Nov 01, 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.

Hello, travelers. We can review the traffic and transit events of the past few days in the DC area, as well as look at the road and rail issues coming up. Now that it's November, we could also start getting into your holiday travel plans, as we do each year at this time.

Got a specific question, or just want to vent? Glad to hear from you.

You'll probably get a lot of these questions, but, Metro was clearly overworked this last weekend with the Rally attendees. How did metro alter dynamically, if at all, to the sudden ridership pressure? I think they started sending more trains to the end of the red line I was trying, largely unsuccessfully, to use. But I honestly have no idea that anything was actually done in response. Other than a few announcements, to "step away from the edge of the platform" there was no communication with the crowds. It seems like there could be a better, more informative response from metro. At least let us know that they acknowledge the crowding situations and are attempting to respond in some way?

Yep, we sure do have a lot of questions and comments about what happened Saturday on Metro. There was tremendous crowding on all the lines because of the Stewart/Colbert rally and other events in downtown DC.

So I think we'll spend lots of time on this today.

People did what everybody -- including me -- had recommended and took Metro to reach the events. What people found was that the parking lots and garages filled up early, the lines for the fare vending machines were really long and the platforms were very crowded. This started where it always does, as the outermost stations, but the trains were so crowded out there that people couldn't get on at the inner stations, so those platforms got jammed up, too.

Metrorail wound up setting a Saturday record: 825,437 trips were taken. That was bigger than the crowd for the Desert Storm parade back in 1991.

The normal crowd for a Saturday at this time of year is about 350,ooo.

I'll close this comment here and continue the discussion with more of your questions and comments.


Hi doc! No question, just a shout out that after 6 months of torture, the Bethesda escalator was back in service Friday afternoon. Guess all those stories on WTOP about it being put back in service today was a good push to make sure it was done. Now let's hope it stays in service for a long time!

The escalators between the platform and mezzanine went back into service on Oct. 22 after about a half year's repair program. On any given day, scores of escalators and elevators are out, but the Bethesda situation highlighted a problem that I think Metro should have figured out how to deal with by now.

If you know that you're going to stop one escalator to use as a stairway while you fix its neighbor, shouldn't you take into account the traffic jam that will create for the duration of the project? Shouldn't there be a way to speed up the repairs, or otherwise mitigate the impact on riders? This is not a new problem.

Here's what I wrote on the Dr. Gridlock blog after the escalator service was restored:


Why was Metro running a regular weekend schedule with all the events downtown this weekend? The crowds trying to get on the trains Saturday morning rivaled Fourth of July, but Metro was running 6 car trains 13 minutes apart?? What a disaster and yet another embarassment for Metro.

Metro followed its standard procedures: The transit authority keeps track of upcoming weekend events, gets in touch with the organizers and tries to anticipate the size of the crowds it will have to deal with.

After talking with the organizers of the Colbert/Stewart rally, Metro anticipated a crowd comparable to that for the Glenn Beck rally on Aug. 28. On that date, about 200,000 more people rode Metrorail than on a normal summer Saturday.

Metro asked the organizers if they wanted to pay for extra service -- an early opening or extra trains, or both. They didn't go for that option.

So Metro put on normal Saturday service, with some operators and equipment on standby in case the crowds got big and the platforms got overwhelmed.

Metro did add those extra trains, but they also were overwhelmed by a crowd beyond everyone's expectations.

Among the things Metro should look into in its review: Would it cost that much more to run eight-car trains during the day, even if it's going to be regular Saturday service?

Dr Gridlock - I'm dissapointed there was little coverage of the poor metro planning on Saturday. This was a very dangerous situation and metro seemed woefully underprepared. Hardly anyone on the Orange line could get on a train past Vienna and Metro did not have the staff available to deal with the large platform crowds at each station or have the foresight to run a rushhour schedule during the morning. Besides the obvious need of more trains, there should have been employees warning people at station entrances that the system was at capacity and they should seek alternative methods.

Anyone looking at our Web site on Saturday would have known that Metrorail was being overwhelmed with riders. Our reporters were filing feeds and plenty of riders were commenting about conditions.

Metro's plans turned out to be inadequate for the size of the crowd. But Metro did do planning. Transit officials always try to anticipate the size of a weekend crowd based on the scheduled events.

The crowd turned out to be way too big for the plan. The personnel and equipment that were on standby were thrown in, but that was far from adequate. Once that's obvious, there's not much backup. Even if Metro sent out an alert for personnel to come in, it wouldn't be possible to gear up to a rush-hour level in time to handle the crowds.

Where were the men and women who wear the orange-and-green safety vests on Saturday morning? They could have warned people at Rosslyn station not to stand on or near the granite edge of the upper platform.

More platform personnel would have helped all across the transit system on Saturday. Many people reported their concerns about the platform crowding.

Metro did put out extra personnel. Again, that's standard procedure. The transit authority knows certain things are going to happen with a rally on the Mall. For example, there are going to be plenty of people boarding at the outer stations who have no idea how to buy and use a Farecard. And some platforms are going to get crowded.

As of last week, the Stewart/Colbert rally looked like it might be easier to deal with than the Beck rally, just because of the geography of the Mall. The Beck rally was to the west, by the Lincoln Memorial. There are only a few stations that people would head for. Probably just Smithsonian, Foggy Bottom and -- if they had studied the map -- Arlington Cemetery. All on the Blue and Orange lines. The Colbert/Stewart rally was to the east, on the Capitol side. That opened up the possibility of using a lot more stations on all the lines. That would have relieved some of the pressure on the system -- if the crowd had been anywhere near the size it was on Aug. 28, the day of the Beck rally.


I didn't go to the Stewart-Colbert rally, but would have happily gone if I didn't have a schedule conflict. I am a long-time area resident and have seen that Metro normally does a good job handling even very large crowds, so I would have trusted Metro. I am concerned to see all the reports (or are they rumors?) that Metro failed to prepare, did not put on longer trains or more frequent trains, was blindsided by the huge size of the crowd, and suffered escalator problems well beyond the specific "roller coaster" incident where one escalator sped up. Did the rally organizers fail to coordinate with Metro? Did Metro fail to respond to a well-publicized huge event on its own, even if the organizers should have done more? Or did Metro do okay after all? I haven't heard anything bad about Metro's performance the next day, the Marine Corps Marathon, but then again, that's a really predictable though big event that they have handled every year. Still -- a big rally? in DC? isn't that pretty common too?

Metro definitely did not do okay on Saturday. The transit authority is supposed to be able to move large crowds around safely and relatively quickly.

But what to recommend? Metro did plan. But the size of the Saturday crowd was well beyond expectations. Once that happened, Metro had trouble adjusting.

Metro also planned for Sunday's Marathon crowd. That was more predictable. And the event organizers paid for an early opening and extra service. Like you, I haven't heard anycomplaints about the Sunday service.

I'm sure you're getting lots of comments on what a terrible job metro did on Saturday and I just wanted to write in and say that I thought metro did a pretty decent job considering the circumstances. I don't think anyone expected so many people on Saturday - but I made it in and out of the city in what I considered a reasonable time - from Grosvenor on the red line. It was SRO, but I had a seat on the way in and the way out, the crowds were in good spirits and things went smoothly in light of all of the people and extensive track maintenance over the weekend. One other comment - in light of its financial troubles, I think metro should charge more for big events. Thanks for doing these chats!

I was wondering about that, too. We haven't yet discussed whether we think Metro on its own should decide to add service beyond what it actually expects to handle and take responsibility for the costs.

Taking responsibility for the costs means charging riders more or getting the supporting jurisdictions to raise their Metro subsidy -- taxpayer money. I'm not sure what the level of public support would be for either option.

 Metro doesn't charge peak fares during the day on weekends. Should Metro charge peak fares if it knows there's an event on the Mall? Every event on the Mall?

If Metro charges higher rates on weekends, it will have to charge everyone the same, whether or not they're going to the event.

What was the ridership the day of the Beck rally?

Hi Doc! Any idea if something has changed with the AM S bus schedule down 16th? Maybe I just got used to lighter ridership in the summer, but over the past couple of months, I thought the waits have been longer and the buses have been more packed than they used to be. I also haven't seen any of the extra-long double buses on that route lately. Is it just me or have they cut back?

I haven't heard of any cutbacks on the S routes down 16th Street, which is one of the most heavily used lines in the Metro system. The return of traffic after summer would certainly have affected the buses, throwing them more off schedule than they otherwise would be.

As you know, Metro sought to improve service on the line by adding the S9 limited stop service. One advantage of the S9 is that it departs from a stop away from the congestion around Silver Spring Station, but it still has to operate through some congestion on 16th Street.

When one lane is ending, who has the right of way when cars are merging: the car in the lane ending, the car in the lane that is continuing, or whatever car is in front of the other (even if only a few inches)?

One thing I noticed in the Stewart rally: He ended by showing an image of merging traffic, and used it to make a point about how we all need to get along. Most people will do the right thing. There are some knuckleheads. But we've got to expect that and deal with it.

Traffic in a lane that's ending doesn't have the right of way. They're not supposed to smash into the cars in the lane that goes through. But many traffic engineers recommend a zipper merge in that situation. Cars should take turns going through the bottleneck.

That said, it's not horrible if two cars from one lane go through, even if they're the mergers. The goal is to be safe, not to get through the bottleneck ahead of the Lexus in the next lane.

Dr. Gridlock, I have a problem that isn't related to transportation for you to solve: Your column often does NOT appear in the Metro section listing of articles on Sundays on the online edition of the paper, I have to manually search for it in the search bar. Also, the Dr. Gridlock blog no longer appears in the list of blogs on the front page of the Washington Post site. Could these issues be looked into and fixed?

Yes, that's a problem from time to time with the columns and the Commuter page features that appear in The Post every Sunday. They occasionally don't wind up on the pages where the links are supposed to be collected.

I'll ask about that today -- since I really want you to see that stuff.

But the Dr. Gridlock blog link couldn't be more prominent on the Local home page: It's right there at the top, with my picture next to it. (See

Hi Doc - I was wondering if you knew whether VDOT had any plans to pave I-66 from the Beltway to Route 50. That concrete section is really rough with some serious potholes. I "fell" in one the other night and my alignment is now off!

Supposed to start early next year.

The Marine Corp Marathon traffic yesterday was the worst I have ever encountered in all my years in Washington, including previous Marathon weekends. I had a flight out of National Airport and was literally unable to get there by car from any direction -- even leaving the District entirely and coming back through Virginia. When we finally inched up to the airport exit, it was closed. Why would this be? Was the traffic in fact worse? Were the road closures less well-publicized? Was anything else going on?

It's possible there were more people in town this weekend, because of all the weekend events. Many people may have stayed over from Saturday, for example. The traffic plan and the Metro plan were pretty much the same as they've been in the past few years.


Stop saying this because it's a lie. The Red, Green and Orange lines were single tracking, slowing service even more. When Metro saw the date of the rally they should have suspended track work (like they do on the 4th of July) and at the absolute least, have regular sat service with no single tracking. I understand metro has to do track work, but they should have used common sense here and suspended it for this weekend.

Weekend track work is normal. Metro doesn't like to suspend track work unless there's something huge going on. Maybe if Metro had known there were going to be so many riders on Saturday, it would have considered suspending the track work. But suspending it would be quite costly. For example, out of town contractors working on the Rockville platform would still have to be paid. And the work on the Orange Line was supposed to set up the huge maintenance project scheduled for this coming weekend.

In the second lane from the right going northbound on the 14th street bridge, there is now a ridge right about where a car's right tire would go that was not there before the construction. Are they planning on fixing it? It is right wehere my tire is and makes my car want to veer one way or another. Really annoying.

I'm sure they are, since the project is not nearly done. But I'll ask DDOT about it. There are safety standards on how high those ridges can be during construction.

You mentioned that Metro asked whether the organizers wanted to pay for extra train service, and they did not. Of course not -- that shouldn't be their responsibility. Don't the extra fares cover the cost? Metro should be eager to run extra trains if they fill them with riders. At least, I think so.... the key question is, how many riders does it take to make a train profitable for Metro? Or do they lose money no matter what?

Everytime you ride Metro, Metro loses money. The transit system is subsidized by the region's taxpayers, many of whom don't ride Metro.

I really doubt the general public would support the idea of boosting Metrorail service everytime there's a big event in the region, and not asking the event sponsors to pay the extra cost.

I know you're getting a lot of Metro questions, but I'm hoping you can help me figure out how much time it will take me to drive from DC (Chinatown) to BWI on Wednesday to pick someone up at 5:30, and also what the best route is to take. Thanks!

I would leave at 3:30, and take New York Ave to the BW Parkway.

But check traffic reports before you leave Wednesday afternoon and keep the car radio on while you're driving. Every day is different.

Dr. Gridlock blog:

Dr. Gridlock Twitter: @drgridlock

Live traffic map:


"Metro also planned for Sunday's Marathon crowd. That was more predictable. And the event organizers paid for an early opening and extra service. Like you, I haven't heard anycomplaints about the Sunday service." I don't think this can be stressed enough. The organizer could have paid for increased service and chose not to.

That's true, but I don't mean that in the sense of the rally organizers were to blame for what happened. Marine Corps Marathon organizers, by contrast, can pretty much estimate the size of the crowd. People register for the run.

We don't have much precedent for a Comedy Central rally on the Mall, and nobody had to sign up to attend.

And I was going to work, not the rally. And I happen to be pretty broke right now. But the situation was unacceptably dangerous. Tons of people paid reduced fare only to not get to their destination at all, and some got injured along the way... Just my two cents.

Thanks, and I'm sure a lot of people this past Saturday would have emptied their wallets to finance an extra train.

But I'm also pretty sure that many riders would not be willing to pay extra routinely for extra weekend service.

My wife is a regular commuter, but I am only an occasional rider and it always strikes me as odd when I go to a major event, that I pay that much less than she does on a regular basis. The point right now is that Metro is trying to get by with charging regular riders (e.g. commuters) with the bulk of its costs, e.g. peak fares. But clearly that is not enough as anyone familiar with Metro's budget woes knows. I think anytime there is a special event where they expect increased attendance (games at Fed Ex field, rallies on the mall, marathons downtown, parades, inauguration, etc) that Metro should implement peak fares. Let the riders who are using the system pay their way. I bet that will make a huge dent in balancing the WMATA budget and getting them to get repairs and improvements done in a more reasonable time frame. Isn't that worth it?

I believe a lot of people would agree with the basic idea of charging more for riding, especially charging more on event days.

But the more I try to play that through, the more complicated it gets. For example, this is the US capital region, and one of the biggest metro regions in the nation. There are special events all the time. Seems like figuring out when to charge extra, and informing the riders of the extra charges, would be a nightmare.

Meanwhile, no transit system I know of in a metro area charges riders the full cost of a ride. Part of the idea is to benefit everyone by drawing people off the roads.

We've had a few variations on this question about the Red Line: 

It seems that the Red Line is slower around Friendship Heights but I can't seem to find anything on Metro's website (no big surprise). Is there track work going on which requires speed limits?


There's been a pretty severe speed restriction between Bethesda and Friendship Heights on the red line but I've heard nothing about it. Any idea why?

Do you know why there is a slowdown between Bethesda and Friendship Heights on the Red Line? It started last week, and trains come to a crawl before going back to regular speed


For a couple weeks now, Red Line trains have been crawling between Bethesda and Friendship Heights in both directions. This brought to mind a question I asked in a previous Q&A session - why can't Metro publish on their website a list of speed restrictions currently in place within the Metrorail system, along with an estimated return to normal speed? This would be a relatively simple and not very time-consuming way to show that they really do care about customer experience. They already do this for escalator and elevator outages, and knowing how much additional time I need to add for my commute would be very helpful.

Several people today are asking about a slowdown in that area. There's track work between Shady Grove and Twinbrook, but I haven't heard of anything closer in, between Bethesda and Friendship Heights.

Perhaps trains are slowing down in the work zone, and that's causing delays down the line. I'll ask.

With the new transit pre-tax benefits changing to a maximum of $120 a month, could I max out my December contribution (say $75 over what a normally spend), and have it roll over? I know there was talk at some point of having any positive balance from the smart trip accounts be returned to the employer, so it may be a wash anyways. I am a private employee, so the transit benefit is my pre-tax contribution, not my employers.

The SmartBenefits situation remains unclear. See this posting by Luke Rosiak on the Dr. Gridlock blog:

any update on the Ohio Street road work? I had heard it might be done this week -- or at least reopened to make a difference to those of us trying to get from NOVA to DC across the memorial bridge. Thanks,

Each Monday, I do a posting on the blog called The week ahead in traffic, transit. Here's what I had this morning on the Ohio Drive situation:

The planned completion of the Ohio Drive reconstruction near the Lincoln Memorial has been pushed back two weeks, to Nov. 15.

Work on the middle of the drive is scheduled to be done next week, with the exception of the final asphalt and striping, the National Park Service says. The old traffic pattern is schedule to resume after the center phase is complete. At that point, the morning rush hour pattern will have both inbound and outbound traffic, with all lanes open. The afternoon pattern will return to four lanes outbound.

After completion of the center phase, the final asphalt and striping will be placed. So watch for full closures in both directions from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. nightly. Work will consist of milling 1 to 2 inches of asphalt off the roadway that leads toward the Kennedy Center. The final placement of asphalt and road markings is scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 12- 15, weather permitting.

Have you tried to get representatives from METRO, CSX, MARC,VRE or AMTRAK as guests during these online chats? While you provide a lot of information, there are questions that relate to those transportation companies that you can't answer. Having a rep there from time to time would be great.

That's a good suggestion. I haven't had too many guests over the years, but I think you're right that readers would like that.

What are the chances that metro will increase fares again next year? They seem to be intent on raising fares and decreasing service. I wish metro would take into account people who are feds and don't get their metro fares paid for by their employer. Many of us have to pay these out of our pockets and these hit lower lower and moderate income people harder-most of whom can't telecommute to avoid these increases. The only solution I see is for employers to allow more people to telecommute and to better subside parking for their employees. What can we do to pressure more employers to step to the plate since it's clear metro will not improve anytime soon?

I think there's a decent chance for another fare increase next summer. Metro doesn't build in cushion in its budgets. In fact, some of its revenue projections can be overly optimistic.

Teleworking is a great solution. Parking subsidies are part of the problem.

Travelers, I know you've got many more questions and comments, but I must sign off now. The vast majority of the comments have to do with the Metro situation on Saturday. I'll make a copy of all the comments and see if I can post some things on the Dr. Gridlock blog over the next 24 hours. Definitely something more on the Metro situation.

Please come on back next Monday to chat again. (I have a feeling we'll still have problems to discuss.)

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: