting called "The week ahead for traffic, transit." I try to include information about Ohio Drive, since so many of you are stuck in that traffic during the National Park Service reconstruction program.

Here's what I said this morning. Let me know if it's clear and if it addresses your questions:

The current phase of the project, Phase III, is scheduled to be done around the middle of the month. It includes replacement of all drainage, curbs and sidewalks. The sub-base of the roadway is under repair.

When Phase IV begins, it's scheduled to last about two weeks. To start, work will focus on the center of the roadway. Jersey barriers will create an island, where construction will take place. After that work in the middle, all surfaces will be repaved at night, during a complete closing of the roadway. If all that goes as scheduled, the project will be done around the end of October.

Meanwhile, morning rush hour traffic will remain inbound only. During the afternoon rush, Ohio Drive will be two lanes outbound only. There may be full closings of the roadway from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. nightly.

Sorry for the long post. The sidewalks at Colesville and 410 have been alternately torn up and re-done for weeks now. Typically one at a time, but there have been times when all four corners have cones on them, through the weekend. Now the construction near the north metro entrance is taking weeks. An entire block is blocked off, making it hard to get to the metro or to the bus stops on 410. We're walking in the right traffic lane to get to the bus stop. Know who I can complain too? I looked on MoCo's site, but saw no info about this intersection. Though I think they are installing speed/red lights cameras at this intersection (does that account for sidewalks being dug up?).

That sure isn't a place where pedestrians would want to be walking in the street. It's really busy. Drivers are going fast on both Colesville and East-West Highway, and they're making lots of lane changes.

I'm not sure that it's a county project. I recall that the state was working on improvements to a bunch of intersections in downtown Silver Spring in a lengthy project. I'll try to check on that one for an update.

If you aren't parked at East Falls Church by no later than 6:30 a.m., you will not get a space. I've gotten a space at West Falls Church after 9 a.m.

Thanks for feedback to our traveler asking about the Metro parking situation.

In its defense, Metro DID announce the escalator problems at Dupont Circle today, and even promised to set up a bus bridge.

Thanks for that.

I know that lots of things get announced on the trains and over the station speakers. Sometimes there's a problem with the clarity of the announcements. (Maybe more than sometimes.) I also know that sometimes I zone out on the announcements and don't hear what they're trying to tell me.

Or, you could just hang up and drive, instead of yakking into your phone while you're behind the wheel, then fishing around for a lame excuse because you don't want to deal with the consequences of your unsafe behavior. Sigh. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

Even better.  And now Maryland has a hands-free law, though it's only a secondary offense and tough to enforce. (There are only eight states and the District with hands-free laws.)

The signs in the metro indicating how soon a train will be coming were wrong every night last week at Farragut West (Vienna side). Given that two lines use the tracks, there was often confusion, as the sign gave the wrong line color. A regular commuter can sort this out, sure, but it was noticeable. Any word from Metro on this problem? Also, I counted that our train stopped and started at least five times between Clarendon and Rosslyn this morning, not counting actual stops in the station. What a jarring way to start the morning!

Many of you have been mentioning the problems with the platform signs, about how they say train is boarding when it actually left three minutes ago.

I think the line color mistakes, or the car number mistakes, are separate -- and long-standing -- issues.

The problem with the schedules is what Metro refers to as a "latency" issue. The correct information on train locations is getting from the trains to the Metro computer, but there's a delay in posting it to the signs.

Metro's IT people know it's happening, but they don't know why, and they haven't found a fix yet.

Hi Dr. G,

The train arrival times and the Next Train on WMATA's website have both been off by 2-4 minutes most of last week, especially in the evenings. Do you have an update on this situation?

I think that would be related to the "latency" issue I described in my response to the question above.

But aside from this new problem, there's always been an issue of some inaccuracy because the computers are making a guess about the train arrival time at your station based on where the train is now. Under normal circumstances, the posted time should get more accurate as the train gets closer to your platform. But if it takes longer than scheduled to unload and load the train at the pervious stop, that's going to throw off the arrival prediction.


During the Presidents Day Holiday weekend, Metro will install two new rail switches at the Rosslyn Metrorail station. In addition to the installation of new rail switches at the Rosslyn station, Metro will replace several hundred feet of rail, 300 track fasteners, 300 anchor bolts, repair 30 water leaks, replace 550 tunnel lights for safety, clean third rail insulators and cover boards, and make track circuit upgrades at the Rosslyn Metrorail station.

Yes, I remember doing a Commuter Page feature previewing that work, then the project got canceled in the aftermath of the storm. I'll check on the question about the track in the tunnel.

The ramps that connect the Clara Barton Parkway to the outer loop of the Beltway join together before the Legion Bridge. Each Ramp from the Eastbound (inbound to DC) and Westbound directions comes together with the other ramp and both have Yield signs since the ramps were rebuilt last year. Who should yield to whom?

I'm curious about that situation and am checking with the MD State Highway Administration. It's probably not something they can get an answer to right away, but I hope to post something on the Dr. Gridlock blog later.

Has Metro made any announcement about its "baskets" plan for Smart Trip cards? Late last year, they announced it, then pulled it back because of protests, saying they would retool it and bring it back at the end of this year. The worst feature was that at the end of each month, unused funds would be rebated to the employer, not the employee. Fine for govt employees, who get the commuting subsidy as a benefit, but not so fine for us in the private sector, who have (pretax) money deducted from their paychecks for commuting expenses.

I have a strong suspicion that Metro is going to roll out the exact same plan and claim that this time they gave people plenty of notice.

No announcement yet. I hope we hear soon, or I'm afraid employers and employees might be back in the situation we were in last fall.

I thought that if we had to pay the "peak of the peak" fare we would get 8 car trains. Well they started out that way but now on the red line trains to/from Glenmont have frequently been 6 car trains. We are paying "peak of the peak" for valley of the valley service.

Metro made no such promise connecting the peak of the peak fares with eight-car trains.

Separately, Metro adjusted the Red Line schedule. It decreased the number of rush-hour trains, then took some of those cars and added them to the remaining trains, to increase the number of eight car trains on the line.

One difference between New York's "Don't Block the Box" campaign compared to any such efforts in the DC area is that in New York they actually have a "box"--that is, they paint the intersections to create a box and if you stop in the box, you get a ticket. The Brits do something similar (using yellow paint instead of white) and they call any such intersection a "box junction."

Around here, we have a few "Don't Block the Box" signs. The corner of Franconia and Van Dorn in Fairfax County comes to mind, although the sign is located off to one corner of the intersection on the far side of the sidewalk. The intersection of US-50 and US-29 in Fairfax City is another place; the signs are hung next to the traffic lights and include a diagram showing what the "box" is. But, as usual for Virginia, they're small signs on the far side of the intersection.

I think if there is ever to be a serious anti-box-blocking campaign, the box needs to be painted on the road surface along the lines of what New York and London do and there has to be real enforcement. It's a shame that something that's so obviously common sense has to be enforced by the cops, isn't it?

I agree the paint would help. I understand why many drivers don't spot the signs on the poles at intersections. Then again, it should be common sense, or common courtesy to keep out of the intersection till there's space to go through.


Travelers, that's all we have time for today. Plenty of comments still unpublished. I see some I think I can post to the Dr. Gridlock blog to continue the discussion.

I'll be away next Monday, back the next.

Till we meet again, 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 the Dr. Gridlock blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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