Dr. Gridlock

Oct 20, 2014

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. This is my first chat in three weeks, because I was off for a trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, and some hiking in Acadia National Park.

Acadia is an extremely popular park at all times, but especially when the leaves are changing in early October. So it's a great lesson in sharing travel space -- on the roads, sidewalks and trails.

Today, I'd like to open the chat with a comment about sharing from a cyclist. Some of you have already seen this one, because I drew it out to spotlight on the Dr. Gridlock blog with an invitation for you to comment here.

I know there's a lot of bicyclists out there that behave badly, and I make no excuses from them. But as someone who has spent the last year bike commuting in DC, here are my pleas for drivers.

They can basically be summed as "be predictable" but here are a few specific requests. I know I'm hard to see (even with lights and bright colors), and sometimes you'll miss me. As such, I'm always looking out for cars, ready to react to them.

But when cars do things I can't anticipate, that's when trouble happens.

So please:

1) Don't pull u-turns in the middle of the road. Even if you don't see a car, there may be a bike or pedestrian there, not expecting you to swing around.

2) On streets with a protected bike lane (L and M, particularly) and you want to make a turn, cross the bike lane in the designated mixing zone just before the intersection. Don't make your turn in the intersection from the straight-through lane and across the bike lane. Once I've made it through that mixing zone (treacherous in its own right, but at least predictable) I expect all cars to my left to be going straight, and if you turn right (especially if you don't have your blinker on) you'll nail me. It isn't fun for either of us, I promise.

3) Don't block the bike lanes. I know you want us to stay out of your way. I want to stay out of your way. That's what bike lanes are for. But I can't use them if you're parked in them or standing in them.

Thanks to all the great drivers out there. But it's just like obnoxious bicyclists - it's the ones who don't follow the rules that you remember.

I think these suggestions are really smart, and the overall themes of courtesy and sharing for safety's sake are utterly reasonable.

In particular: "Be predictable." That's what traffic rules and regulations are all about. Yes, they do help law enforcement sort things out after a crash, but they really are meant to help prevent the crashes in the first place by helping all sorts of travelers anticipate what the other travelers will do in any given situation.

[DG: I believe this comment is from a traveler who saw that blog posting this morning that spotlighted the request from the bicyclist.]

Welcome back! Thanks for your piece this morning. There needs to be more communication between bikers and drivers, like what the reader sent you this morning-- I didn't know about mixing zones until I read that. I'm assuming it's referring to where the bike lanes become dashes in the road? If so, I didn't know that was the designated crossover zone to properly make a right turn. I'll definitely be cognizant of that in the future. Since we're having an open forum on the topic, what do I do if a biker is too far encroached into the lane for me to pass? It happened to me a week ago on a one lane road. I slowed down as to avoid passing (was trying to keep 3 feet on my side), but finally gave up and made a left turn off the road.


I think communication is key, but it's not everything. Travelers often tell me they fear some communications between travelers -- waves, nods, eye contact -- will be misunderstood.

(I'll give a personal example: When cycling, I've had drivers stare right at me, then pull out directly in front of my bike. Theory: They're looking for other cars, so they don't see a cyclist.)

On the encroachment issue: The priority would be to keep everyone safe. Some of these scenarios will involve judgment calls on the drivers' part. Sounds like the driver in this case took a prudent course.

I had a column recently that featured a letter from a cyclist who wasn't so fortunate in his encounter with a driver.

I know you’ve addressed this before, but when is the city going to recognize how out of hand the weekend street closures for special events have become? I never heard of the “Best Buddies” event, but this Saturday (what happened to confining these things to Sundays?) it closed down a HUGE number of streets. From Cleveland Park, I was forced to use the Beltway to get to 66! I never saw any warning about this, and was turned away first at Foxhall Road and then at Chain Bridge. Look at all these streets! It seems excessive, to say the least. http://mpdc.dc.gov/release/traffic-advisory-october-17-weekend-events

Saturday morning events, like the Best Buddies ride, run, walk charity event tend to be the most disruptive for weekend travelers. The Sunday morning ones are less so.

Most big cities have plenty of these, especially in the late spring and early fall. The nation's capital is a high-profile location for many organizations sponsoring athletic or charity/athletic events.

(The Marine Corps Marathon is coming this Sunday.)

I don't see how a municipal government can ban such events. In fact, cities generally welcome the influx of people and the attention they bring to the cities as visitor destinations.

But they make travel difficult for thousands of people who have nothing to do with the events. Worse yet, they leave many residents feeling imprisoned in their homes for the duration of the event, because of the street closings.

The D.C. police department does a pretty good job getting out announcements about these events. The commenter provides a link to a police advisory that came out Wednesday of last week.

But there's no agency that provides comprehensive, regionwide warnings about these events, no entity that's going to push out alerts to your e-mail basket or phone about everything you might encounter.

If you look on the Web sites of some TV and radio stations on Fridays, you will find lists of some weekend events that are likely to disrupt travels.

I do that on the Dr. Gridlock blog on Friday mornings. I try to warn about the major events across the D.C. region that are likely to impede traffic and transit. That includes the Metro weekend work.

You can see a sample here from last Friday. It included a list of the roadways affected by the Best Buddies event, and the Howard University homecoming.

Each week, I give it a headline that's pretty close to: "Traffic, transit tips for this weekend." And we send out Tweets with links to it.

This week, I'll probably do a separate one focused on the Marine Corps Marathon, since that's such a big draw and it's pretty complicated. Then I'll do the usual Friday morning roundup with every major weekend event that I've heard of. (If you know of something you'd like to see included, send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.)

Dr. Gridlock, Should I use my turn signal when exiting a traffic circle? I do, but my husband thinks it is not necessary unless I am using an exit other than going straight ahead.

What could it hurt? In the first exchange today, we talked about the safety value of being predictable. Turn signals certainly help with that. I use them any time I'm about to change lanes or direction.

In a traffic circle, signals provide valuable information to following motorists, to cyclists and to pedestrians.

Traffic circles are really complicated and we don't seem to deal well with them, in any part of the country. A driver about to enter a traffic circle gets valuable information from seeing a driver already in the circle signal that he or she is on the verge of exiting the circle.

Once the remaining Silver Line stations are built, what is more likely for Metro: adding new stations on existing lines or building a new line?

There aren't any solid plans to build a new line, and that's a good thing. It's going to take Metro a good long while to absorb the impact of adding the Silver Line, including the second phase out to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County.

Metro is pushing its 2025 plan, with a top priority being all-eight car trains at rush hours. That's a huge investment, and there's no full commitment to financing it.

We should support this because -- expensive as it will be -- it's still the cheapest quickest way to expand Metrorail's capacity. Beyond that, we'll probably need a new station or new tracks in Rosslyn, a new Potomac River crossing and a new tunnel through downtown DC. But all that is several decades away, at least.

I read the article today posted about the request from a biker. Until I see even a few cyclists obey traffic laws, I'm not going to do anything special to look out for them. On my way in and out of the city each day, I see them run through red lights, weave in and out of traffic between moving cars, make right turns from the left lane and ignore many other traffic laws. When they actually care enough to follow traffic laws, only then will drivers care to look out for them.

Because of my job, I spend a lot of time just watching how travelers behave. And I haven't noticed any particular category of traveler behaving any better than any other.

But why talk categories, anyway? Why would misbehavior on the part of any bunch of travelers that you've seen in the past lessen your obligations to obey the law and to help protect other people.

Traveling puts us in contact with all sorts of people, but our obligations to them remain the same.

We're not supposed to make on the spot assessments of who deserves to die.

Dr. G: Do you know why the speed camera at Arkansas Ave and Iowa Ave NW was removed? There has been a police cruiser there during the evening rush instead for the last week or so, but when there's no car there, folks are back to going 45 MPH and ignoring crosswalks with abandon, especially when southbound.

I don't know about that location specifically. You are describing a mobile unit. The D.C. police department uses a combination of fixed speed cameras and mobile units. As the language implies, the mobile units move around, based on where the department things the current trouble spots are.

