Dr. Gridlock chat

Oct 15, 2012

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, will be online to take all your questions about Metro, traffic throughout the region and other transportation issues.

Welcome, travelers. I was on vacation last week in Maine. Sat through a ghastly traffic jam on Route 3 at the one place where drivers can get to and from Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park.

We all complain about congestion created by work zones, but I tell you, never ever would our local highway departments allow such a thing as I saw in Maine.

But I digress. You have many questions and comments on our own problems.

I just saw your post about Apple vs. Google maps, and wanted to throw in the suggestion for the app Waze. It updates your routes, even while driving, based on traffic conditions. As someone new to DC, I couldn't survive without it.

I'm only just starting with Waze. Travelers suggested it in their comments the first time I discussed the Apple/Google maps issue on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Waze is more a community of travelers helping each other, as opposed to a straight-forward mapping service. I haven't fully explored its features and utility. Perhaps others would like to comment on that.

By the way, we got a Tweet from MapQuest saying the service had fixed the problem with directions to Nationals Park -- keep that in mind for next year.

Why does Montgomery County not enforce blocking the box? I can't tell you how many intersections during evening rush hour that are clogged up in all for directions because people are in the box blocking the flow of traffic

This is a problem everywhere there's congestion and a grid pattern. There aren't enough police to go around to all the intersections where we'd like to see them enforcing rules that ease commutes.

I'm sure other travelers will note -- as they often do in letters to me -- that they wish they could see more enforcement of the rules against parking in certain lanes during rush hours.

I was intrigued by the dream projects advocated last chat. As a follow up on that, what do you see as 3-4 high impact projects that would require comparatively limited funds (so no new rail lines, bridges, or highways), but would require substantial political clout to push through?

This became a topic for both an online chat a couple of weeks ago and for a follow up blog posting. Many of you picked up on one commenter's question about what dream project could get done assuming unlimited resources.

What I noticed in the responses was that many of the projects would also require unlimited political power, because of the projects' huge impact on communities.

Responding to Dream Projects II is a bit tricky, I think, because projects that need only limited funds usually don't require vast amounts of political clout.

But I would say that it would take substantial political coordination, regionwide, to get everyone to advance telework programs. Like many of you, I see them as having a high impact on the commute at relatively low cost.

But maybe because there are few ribbon-cutting opportunities with telework programs, there's not enough political activity on their behalf.

I'd also like to see politicians back new incentives for commuters to use transit or bike. Again, not many ribbons here -- unless they're opening bike lanes, and those can be very controversial if taking space from drivers, so they require some political courage, if not clout.

Each morning I commute from Laurel to Capitol Hill on the BW Parkway...daily, traffic slows to a crawl after 495 with the back-up seemingly stemming from after "the split" (DC 295 and NY Ave). Is there some construction or other impediment further down DC 296 South that is causing this unbearable miles long back-up each day? I exit at East Capitol Street and see no reason for the traffic as of that point. The only upside is that with traffic SO slow DC is making zero money off of those speed cameras they installed all over! Thank you!

There's a huge project just south of your route, at the 11th Street Bridge. The District has totally rebuilt the bridge, creating two freeway spans and a local span. But it's no done. In fact, parts of the program already underway on the Capitol Hill/Navy Yard side of the Anacostia River will continue into 2015.

I suspect that what might be happening on the southbound side of 295 is that traffic is backing up between the Sousa Bridge and the 11th Street Bridge because of various aspects of this project.

But do others who do this daily have other observations?

This morning driver announced that the 19th Street escalators are scheduled to open tomorrow. I hope this is so.

That would be good news indeed. We've said the south entrance was scheduled to reopen this month after the replacement of the three escalators, but Metro had not announced an exact date.

We've now had a few months of the "improved" exit from 295 north to the 11th street bridge. However, as it is now a left-hand exit, it means that all the cars from Suitland Parkway entering from a right hand entrance have to cross multiple lanes of traffic to continue on to downtown DC via the 11th street bridge. The result is that the traffic already on 295 gets backed up to the Beltway every day as it jams up at tis new left hand exit. So, who's the genius we get to thank for this improvement?

That shouldn't be happening. Many of the commuters coming in on the Suitland Parkway should be able to keep right and take the just-opened ramp up to the Local span on the 11th Street Bridge.

This would be the way to go now for people who work at the Navy Yard, or on the south side of Capitol Hill.

It might be that it's taking people more than a week to get used to it, but I've been very hopeful that this new ramp -- one of several scheduled to open this fall at the 11th Street Bridge -- would have a positive impact on traffic.

Will the right lane for the xit and the ramp to I66W be closed in the afternoons? What is frustrating is they arent doing any work a least on my daily commute they arent between 215pm and 300pm. It takes 20 to 30 mintes to move 2 miles from the Rt 7 exit to I66W exit in the afternoons. And why cant thye do this work at night? ANother case of bad management and gross incompetence for VDOT. They dont let this happen in Richmond and the rest of VA!

The I-66 interchange work is one of the final parts of the 495 Express Lanes project, and that's scheduled to be open by the end of the year. We've had various problems with that ramp this year during phases of the work. I remember project managers telling me that they couldn't get it all done during nights and would have to maintain work zones during the days.

I thought that today I might be hearing from drivers on the other side of I-66 in the same area, since the left exit from the eastbound HOV lane has closed for reconstruction as part of this project.

I don't know how it was for game 5, but getting home on game 4 was surprisingly easy. Dealing with off hours trains may have been different though.

I was on vacation in Maine for the whole thing, so I'm curious to hear about fans' travel experiences, whether they were driving, biking or taking transit.

On our earlier exchange about the upcoming opening of the Dupont Circle south entrance: Metro spokesman Dan Stessel says the transit authority has not yet set an exact date. But it won't be Tuesday.

You have peaked my curiosity about the work zone congestion you hit while driving in Maine. Can you elaborate more about what happened?

I mention it because I've talked with highway officials around the DC area so often about their maintenance of traffic goals as they begin projects, and I've seen the guidance they give to travelers about what they can do to avoid sitting in the work zone congestion.

The Maine department of transportation is rebuilding a small section of Route 3, the only access point for Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park and destination for many thousands of tourists looking at fall foliage.

The work zone was controlled by flaggers. On the north side, drivers encountered a short wait for their turn through the work zone. On the southside, traffic was backed up for miles. It took us an hour to get through on Thursday morning. As we returned that afternoon, we got through with hardly any delay. But on the southside, the traffic was far worse than it was when we had waited for an hour.

Somebody wasn't planning, and somebody else wasn't adjusting to the situation as it developed.

We have our problems around here, but I've don't recall seeing a fail as spectacular as what I saw in Maine last week.

Dr G., some of the metrorail operators are still saying NoMa is the transfer station for Greyhound. The Greyhound terminal moved to Union Station a few weeks ago. Perhaps you could let your contacts at Metro know so they can tell the operators to give out the correct info. As someone who gets off at NoMa for her daily commute, I can tell you a few people have not been happy to have to turn around to go back to Union Station - particularly when they're tourists and now have to buy another paper farecard and pay an extra buck all over again for the privilege of being given incorrect info.

Very good point. (I think Mark Berman, who is producing today's chat, will have a link to Paul Schwartzman's story about the closing of the old terminal.)

And I'll try to repeat the information about the new Union Station location for intercity buses, including in our annual Thanksgiving getaway guide next month.

In response to the earlier question with subject "Dream Projects II," I'd suggest that a widening (even a partial widening) of I-66 inside the Beltway would require relatively limited funds but massive political clout. Over the years I've found the worst backup inbound seems to be from the Dulles exit (Exit 67) to Glebe Road, with the problem compounded by the lane drops at Westmoreland Street and US-29. Seems to me if you could extend a third lane all the way to Glebe (similar to what's been done on the Beltway from I-66 to Route 7), you'd cut down on the need for as many people to merge left. But the BANANAs* in Arlington would never allow it. *BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody

I think that's a project that would have a high impact on many commuters. But thinking of the "spot improvements" to widen sections of 66 inside the Beltway, it's not all about political clout. The first spot improvement is done, but I believe the reason the other two are on a stretched out schedule is to spread out the cost.

In other words, I think that the 2012 definition of  "relatively limited funds" is much tighter than it was a couple of decades ago.

Also, I should note that Virginia is conducting several studies about what to do with I-66. I think we'll wind up seeing an overall plan rather than a plan strictly targeted to the inside the Beltway part.

Thank you! I appreciate the insight. I just hope something 'gives'. My 22 mile door to door commute is taking upwards of 75-90 minutes and that's just not right...

Commuting habits are sometimes hard to change, so I hope the drivers who stand to benefit from the new exit from southbound 295 onto the 11th Street Bridge are at least checking that out. I think it's a good alternative for many of the drivers who go in on New York Avenue -- especially good if their destination is in Arlington.

I've been using Waze for about six months and like it a lot. It's not perfect, but then none of the GPS apps are. And don't be put off by the "join" feature, you don't have to join anything to use Waze.

Thanks for the report, because I continue to be curious about what information commuters use, either to plan a local trip or to adjust to current conditions.

I noted that my own experience with Waze is still limited. One thing I enjoy is seeing the reports filed by other travelers -- basically using new social media tools to help other people get where they're going. Now that's social.

(Except I always hope they're not texting while driving.)

I frequently travel between Maryland and the south coast of Massachusetts. I listen to WTOP and CBS for updated traffic information. Do you have any suggestions for Delaware, Philadelphia, Connecticut (or do we assume it is always backed up) and Providence? I know of alternate routes for most of theses areas but I need to know the traffic information.

I drive that route a lot. (Montgomery County to Cape Cod.) That Delaware-Philly-southern New Jersey section of the trip seems to have limited traffic radio assistance. You can listen to the state reports on the AM band as you drive along a particular highway, but they're of limited value in changing conditions.

Either I or the Grid Spouse -- whoever is in the passenger seat -- will look at Google Maps for the traffic congestion indications.

Farther north, we go to all-news WCBS in New York to figure out whether we should take the GW Bridge and the Cross Bronx Expressway. 

Southwestern Connecticut on I-95 always is a nightmare. Once recently I took the Hutchinson River Parkway up to the Merritt Parkway to eliminate part of the Connecticut Horror. That worked pretty well -- till we rejoined I-95 and encountered New Haven.

I have an unusual dream project, more of a dream idea. Changing the way speed bumps get approved. As more streets have grown past their original design as residential streets they have become necessary for commutes. Speed limits are one thing, but speed bumps often hurt the car and make you slow down to unnecessary speeds on roads which can't be avoid. Therefore speed bumps should no longer be allowed just because a couple of people on the block want them, but should be open for discussion to the whole neighborhood/ district. Also all speed bumps should be changed to the circle which still force cars to slow down, but don't harm the cars themselves when going at the speed limit.

One issue for traffic departments is how big an area they should be required to consult with in deciding whether to use speed bumps.

Meanwhile, the departments are experimenting with various forms of traffic calming. There are quite a variety of tricks that traffic engineers can use to create the illusion that lanes are narrower and to create slight jogs in the lanes' path to get drivers to slow down.

But my question is this: How long are the speed bumps, or other traffic calming devices, likely to be effective? I'm afraid that what I'm seeing is that drivers who want to speed get used to just about anything. After a get-acquainted period, they start taking the bumps at their old speeds, and they treat other traffic calming measures as a road rally course.

But what else can they try besides speed cameras?

Dr. G- It took me over 2 hours to get from Arlington to Fairfax on Friday night (I left right after Nats game ended). There were No signs on the entrance to 66 W stating that all lanes would be blocked around the beltway. The first sign noting trouble that I saw came after the exit for Leesburg Pike (So no way to exit) and it stated the right lane was blocked (when in reality all lanes were blocked). Why cant VDOT put signs on entrances to 66 so people will not get on if they know there will be a construction- related closure of all lanes. Seems like a simple solution! Everyone had their cars turned off, were relieving themselves on the side of the road, etc, and there was no explanation whatsoever for almost 2 hours! I know I should have checked, but had driven on 66 3 times already that day and saw no warning of future closures! Thanks!

Sorry to hear about that. I think variable message boards can be very effective -- especially if properly placed and deployed far enough in advance to give drivers a chance to plan alternative routes.

I was amused by the letters of drivers getting lost or being incorrectly directed when using map apps. I don't have GPS or a cell phone. I have indeed have gotten incorrect directions from Google Maps or Map Quest. But here's the thing, I always look at a real live map before setting out. "Here are my directions. Here's a map. Wait a minute, looks like I'm being sent to RFK not to Nats Park. Let me fix this before I start the car." It's not rocket science.

I love looking at maps -- of all sorts. When I'm doing an unfamiliar route, I like to check the Google street views to see what intersections look like. I even do that 3D thing that gives you a virtual tour of the route.

And like you, I look at real maps. But I get the sense that our electronic aids are causing our traditional map-reading skills to atrophy. Fewer people look at unfolded maps and instead just follow lines.

Game 4 was a breeze, Game 5 was a pain (took twice as long to get home as the day before). There didn't seem to be many extra trains running, and those that were terminated at Mt Vernon Square, which seemed to throw people for a loop. It propbably wouldn't have mattered so much weren't we all so grumpy from the game outcome!

Not sure there was anything the transit authority could have done to improve anybody's mood after that game.

But about those turnbacks at Mount Vernon Square: I've always thought that was a good idea, as long as the train signs are correct and the operator makes a point of telling riders that the terminus is MV Square and if you want to do on, wait on the same platform.

I think it's good to do this, because Metro's priority should be to clear the Navy Yard platform. (I remember waiting for a BART train on a super-crowded platform outside the Oakland A's stadium. Way too many people on that platform. Surprised no one wound up on the tracks.)

Having some trains take fans up to Mount Vernon Square means you have a train that stops at the big transfer points at L'Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place.

Now, what happens at those transfer points is another story. I've long felt that this is where riders have the biggest post-game problems with crowding.

KYW -- 1060 AM.

Thanks for helping fill the radio traffic gap.

In Delaware, 1150-AM WDEL; from Wilmington north, KYW 1060-AM, traffic and transit on the twos...

I usually listen to 1060AM, which kicks in around Wilmington, DE. It's a Philly news station, pretty dry stuff, but they cover a lot of territory for traffic.

KYW-1060, an AM all-news station, has traffic reports "on the 2s" for the entire Philadelphia area. A station in Trenton, "New Jersey 101.5" FM, which can be heard through almost all of New Jersey, has traffic every 10 minutes also, have separate South, Central, and North Jersey reports all the time. Then when you get to New York, there is WCBS-880 as well as WINS-1010, two all-news stations. I don't know about Connecticut and RI, but WBZ-1030 in Boston has the traffic every 10 minutes for that area; it is all news until 7 PM. Every AM station I mentioned is owned by CBS.

Since I travel solo from DC to Long Island 2x monthly via auto, I don't have the luxury of having someone help with navigating traffic issues along the route. I think the poster wanted specific radio stations: 101.5 FM in New Jersey is great, as is 1060AM in Philadelphia. The DelDot radio station works decently too, I believe it's 1380AM

WTIC -1080 AM in Hartford, also owned by CBS, provides frequent traffic, and WCBS-880 in New York provides Connecticut traffic in its reports for the stretch of highways up to around Bridgeport.

I have only 1 suggestion, as my regular ride is between Silver Spring and Brooklyn. NJ 101.5 has traffic regularly (I think every 15 minutes). They are Trenton and shore based, so cover Philly, and all major NJ routes.

recently, the clocks that were once in front of the guard booth in the metro stations have been replaced with larger, blank screens. please tell me that the time is returning? it's not a huge gripe, but I always liked to see the time when I was entering or exiting the metro turnstiles. thanks!

Thanks for reminding me to check on this, because other riders also have asked.

In a quick check just now, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told me that these new displays are going in at all the station managers' kiosks.

They'll show the time -- which helps all the riders waiting for 9:30 before going through the fare gates -- but they'll also display status reports on the lines.

If that works as intended, it should help the many riders who have complained about a lack of actionable information before they enter the system. Especially frustrating are the times when you figure out there's a delay only moments after paying the fare.

Stessel said it will take several more months to install the hardware and software to display these status reports, but the devices should be displaying the time of day well before that.

Just an FYI to readers, Google Maps is basically just that, a map. Google Navigation is the real time, turn by turn direction system. Google Nav is Android exclusive. Its far better, and even works great overseas (I used it in Israel). In addition, waze will show you traffic cameras and known (active) police speed traps.

And wasn't that part of the issue that sent Apple off on the ill-fated effort to create its own navigation program? Google was keeping the most useful stuff for the Android system.

(My personal experience on this is limited. I've had a GPS unit since 2006, but a few years ago, I stopped looking at the map while driving and just listened to the voice. I thought it was too easy to get distracted by the little car moving along the map.)

There are alot of us that travel the northeast corridor on a regular basis. I traveled this past weekend. It is going to be interesting when they replace the Tappanzee bridge.

You know, I always do that getaway guide in November to preview holiday travel, and it's the Northeast corridor that gets the most attention from readers.

For years, we were fixated on the Delaware I-95 tolls, but that's much easier now with the highway-speed E-ZPass lanes. A more recent problem is the slowdown through the lengthy work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. Maybe in a future edition, we'll be finding alternatives to the Tappan Zee Bridge.

I would vastly increase the use of cameras to enforce compliance with regularly-disregarded lane use signs (for example, cars going straight from dedicated left turn only lanes).

Now that's political courage.

I walked to Capitol South and had no problems. Trains were arriving in a timely manner toward Virginia. I didn't notice what the signs said toward Maryland, and my train came about 2 minutes after I arrived at the station so I didn't get a longer look at it. Bottom line - I thought it went very smoothly, despite everyone's mood!

I think if the weather is okay, walking along New Jersey Avenue to Capitol South is a good choice for a direct connection to the Blue and Orange lines.

Are we losing "traditional map reading skills"? I know several people 40+ years old who have never had any. Even if I hand them a paper map, there is no way they can find where they are going if the mapping app fails. That's when they call me to look at the map and become their navigator.

Ha! And I was making it a generational thing. Guess there's more to it than that.

So, apparently, there is a different type of E-Z Pass that will be needed for the 495 Express lanes in Virginia than is required anywhere else. It appears that Virginia is allowing people to exhange their old E-Z Pass Transponders, but are other states doing the same thing? I got mine from Maryland. Will they be issuing free exchanges for the new transponders and if so, how will that work?

Travelers are starting to ask more and more questions about how to use these new Beltway lanes, now that we're closing in on the opening.

I'm probably going to do this Sunday's Commuter page feature on some of the most frequently asked questions I'm getting about them.

Any E-ZPass issued by any transportation agency will work in the 495 Express Lanes. There is a new type that Virginia is making available to people who want to carpool and get a free ride. (You need to have at least three people in your vehicle.) This is called an E-ZPass Flex. So far, it's available only through the Virginia E-ZPass program, but I believe there will eventually be some Maryland outlets.


Travelers, thanks for joining me today. There were a couple of themes today that I think I'll look at for posting on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Write to me any time at drgridlock@washpost.com. I'll be back with you here next Monday. Vacation season is over.

Stay safe out there, and don't let those maps distract you.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: