The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock

Dec 16, 2013

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

Welcome, travelers. We've got questions and comments about driving, transit, biking and walking issues. But I'd like to start with a question about drivers and pedestrian safety. The questioner might want to write back.

Hi Dr. G, Thanks for taking my question. I sometimes take the 3T Metrobus from West Falls Church to the Kennedy Road stop, where there is a crosswalk. There are signs in both directions alerting drivers that there is a crosswalk ahead, and that the speed limit is 20 mph, but it seems that more recently, drivers are speeding by to get up the hill to Route 7. They have no regard for the possibility of pedestrians. It is certainly harder to see at night, and I use a flashlight, but I just heard that someone had recently been hit at that intersection. I'm wondering: couldn't a police officer write tickets for speeders if he/she were stationed there? Wouldn't that be a good idea? What are some other options for changing the behavior there? Thank you!

Hope I'm thinking of the right spot, so please write back and either confirm or deny: At the intersection of Magarity Road and Kennedy Drive, in a residential neighborhood just north of Route 7 and east of the Capital Beltway, there's a crosswalk by a 3T stop on Magarity Road.

There's a lot going on at this complicated intersection, some left turn lanes and several joining roadways, plus hills and curves that could reduce visibility for both drivers and pedestrians.

The only part of the speeding issue that surprises me is that the commenter describes it as "recent." It's rare in our region to find drivers obeying a 20 mph speed limit -- or a 65 mph limit, for that matter.

Yes, a Fairfax County police officer with radar equipment could write tickets. Basic enforcement like that has value. Because there are so many locations like this in our region, police and safety officials in transportation departments generally look for other solutions, including placing those electronic signs that show "Your Speed."

Some jurisdictions enhance the crosswalks, sometimes using additional warning signs, sometimes using more paint. Or -- if they can get the money -- they redesign the intersection to slow traffic and provide pedestrians with safety zones on either side of the crossing and in the median.

The least likely thing is installation of a regular traffic signal. Some jurisdictions place flashing lights that can be activated by pedestrians. But these go to high-volume pedestrian crossings.

One thing about this location -- if I've got the spot right -- is that there really isn't much alternative for pedestrians but to cross here. For one thing, it's a bus stop location. There are many residences on either side of the roadway. And there's not a signaled intersection within reasonable walkign distance.

Good morning. Parts of the HOV lanes on both inbound and outbound I-66 outside the Beltway are separated from the adjacent lane of traffic by either a single solid line or a double solid line. Is this lane changing control only in force when the HOV lane is in force or should drivers never cross into and out of the HOV lanes with these markings? (I assume the lane markings are not time dependent.)

Drivers are not permitted to cross double white lines at any time. It doesn't matter whether the HOV rules are in force at that particular time.

Of course, some drivers violate this white line rule, just as they violate the HOV rule.

Regarding the piece about high prices pushing people off metro, I've found myself using the bus more with its free smartrip transfers. I'm not in a rush. The trip finder function on the WMATA website lets me find good connections and the $1.60 cost is good. From my area, I always get a seat, and either read or watch the scenery go by.

In my Sunday column, I described the concern among Metro's financial officers about the apparently growing sensitivity among riders to the cost of Metrorail.

This influences Metro's approach to the proposed fare increases for 2014. The financial officers need to balance the transit budget. They use fare increases to do that. But there estimates on revenue can be thrown off if a lot of people stop riding because they don't want to pay the extra money.

This wasn't much of an issue during the 90s and early 2000s, but riders became more sensitive to price during the economic downturn and during the ups and downs of the federal transit benefit, which is about to go down again.

Watch the upcoming debate on the Metro board over whether the bus fares should go up as much as the transit staff has proposed -- or go up at all.

If Metro can't raise the bus fares as much as proposed, it's going to get that money either from the local jurisdictions that subsidize Metro or from greater increases in the Metrorail fares.

A piece in yesterday's Post about Metrorail returning to automatic train controls (some day, maybe) contained the interesting tidbit that about 80% of current Metrorail train operators came on the job in the last 5 years. This implies that a similar number left the job in that period. Are the old operators retiring, quitting, getting fired, earning promotions (to what?), becoming bus drivers? Are the new operators coming from other Metro jobs or are they hired from outside? 80% turnover in less than 5 years sounds like a lot given the training needed to do the job. Is Metro management unhappy with this turnover rate? What are they doing about it? Is the Post looking into this?

Yes, that was an interesting statistic in Paul Duggan's story about Metro's efforts to restore automatic control of train operations. Here's the full paragraph:

"Of the agency’s 535 operators, a Metro spokeswoman said, 417 started their jobs after the 2009 [Red Line] crash, when automatic train operation was halted."

I don't know how that compares with any other similar period in Metrorail's history, and also don't know whether this includes additional train operators hired in the build up for the start of Silver Line service.

I have a TomTom GPS that gets traffic data via radio signals. I thought it might be handy to use on my commute as it would find me a faster route. But, I find it gets too annoying as it keeps recommending another route that it claims is faster. It can't make up its mind. While I welcome an alternate route if it will be faster, I don't want to change routes 10 times. In my opinion, if it can't pick one route, it must be time to stop for dinner and wait until things clear out a bit.

I use several navigation systems -- and listen to the radio traffic reports -- while driving, but have no experience with the type of GPS service that also provides traffic reports.

In fact, I would avoid a system like the one the commenter describes -- one that is offering frequent updates on routes. Wouldn't that be distracting?

On the other hand, it's important for travelers to consider alternative routes, for their sanity and their safety. Commuters should know their options, and that could take a variety of forms.

It might mean that a driver knows a bailout route if trouble develops. Or that driver might know to take Metrorail as an alternative when traffic is particularly bad. Or a Metrorail rider might need to know where to transfer trains if there's a lengthy delay on the usual route. Or how to find a Metrobus stop or what walking route might be reasonable from a certain station.

But these are things I urge commuters to study in advance, when things are calmer, rather than to try on the fly during a commuting crisis.

I just took a look at Google Street View to see the place mentioned in the first question. There is no "20 mph speed limit" there. The 20 mph appears on a yellow warning sign in advance of the curve. Yellow signs are recommended speeds, not actual speed limits; the actual speed limits appear on the usual white signs with black text and the signs always say "SPEED LIMIT" (the yellow signs do not include those words). The actual speed limit on Magarity is 35 mph. Now, none of that is meant to excuse people who blow through that crosswalk. It looks to me like it would be an ideal place for the yellow lights that get embedded in the pavement and that then flash when a pedestrian pushes the button to cross. I'm not aware of Fairfax County having those sorts of lights anywhere, but I know Alexandria has them at the intersection of Stevenson Avenue and Yoakum Parkway. They really grab your attention, especially at night.

Thank you. One thing I meant to comment on in the original exchange is that the bus rider is smart to have a flashlight to increase visibility at night.

I'm amazed by the number of pedestrians who wear dark clothing while walking at night. Like the commenter here, I don't excuse drivers who blow through crosswalks, but do think there are things pedestrians can do to protect themselves.

Just like businesses provide complimentary parking for X amount of time, why doesn't METRO provide the same thing -- it would encourage people to take public transportation to do shopping and errands. For instance, Trader Joe's in Clarendon (right at Metro stop) provides free parking for 1-2 hrs -- have Metro do same -- like they do for crossing between the Farraguts.

I understand the benefit you're trying to achieve, but please consider this: Free parking at Metro stations would encourage driving as much as it would encourage transit use.

Parking at Metro stations varies, but generally, they're pretty crowded at the hours when parking rates apply. Metro could adjust the parking rates up or down to balance that out, but I don't see the social value of bringing more cars to Metro stations.

Dr. G, I noticed that Alexandria is not bending down to the aggressive outside bike lobby groups (Coalition for Smart Growth). Alexandria isn't the only city not expanding bike lanes. Do you see this as a trend. Seems like it was only a matter of time when pressure to expand bike lanes benefiting 1 percent of the population while inconveniencingeveryone else would reach its limits.

Are you referring to the decision by Alexandria's Traffic and Parking Board against adding bike lanes on part of King Street. Jonathan Krall had a good article on this on the Greater Greater Washington blog.

The overall trend I see is toward government support for bike lanes in urban areas. In fact, I think that's one of the biggest trends in urban transportation so far this century.

D.C. is building a new cycle track on M Street NW, to parallel the one on L Street. Fairfax County is looking to enhance biking options for reaching the new Silver Line stations. Bikeshare has recently expanded stations in Montgomery County.

The issues in the King Street controversy seem about the same as the issues elsewhere: Drivers, bikers and pedestrians all fight over who owns the streets.

Any idea how long it took for traffic to clear Friday afternoon after the overturned box truck on American Legion backed it up for hours and hours? I had been trying to get from Reston to Baltimore, but eventually gave up and had my Baltimore family come to me in Alexandria instead.

I don't know how long it took to clear that early afternoon truck crash, though I think you made the right call in suggestion the family meet you in Alexandria.

The Beltway's inner loop near the Legion Bridge doesn't need any help to get congested during a weekday afternoon. And as drivers are painfully aware, there's no good alternative for crossing the Potomac in that area.

Friday's water main break on Canal Road led to severe gridlock in the area. The intersection of Wilson Boulevard and Lynn St. in Rosslyn was particularly bad and was made worse by drivers (including Metrobuses) "blocking the box" during every single light cycle. This went on for hours. Why on Earth did Arlington County not send police to direct traffic? They will occasionally do so during the morning rush. Why not on Friday during a situation that clearly necessitated it?

I don't know why officers weren't there. As you can see from the previous comment, traffic was exceptionally bad across the D.C. region on Friday afternoon, but blocking the box is a common problem, even on good days. In fact, it's the essential ingredient in "gridlock."

None of our jurisdictions has enough police officers to go around for this type of traffic control duty. D.C. has its traffic control officers, part of the District Department of Transportation, but that force also is not big enough to manage the number of intersections that need attention.

Last week, WTOP had a story saying that VDOT was looking at proposals to deal with the traffic issues on I-66. I am glad to see they realize it is a problem, but frown upon any solution that involves creating toll lanes on I-66. They need to focus on capacity for everyone, not just the rich.

VDOT has been studying the traffic problems on I-66 for several years, in several different studies. In June, the department asked for private sector ideas for improvements outside the Beltway, including converting the HOV lanes to high-occupancy toll lanes, like those on the west side of the Beltway.

I think Virginia is quite likely to puruse that option, but it's not going to be the only option for I-66, where traffic is so bad, no one solution is going to improve things.

I just said "improve things." When traffic planners discuss the future, they're not so positive. They talk about making things "less worse" than they would be if nothing was done.

Hi, I noticed that the HOV lane entrance on 395 north right after Pentagon City didn't say "Open to All Traffic" yesterday when I was hopping on as usual to get over the 14th Street Bridge more quickly. Have they changed the rules or just turned off the sign?

There's been no change in the HOV rules and hours, so I'm not sure why you saw that on a Sunday. There might have been a problem with the sign. Or perhaps there was some weekend work underway in the HOV lanes.

How would free parking encourage driving? For many of us, we would never take a bus to a metro station. However, you include free parking and I am very likely to take Metro downtown. (assuming there is parking avaliable).

I think that to take advantage of free parking at Metro stations, people would drive to the Metro stations.

There may be government support for bike lanes. However that does not equal public support.

In a June poll of the D.C. region, The Post asked:

"Do you approve or disapprove of Washington, D.C.'s efforts to increase the number of bike lanes on major roads?"

Among all adults in the D.C. region, 66 percent said they approved.


This is a minor thing, but as a daily bus rider, it drives me nuts: in the past couple of years, I've noticed a change where riders now tend to keep their (giant) backpacks and bags on while they ride the bus, often hitting people with them. Taking off your backpack and holding it at your feet actually creates more room for people to squish up when the bus is standing room only and prevents you from hitting people in the face. If people can't be motivated by consideration for their fellow riders, how about being concerned that wearing a backpack on a crowded bus leaves you vulnerable to being pickpocketed?

My only quibble with your comment is the reference to "the past couple of years." For many, many years, this has been one of the top complaints I get from transit riders -- bus and train -- about the behavior of other transit riders.

Shows up especially during the summer tourist season, and at peak travel times -- like the December holidays.

I had to chuckle at the commenter about a supposed "aggressive outside bike lobby" and the suggestion that only one percent of people who ride bikes. I don't know about these agressive or outside people but we could sure use more bike lanes. Actually, the number of bike riders covers loads of people and not just the much smaller number of bike COMMUTERS (which is several times the number quoted by the writer and that number is growing exponentially each year). I'm a bike commuter and sometimes car commuter, and believe me cars are much more influential. Fortunately biking infrastructure is growing rapidly. I hope that the 14 parking spaces at issue in Alexandria might be given over to bike lanes, not just for bike commuters but for all bike riders to enjoy a great and healthy way to get around town.

It's not the context in which I'm used to hearing references to outside agitators.

However, with most transportation projects -- highways, rail, bus rapid transit, bike lanes -- the basic political divide is between the people who live near the project, who often see ways they will be hurt by it, and those who live farther away but are more likely to benefit from using it.

While I don't think that parking at Metro stations should be free, I think that we need to be realistic and understand that lots and lots of people aren't going to be walking or biking to Metro. I'm a woman in her late 50s with osteoporosis who hasn't ridden a bike since high school. There's ZERO chance that I'm going to start riding a bike down Route 7 to get to the Silver line. If there isn't parking, then I'll just continue driving my car to work, no matter what the politicians in Fairfax County want me to do. Let's get real.

I think you should drive. I'd drive too if I were you.

I'm not sure what you're starting point is, but if you do want to ride the Silver Line, there's going to be a huge new parking lot at Wiehle Avenue. (And for those who want to bike, there's a large and very nice-looking bike parking area, too.)

This doesn't answer the poster's question about calming the traffic at Magarity and Kennedy, but the speed limit on Magarity is 35 mph; the 20 mph to which the poster refers is an advisory limit (yellow sign).

The WaPo also conducted a poll that showed great support for Metro. Does your mail reflect that most people think that everything is swell with Metro?

People generally don't write to Dr. Gridlock because they like something about our transportation system. Judging strictly from my mail, people hate highways, Metrorail, Metrobus, bike lanes and crosswalks.

Traffic on I-66 East seems to backup each morning near the beltway. Most of the time, as soon as I reach the ramp to the beltway, it is a breakaway point and traffic is suddenly light. What is causing the backup when there isn't a delay on either inner or outerloop at I-66?

That's one of the most difficult traffic spots in the D.C. region, though I think it's a bit better since the express lanes opened. When I look at the traffic maps and cameras during the morning rush, the worst spots on I-66 East are around Manassas and around the junction with Route 50.

I think some of what you see at the Beltway is drivers changing lanes to use either the left or right exits onto the Beltway. But once they reach the Beltway, conditions are generally better than they were before the express lanes opened.

We're heading to CT on Saturday - when is the best time to leave? We're currently thinking about leaving early evening (around 5 or 6) but we're not sure what to expect traffic-wise.

I think you will be fine at that time. In fact, the main thing I'd worry about is driving drowsy on a trip that's late and long.

Of course, you'll want to watch the weather forecast and the current traffic conditions all along your route, but if you're worried about holiday getaway traffic, I think that won't be much of a factor for you. There will be plenty of people taking all of Christmas week for long distance trips, but they will spread out there travels. It's not like Thanksgiving. (I'll have more about the holiday getaway in my Thursday column in the Local Living section.)

Hi Dr G, Yes, that sounds exactly right. Thank you so much for taking my question. I'm sorry I couldn't write back sooner! You're right that there's not a better option right there at the base of the hill. But I'm thinking for my own safety, I'm going to get off the bus sooner, at the top of the hill. My best-case scenario is to take the 28 buses to Route 7 and walk from there, because at least at the top of the hill you can see the traffic coming in both directions. Do you think it's worth contacting the police to request their presence?

Yes, I do, but you might also enlist the help of the Fairfax County supervisor's office for that area. Also -- and this may help others thinking of similar road issues -- you can contact the Virginia Department of Transportation at 800-FOR-ROADS. Or use this link to the online VDOT form. VDOT wouldn't be dispatching police officers, so here, I'm thinking of requests for safety improvements done through road engineering.

Travelers, thanks for joining me today. I'll be back again next Monday, but for those of you planning to start your getaways before that, happy holidays. And as always, please be careful -- even if the getaway is just a shopping expedition to the mall.

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