I think the one you're referring to is in the Fourth District, so you might contact the station if you think the unit needs to go back there.

I read the list of closures- and thought I would be safe taking Rock Creek to 66. There was nothing about that onramp being closed or the TR bridge. I participate in events that close roads, so don't begrudge them that, but the notices should be clear about how you can actually exit/enter DC.

Especially with these really long and complicated events, I've noticed that travelers say the actual road blocks don't match up with the preview list.

The police always reserve the right to modify the list, based on the prevailing conditions. I also notice that there's sometimes a variance between the road closings lists publicized by event planners and the lists the police departments provide.

You should always signal at circles and roundabouts for the simple reason that it tells other drivers where you are going. Circles and roundabouts work best if you don't have to guess where someone else is going. If you're entering a roundabout, you have to yield to traffic already on the roundabout, but if I signal "right," I'm telling you I'm about to exit and you don't have to wait for me. The best instructions I've seen are in the British Highway Code. You have to reverse "right" and "left" because they drive on the other side, but their directions work GREAT when people use them. In a nutshell: (1) If you are going less than halfway around, signal right on approach and continue to signal until you've left the roundabout. (2) If you are going straight across, do not signal on approach, then signal right as you approach your exit and as you exit. (3) If you are going more than halfway around (a left turn or U-turn), signal left on approach, continue to signal left as you go around, then signal right after passing the exit before yours and continue to signal as you exit. In scenario #3, the left signal tells people at entrances after yours that you will be staying on the roundabout.

I think British drivers are much more comfortable with roundabouts than U.S. drivers are. At a point early in the 20th century, Britain was opting for roundabouts at traffic junctions, while we were tilting toward signal lights as our traffic controls.

Now, U.S. traffic engineers are finding more reasons to like roundabouts. They slow traffic down to relatively safe speeds, and they also tend to do a better job of maintaining traffic flow through a junction.

I just submitted a comment about signaling on roundabouts in which I cited the British Highway Code. Here's a link to the relevant page, including an illustration.

Very useful guidance. I love roundabouts because they operate from the premise that you keep moving unless there is someone already there to whom you must yield.

Much nicer than all-way stop signs that make you stop even if nobody else is around. https://www.gov.uk/using-the-road-159-to-203/roundabouts-184-to-190

Here's an explanation of what's going on at Arkansas Ave: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/24571/after-more-crashes-ddot-pledges-to-remove-arkansas-avenues-rush-hour-lane/ Long story short, they're removing the rush hour lane and striping in all day parking spots.

so -- with the marathon this sunday -- how will that affect getting to Union Station from upper northwest? Generally we travel down Massachusetts to Union Station. Will that work or will we need to find a brand new way to get there? Thanks

I think you'll be okay, as long as you're avoiding Rock Creek Parkway, which is part of the marathon route in that area.

If you follow this link, you will get to a page on the marathon Web site that includes a course description and a pdf printable map of the route.

When there are bike lanes that go through medians - like downtown on PA Ave - is the median still a bike lane or is it there for people to stand in?

There's not that much space in those medians at the intersections. But I think if everyone is obeying the traffic signals and stopping where they are supposed to stop, and going when they are supposed to go, it's manageable.

The problems come -- as usual -- when people don't follow the rules. Some pedestrians jaywalk and some cyclists go through the red lights.

They only work if there is not a lot of traffic. Have you ever tried to do the rte2 rotary in Concord MA. If you are on Rt2 it is fine the traffic flows but the side roads cannot get on. They did away with the Sagamore Rotary for the same reason. I prefer traffic lights. It is fair to everyone.

For some reason, Massachusetts drivers see the use of turn signals as a sign of weakness. I say that based on plenty of experience with the old Sagamore Rotary and the merges along Routes 3 and 6.

One of the first lessons my parents taught me when getting my license is never take a turn signal for what a driver will do. Since they can be left on by accident, the driver in the roundabout might not be exiting and if I enter, I get hit and I'm at fault. Don't enter the roundabout until the driver in the roundabout is exiting. Then you know you're safe to enter.

A very good point. I go with the philosophy of "Trust, but verify." The driver's turn signal gives you a useful clue on what's about to happen -- something to watch for -- but it's not decisive.

I get behind bikes on two lane, double yellow striped, no shoulder roads a lot. Knowing the 3 foot law and respecting it I will violate the line law and pass when I can but frequently the on coming does not allow this action. For miles I drive really slow. When we get to a red light don't you think it would be considerate of the rider to wait a short time after the light turns green to allow the cars to pass instead of running the red light as soon as the cross traffic allows and thereby continuing to slow the traffic? When you are riding under these conditions how to you react?

I obey the traffic laws -- just for spite. When cycling, I'm also more conservative that traffic laws say, or cycling advocates recommend. I'm one of those who waits for traffic to clear before proceeding through an intersection.

When driving behind a cyclist on a two-lane, double stripe road, I'll wait till the coast is clear, then swing out into the other lane to pass the cyclist. I'm not saying you should do what I do. It's illegal to cross a double yellow. It's also illegal to drive within three feet of a cyclist. This is a difficult area of the law and a place -- in my personal opinion -- where drivers need to exercise their best judgment on what's the safest way to proceed.

US, at least around here, opted for speed humps, Slows down the EMS and fire response times. City hall planning at its finest. Economy now going in circles. French built trains that won't fit stations. National planning and millions and millions lost. Buy good shoes! HAPPY MONDAY!

I sense anger. Don't drive angry.

Massachusetts tells Boston drivers to “Use Yah Blinkah ... The Washington Post May 9, 2014 - Police in Massachusetts think drivers aren't using their turn signals enough, so they have started a campaign that involves posting this ...

Mythbusters did a segment on rotaries a while ago. Spoiler alert - rotaries are more efficient. Here's the link http://www.wimp.com/testroundabout/

I learned to drive in Massachusetts and you have to be a bit fearless to drive into a rotary. There was a sign that looked like a sign you would see entering a town that said rotary. Visitors wondered how large Rotary, MA was.

What's the update on the H Street streetcar? And do we think this start date might stick?

I say they'll be taking passengers by the end of the year. And I certainly hope so, because back in January, I listed the opening of the streetcar line as one of my top 10 transportation stories for 2014. I don't want to have to list it again for 2015.

Regarding your answer, do you see the proposed Purple Line as important to Metro's future? And what do you think about the Green Line extension that Maryland is studying? Wouldn't it's connection of DC and Baltimore transit systems have a lot of benefits?

I didn't count the Purple Line in my previous answer because it's not a Metro project. (There was a point in the planning -- more than a decade ago, I think -- when there was a possibility it would be a Metro line. But it became a Maryland Transit Administration light-rail project.)

It is important to Metro's future in the sense that it will connect with other Metrorail and Metrobus services.

On the Green Line extension: This will not happen in our lifetime. And it probably shouldn't. The Baltimore-DC service is more appropriate for MARC service than for a subway line. There's not enough density along the route to justify a subway service.

Just FYI: Paul Duggan, my Post colleague who covers Metro transit, has a new story about Metro's push for the money to provide all eight-car trains at rush hour.

Some of the New Englanders are throwing around the term "rotary." A "rotary" is not the same thing as a roundabout. Among other things, a roundabout doesn't provide for the high-speed merging and weaving seen at Massachusetts' "rotaries" and DC's "traffic circles."

My observation: The roundabout designs are very sensible, but no guarantee that drivers will slow down to an appropriate speed. Engineering can't completely overcome human weaknesses.

I drive city streets very early in the morning and I have noticed the following with increasing frequency. Since it is early, there are often delivery trucks double parked in the only through lane available. Cars apparently believe it is their God-given right to pass the double parker, even when opposing traffic is present ! Somehow they expect that people obeying the law should wait their turn so they can violate it. It boggles my mind; wait for traffic to clear.

All types of travelers hate to break there momentum, no matter what the hazard. You cite one all-too-common example of this.

the most dangerous behavior i see among travelers is texting. awareness and predictability are obviously vital while moving through any city. despite laws and public safety campaigns, people still text while driving, cycling, and walking across a street all over dc. can you think of stronger sticks or juicier carrots that may cut down on texting while traveling? are there better ways to enforce the laws on the books?

We have some traffic laws that are better at raising awareness of a problem than they are at completely eliminating the bad behavior.

We should have the texting laws, without expecting that there could possibly be enough police to enforce them.

Wouldn't mind seeing the fines go higher, but that still wouldn't eradicate the behavior.

With texting while driving, I also wouldn't mind seeing the development of phone technology that will block call-making while driving, except to 911.

This is absurd: "On streets with a protected bike lane (L and M, particularly) and you want to make a turn, cross the bike lane in the designated mixing zone just before the intersection. Don't make your turn in the intersection from the straight-through lane and across the bike lane. Once I've made it through that mixing zone (treacherous in its own right, but at least predictable) I expect all cars to my left to be going straight, and if you turn right (especially if you don't have your blinker on) you'll nail me. It isn't fun for either of us, I promise." The turning car has every right to turn in the intersection as necessary. The only way it will nail you is if you are trying to go on the right side of the car as it passes through the intersection. The driver should be on the lookout for bikers, but bikers should not be passing cars in an intersection, especially if it has its turn signal on. I see this happen far too often in DC, especially at stop signs where bikers make no stop.

I think what the cyclist is asking is that drivers making right turns get as far to the right as possible in the designated zone before the intersection. That's the mixing zone.

The cyclist is saying that once past the designed mixing zone, where cars should begin their turns, the cyclist doesn't expect to encounter cars making right turns. That seems perfectly reasonable to me. It's supposed to be a way for both drivers and cyclists to avoid surprises.

Why are the highway engineers allowing such small rotaries to be built in outlying areas? The rotary in Brunswick, MD, at the base of the bridge over the Potomac is a great example. The turn is so tight that a truck cannot go around the rotary. Even at extremely slow speeds, they run over the center of the rotary. This is not helping traffic flow in the least.

I haven't seen that particular one. But I believe the modern roundabouts are engineered with the idea that big trucks are going to stray onto the middle of the rotary.

If the roundabouts were expanded so that big trucks could stay completely in the travel lanes, it would provide enough room for cars to go through at much higher speeds, defeating a major purpose of the roundabout, which is to slow traffic to a safe speed.

Oh my gosh "Until I see even a few cyclists obey traffic laws, I'm not going to do anything special to look out for them." you have no idea what fear this puts into cyclists. I commute every day to work by bike and believe me the vast majority of commuters on my route are waiting for the light to turn green right next to me, stopped at the light. Should we disregard other cars because many of them speed, or use cell phones, or fail to signal -- all of which are commonplace? This driver's attitude is absolutely frightening!!

Many bikers (unfortunately not the best ones) take to the sidewalks along Connecticut Avenue and other major thoroughfares because they may provide faster and sometimes safer travel than the bike lanes. Despite these reasons, which may seem compelling to them, it is not an acceptable practice. Bikes are typically silent and come up on sidewalk pedestrians from behind. catching us by suprise, brushing by us at hazardous speeds, and causing collisions which hurt the walker and the biker. Many times this happens on sidewalks next to designated bike lanes. Groups and families of bikers often travel together in this way, taking a swath out of the sidewalk. Evenings are particularly risky when bikes have no lights and no sound of warning. "Downhill racers" are another issue. Pedestrians have no options other than the sidewalks, and we are operating our own ecologically friendly mode of transportation. Please don't make it more difficult and dangerous than it already is.

I've heard from many pedestrians who feel threatened by bikes on the sidewalks, where they are banned in the Central Business District. (Though there are no signs to tell them where that is.)

Pedestrians talk about needing eyes in the backs of their heads just to travel on the sidewalk.

And I never buy the "They made me a criminal" defense, in which travelers of any sort say that some other traveler's behavior made them violate the rules and do something unsafe.

Thanks for joining me today. I'll be back next Monday -- I hope after successfully addressing your concerns about this coming weekend's travel disruptions.

Stay safe, and watch out for each other.

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 Get There blog, as well as in the Metro section of The Washington Post.
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