Dr. Gridlock

Dec 23, 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, to our last chat of 2013. What do you think the big transportation stories were this year? I'll give you my top 10 list in Sunday's Post, but among my candidates, many are projects or transportation developments that won't display their full impact till next year or beyond.

For example, there was a lot of preparation this year for the Silver Line opening -- bus route planning, for example. But we won't really know how successful that was till 2014, or later.

Just how bad do you think I-95 will be tomorrow going south to Richmond? I want to be able to get there by 1pm, so I figure I better leave before 9.

Leaving before 9 a.m. is the smart thing to do. If we're going to have heavy traffic anywhere for the Christmas getaway, it's almost certainly going to be on I-95 in Northern Virginia.

The weather will be better on Tuesday morning than it is today, so that helps. The thing that really helps is that many people already have gotten where they are going. This is not like the Tuesday or Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when many drivers are forced to wait till almost the last minute before launching their holiday getaways.

Still, many working stiffs won't be able to get away till Christmas Eve and the bad timing won't stop them.

I've been there: Once drove from NYC to Cape Cod in an overnight snowstorm. What was normally a four-hour trip took 1o hours. And I'd do it again to be home for Christmas.

When I took drivers ed many many years ago I was taught to yield to cars backing out of parking spaces -- you can see them better than they can see you. That doesn't seem to be the norm around here. What do they teach today?

I got my driver's license in Texas, so I'm not sure what's taught around here. In the wide open spaces around El Paso, we didn't do much driver's ed practicing in parking lots.

I was taught, more generally, to yield to drivers who would have a tough time seeing me, and as the commenter says that applies perfectly to parking lot scenarios.

I did a Dr. Gridlock blog posting this morning with a section about parking safety during these last two shopping days before Christmas. That's because I share the commenter's concern about safety in these areas. Everybody is tense and everybody is distracted.

I could summarize what I wrote with this tip: When in doubt about someone else’s intentions, resort to courtesy.

Is there any chance that the Dulles Greenway could implement distance-based tolling like they do on the ICC? I can't justify spending $5+ to go an exit or two, so I don't use it. They've already eliminated most of the toll operators so they might as well go all-electronic - just put up a few gantries and they could do distance-based EZPass/video tolling. Could this ever happen?

Unlike Maryland's Intercounty Connector, the Dulles Greenway is privately owned. In fact, that makes it different from any other toll road in the D.C. region, including the 495 Express Lanes, which are privately operated, but were created under a different type of deal with the Commonwealth of Virginia, which still owns the land.

I think the Greenway owners would create distance-based tolling if the private owners thought it would make more money than the roadway now does.

The infrastructure required for distance based tolling would be more expensive than the current system, so the owner would have to believe that distance-based tolling would increase Greenway use enough to justify the expense.

I've said that the HOT lanes created by Virginia's public/private partnerships may be the way of the future -- or at least one way, on highly traveled roads -- and I think we're likely to see them eventually on I-66. But the Greenway experience, with those high tolls sometimes referred to as "highway robbery" does not seemed to have encouraged interest anywhere around here in more privately owned highways.


I drove to New York on Saturday and came home last night. Compared with the time estimate on the GPS, I think the trip only took an extra 20 minutes and that can likely be associated with stopping for gas. I had expected heavier traffic going past Baltimore and entering New York. Wasn't this supposed to be the weekend people head out for their holiday trips. I guess I shouldn't complain that traffic wasn't a problem and the weather was great.

I think you're experience illustrates the point I try to make about the December holiday getaway: Several million people leave the D.C. region, but they don't all leave at once.

That's always true, but this year, more so, because the Christmas and New Year's holidays fall smack in the middle of the weeks. Most years, the holidays create three-day or four-day weekends, and we get a bit more traffic at the start and finish.

This year, some people are away for two weeks, some for one, some create five-day weekends on one side or the other of the holiday. And some, like the I-95 to Richmond traveler in the earlier comment, must wait till Christmas Eve to leave.

All that said, the trickiest traveling may be to airport parking areas, which tend to be especially crowded in late December. And in this case, the spreading out of departure times may not benefit you. The parking areas may already be jammed by the time you get there.

I had some getaway tips about the airports in a recent column.

Metro has fastened on the idea of having quite large work stations to help the esca;ator repair people in fixing up the escalators. The inconvenience that this is causing the riding public is quite viewable at the L'Enfant Station where the large boxes on the other end create crowded conditions for people coming and going from the lower level to the mezzanine. In addition, at one escalator on the side heading to Branch Avenue the routes around that escalator on both sides are blocked for pedestrian traffic creating a small aisle on the track side for people to move to the platform or to the lower levels. Although worker convenience is a priority, so should passenger safety.

I also worry about the widths for people walking on the platforms. Farragut North passengers, for example, endured narrowed paths on the L Street entrance side for more than a year.

I'm not sure what the solution is -- other than to encourage the transit authority to get the repairs and rebuildings done faster. Workers aren't always present when passengers are, but when the work is underway, the crews need a safe space too.

With the main plaza toll going up to $2.50, can MWAA get rid of those useless "Coins Only" exact change lanes at the main toll plaza? NO ONE has $2.50 in change laying around. I'd love to see them take attendants out of the ramp plazas and open up more full-service lanes at the main plaza. Then the ramp plazas could finally have an EZPass only lane - I'm sick of sitting behind drivers fishing for change. And can't they modify the self-service lanes with machines that take dollar bills like PA does on PA Route 60? In NJ, ramp plazas on the AC Expressway have change machines. Back when tolls were 25 cents, there was no issue but with higher tolls they should put in new equipment to facilitate collecting those tolls.

I don't know of any plans to eliminate the coins only lanes at the main toll plaza. The complaints I hear are about the toll itself, which will go up on Jan. 1.

But I agree with the point the commenter makes. A coins only lane is losing its role in 21st century driving.

Toll collections have been in transition for a while now. Many of you will remember when only one or two lanes at toll plazas accepted E-ZPass.

Now we have some highways, like the Intercounty Connector and the 495 Express Lanes  that don't even have toll plazas.

One of the perks of working during the same week as Christmas is the fact the rush hour commute is lighter than normal with a lot of parents staying home to watch the kids while school is on break. Oh, how I wish more commutes were like this. Even with the rain, traffic was still better than usual this morning.

Traffic this morning was remarkably light, and I expect that will continue through this week into next. (The only places I spotted congestion were two notorious bottlenecks: the Capital Beltway outer loop through Silver Spring and D.C. 295 South to the 11th Street Bridge.)

This week's experience will be a reminder of the potential benefits of teleworking. Workers don't have to do it everyday -- it's not an all or nothing thing. But if they could do it just a few days a month, it would make a big difference in easing the highway and Metrorail crowding.

The simplest thing to do, although not as easy during this time of year, is just take the first spot you see. They you can avoid the people who are desperate for the closest in spots. And more often than not you will get inside the mall before they even find a spot. Also, during the rest of the year try for a pull-through. Then you are driving out and will have a much better view out.

That's a sane strategy. Couple of extra thoughts for everybody:

Walking through a parking area requires your full attention. Don't get so worried about remembering your lists, or balancing your packages, that you pay no attention to oncoming drivers or drivers backing out of spaces. They're likely to be just as distracted as you are.

And this may not be the best time of year to back into a parking space. That's one of the top complaints I get from holiday shoppers about other holiday shoppers.

Any idea when the FTA will issue it's record of Decision to move the PL to its next step in the funding path?

We think January for the Federal Transit Administration decision. Once that is in hand, the Purple Line should be an unstoppable train, even if we're a few years away from riding on it.

Is there a difference between backing in or backing out? I prefer to pull through and just avoid all shopping centers during December.

I wouldn't go near a shopping mall in December, unless I could do it really early or really late. Parking at a mall in December can suck  joy out of the holiday season.

On your question, I can tell you that the overwhelming number of people who write to me about parking at shopping areas complain about people who back in, rather than back out.

My guess: Our drivers aren't particularly skilled at backing in between two other parked cars, and for many, it takes a few tries. Meanwhile, a line of cars waiting to pass builds up.

When drivers complain about the backing out park, it's usually to say that when they left their cars, they were between two subcompacts. When they came back, the subcompacts had been replaced by two Escalades, with tinted glass.

Dr., When will the Bacon Drive and 23rd Street traffic lights at the Lincoln Memorial be put back in synch? In the evening rush hour only about 8 cards per cycle can get through because they are rarely green at the same time. This leads to backups to Constitution and beyond....This has been happening for a couple of months. Help.

I'll check with the District Department of  Transportation. That's been a difficult spot for years. In fact, I remember that being one of the first complaints I wrote about when I started back in 2006. One issue, as I recall, was that pedestrians can push the on-demand buttons to get the walk signal, and that messes with the traffic flow around the circle.

If you go to an outdoor festival, like the Maryland Renaissance Festival. The first car in gets the first parking spot. The fill the parking one row at a time with everyone parking next to the cars that came just before and after them. They really don't go back to fill in the empty spaces that open up as people leave. It would be nice if there was a way to replicate this with shopping centers.

I prefer to park far away, Clark Griswald style: At the end of the day, when the lot's all full and everybody's fighting to get out of here, we'll be the first ones out.

What can I do about bicyclists who present a safety problem? I live in a neighborhood near a bike trail where commuter cyclists often use our streets as a cut-through between sections of the trail. The cyclists create problems by weaving between streets/sidewalks, ignoring stop signs, failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks (including school children) and even texting while biking (I was shocked to see this). I would report the specific cyclists to the police but there is no way for me to identify them (like a car license plate number). Any advice? thanks

I can't tell what community you are in, but I'd suggest contacting your local police station and asking for some help with enforcement. You're talking about commuter cyclists, so it may be possible for police to occasionally station an officer in the area for a limited amount of time to enforce safety laws.

The cyclists are entitled to use the streets and probably the sidewalks, too, but they're not entitled to disregard traffic laws any more than drivers are.


If for no other reason, I can tell it's the holiday season because I've been able to read and post all the questions and comments that came in for the chat today.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Let's meet up again at noon on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.


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.
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