Dr. Gridlock

Feb 13, 2017

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 thought transit riders handled the start of the SafeTrack project well during the first weekday commute with a maintenance project scheduled to last through Feb. 28.

When I opened the mailbag today, there weren't any comments about it, so let me know if you encountered problems with the transit trip Monday morning.

But we've got plenty of questions and comments to start off with.

I've asked several questions over the past few months about when speed restrictions on the Yellow/Blue line near National Airport would be lifted. I haven't seen any updates on WMATA's website, but last week it seemed to me like we weren't under speed restrictions in that area anymore (and my trip took about 15 minutes less each day). I know with the Blue line shut down now there will be different delays, but has there been any status change on the tracks near the airport? Thanks.

I checked with Metro this morning and learned that the speed restriction was lifted in late January.

That one near the airport was imposed for track worker protection, so it's different from many of the other speed restrictions imposed because a track worker discovered a problem that wasn't immediately hazardous but needed to be addressed. So riders throughout the system can encounter speed restrictions at any time.

On a return from downtown Silver Spring I was stuck on Colesville Rd. going north from Georgia Ave where they had only one lane getting by. The southbound side was completely blocked. It looked like they were maneuvering new traffic light bars. Any idea what was actually going on?

I think that was a roadblock set up to protect travelers during a "commercial crane operation". (That's how the Maryland State Highway Administration describes it.)

Hello Mr. Thomson: Big fan of your work! Do you happen to know what was happening at Friendship Heights station on Friday night about 9 pm? There were three Metro transit police cars on site at both station exits for at least an hour. I looked on the WMATA and Washington Post websites and didn't see any explanations. Thank you very much.

I don't know. I don't see anything on the transit police blotter from over that way on Friday night.

(Transit police post a daily blotter. The daily reports are pdfs, but you can see them collected on this web page.)

The transit police not that the daily blotter is not a "comprehensive list of every police event."


This morning, as I entered the Metro station at Vienna, the sign said the next train was leaving in 11 minutes. When the train left, the sign was only at 7 minutes. What is the point of having a sign telling when the train would leave, if it leaves sooner than indicated on the signs.

Most of the complaints I see about the next-train signs are from people at the terminal stations, or at the turnback stations such as Grosvenor and Silver Spring.

That's a pretty old system Metro uses and it needs to be modernized to capture all the train movements.

Dr. G, since you were on the rails this morning, I'm curious whether you observed any riders who were unaware of the Blue Line shutdown and, if so, how they reacted to it. WTOP's report had some guy who was angry that he didn't know about it because he waited half an hour for a Blue. On the one hand, I wanted to call him a stupey, but on the other hand, I think it underscores why it is not acceptable for WMATA to wait until three business days before this sort of project to post notices in the affected stations (last Wednesday was the first time we saw any signage anywhere).

The main thing I noticed this morning was the extent to which the Blue Line riders took the disruption in stride. It's like Metrorail riders have gotten used to the SafeTrack disruptions and just go with the flow now.

At Franconia-Springfield, I saw two people walk over to the SafeTrack advisory poster and study it. Everybody else just walked to the faregates.

There was little confusion on the platform, and plenty of Metro staff to deal with the few questions that were being asked.

In most places -- stations, platforms, trains -- I heard good announcements. I can tell you two exceptions: On my outbound train toward Franconia-Springfield, I know the operator was trying to tell us about SafeTrack because I heard the words "Blue Line" several times. But the rest of the messages were garbled. On my inbound trip toward DC, the operator's messages were clear and hit the right highlights, except for one flaw. He kept saying that people could take a shuttle bus between Pentagon and Rosslyn. The shuttle goes only between Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery, so it doesn't work as a replacement for the rail service.

On the larger point: Metro started putting out information about this SafeTrack disruption on Jan. 12. The original plan was to operate the Blue Line between Franconia-Springfield and Reagan National Airport only.

Then in late January, the plan was revised to temporarily eliminate the Blue Line altogether. I think Metro may have held off on the printed notices till transit officials were sure they wouldn't have to be reprinted.

It's always been difficult for me to discover what the right amount of notification is. On every big project I've written about over the past decade, and no matter how much I've written about it, there always are folks who didn't get the word and are utterly confused by what they encounter on the roads or the rails.

Hi Dr. G, I recently moved to Maryland after living in California for over twenty years. When drivers get into a fender benders in CA, both parties, 99 percent of the time, move out of the middle of traffic as to not cause unnecessary congestion. Around the DMV, minor fender benders mean preservation of the middle lanes of traffic for the crime scene investigation unit. It’s very clear that moving out of the middle of traffic is not cumbersome; however, no one seems to do it (and do they really think CSI is coming to analyze their dented bumper?). Even just a tad bit of self-awareness and courtesy would help save daily commenters lots of time and frustration. Are you experiences the same? Any suggestions?

The police around here ask drivers to do the same thing you describe in California. If no one is injured and the vehicle can be moved, move it to the side. In Maryland, the State Highway Administration has orange trucks that drive around looking for problems like blocked lanes after collisions and they work with police and other emergency responders to get the lanes open again as quickly as possible.

I was in New York this weekend and was on an annoyingly long delay on a train going from the Upper West Side to 33rd street. They were doing maintenance on the local track so our local train had to switch to the express track. But the express track was backed up because of the additional service on it, so we had to wait for quite a while (felt like 10 minutes so it was probably more like 5 to 7) before switching over. And, of course, the people who wanted to get off at a station between 72 and 42, had to go to 42, switch to a local train going north and double back. All in all, as a regular on the Washington Metro, I would give the delay/annoyance level a 4, maybe a 5. I think New Yorkers expect to be able to make that sort of trip a lot more efficiently than we do, especially on weekends. The communication was a bit better than Metro's: basically audible and the explanation explained the track switch, told people how to handle it, said that we would move when the trains ahead of us cleared up, but gave no estimate of when that would be. HUGE advantage over metro: I didn't hear the word "momentarily" even once. It is stunning how much that made a difference to me. It really is like a red cape to a bull for regular Metro riders. I would have been more upset and might have missed my connection the bus back to DC if I had been pushing the amount of time needed. However, I wasn't, so that wasn't really a problem. Also, knowing that the issue was just a back up of trains helped with the "upset." I assumed that a backup would clear out in a reasonable amount of time. I might have made another assumption if they had said that they were waiting for an ill passenger to be removed or an electrical problem to be resolved.

The commenter gives you a comprehensive view of the NY weekend. But I want to focus on just one issue: We're making too much about the number of tracks on the Metrorail lines.

At least, the two-track system is not the root of all evil with Metrorail.

I went back in The Post archives and looked at references to "Metro" and "two-track system." Looks like they start in the late 90s. And then there are references over the next few years, but they really pick up over about the past three years.

At first, the issue is why Metro can't have express trains. The two-track system is just a fact of life.

Then it gradually gets to be a maintenance issue, or an issue about how to continue service during a disruption. And the two-track system morphs from a fact of life into a design flaw.

I was asking a national transit expert about the two track issue on Friday. She was puzzled about the idea that it was a flaw. Most transit systems in the U.S. are two tracks, she said. Some are one track with some bypass tracks.

People who see the Metro track design as flawed point to New York. But in U.S. transit, there's New York and then there's everything else.

It's basically just NY, Chicago and Philly that have lines with more than two tracks. And the NY system far exceeds the trackage of other systems.

Another comment on the scheduled track work this week during evenings that is going to reduce SV trains to every 30-35 minutes (which is probably well past the threshold riders consider acceptable): since the work zone is from Stadium-Armory eastward, why can't they run more trains on the rest of the line and just turn every other train around at Eastern Market or Stadium Armory? And they wonder why riders are fleeing the system...

That would turn me off on riding Metro at night between Stadium-Armory and Morgan Boulevard. (That's the work zone with the single-tracking at night.) And I'd say the same if I had to ride on the west side of the Silver Line through Tysons and out to Wiehle, since there's no overlap with another line out there either.

Metro officials know this sort of thing -- limiting service for maintenance projects -- is driving away riders. They've seen it happen over the past few years and they've built the forecast of greater ridership losses into their budget.

What's the etiquette on sitting in a metro seat designated for seniors and people with disabilities? I try to avoid sitting in those seats in general but if the rest of the train/bus is full, sometimes I will grab one of those seats. If someone clearly has a disability or is pregnant, etc I always offer my seat. My question more comes up around when to offer to seniors. It feels awkward to assume someone's age by how they look. If someone clearly looks like they could use a seat (frail, unsteady on feet, etc), I will offer. If not, then I tend not to offer but still feel uncomfortable and wonder if I'm being rude. What is your etiquette advice? Thank you!

You just ran through the list of reasons I never sit in those seats. On the one hand, I don't want to keep asking people if they want the seat. And on the other, I'm afraid I'll zone out and miss seeing someone who obviously qualifies for the seat.

The rule is that the designated seats are supposed to be made available for people with disabilities and seniors. But practically speaking, it means the standing people have to ask the sitting people to give up the seats, and many of the standees are reluctant to do that.

Hello, Dr. Gridlock. Thanks for doing these chats. My wife and I are considering moving and commute is probably the second most important factor (#1 being price). We desire to take public transportation (we are metro rail riders right now) and we are inexperienced with the bus services. Some of the homes we have seen are not walkable to metro, but I am having a hard time figuring out all the bus options. Do you have any suggestions? We do not know the roads, so trying to figure out which bus routes go where is very confusing.

You're certainly showing good instincts in your search for a place to live.

One website I'd like to recommend is walkscore.com. But there also are apps that can show you all the transit options around a particular location, down to exactly where the bus stops are. They include not only Metrobus, but also the D.C. Circulator and the suburban bus systems.

Also, I would think your real estate person would have this transit information available for any particular residence you were looking at. Am I being overly optimistic on this?

I feel like I have been hearing about the latest Safetrack for two weeks or more, but then again, I have signed up for notifications, I get and read the WAPO, still listen to WTOP. I think some of the angry people not aware of this Saftetrack may be the ones VERY hard to reach. Don't have/read the notifications, not likely to read local papers, or listen to radio.

It bears noting that "Move vehicles from travel lanes if possible unless there's been an injury" was not always the prevailing principle. Many of us grew up in an era when we were taught that you do NOT move the vehicles until instructed to do so by the police (indeed that was the instruction in the late 1980s when I first reached driving age). While that instruction is no longer valid, there are an awful lot of people who think whatever they learned in the driver's ed class they took in 1963 is all they need to know. Of course that's wrong. Lots of things have changed, and the "fender bender protocol" is just one of them, but it's hardly a surprise that there are people out there who don't know otherwise. Obviously there's a much larger issue here about whether we need better driver re-training and the like. (I think having an eight-year license-renewal period while requiring you to renew in person only every other time, as Virginia does now, is a terrible idea because you KNOW there are people who do not get their eyes checked except when they renew their licenses in person! Any of us who wear glasses can attest to why that's a bad thing!)

My Post colleague Ashley Halsey III wrote a story last week you might find interesting:

In Illinois, older drivers are tested more — and crash rates have dropped

Maybe splitting hairs here but signs say seats should "be available," not that they should "be made available." Not quite the same thing, I think idea is keep them open for people who need them. And you're right, people don't always ask. Sometimes it's because they can't tell when the sitting person has a not so visible need for the seat, sometimes just b/c its annoying to constantly have to ask.

I never understood why certain seats are reserved for people with seniors and disabilities. Shouldn't ALL seats be offered to these passengers? I understand that asking for (and asking if someone wants) a seat can be awkward, but surely those who most need a seat should get it, regardless of whether it's been so designated.

I think it's a federal law thing. But you're certainly right about the etiquette issue. A person doesn't have to be sitting in one of the designated seats to be polite.

It is impossible for an outreach effort to be heard by 100% of the people who need to hear it, no matter how hard an agency tries. Inevitably, some people won't take or read a flier, look at a poster, pay attention to announcements, read the newspaper, listen to the radio, or any other method by which the agency could engage with those people.

I now I experience this: Some of the loudspeaker announcements  in the stations are just background noise. I miss the message. And I have to remind myself to look at the display panel above the station master's kiosk that shows information about disruptions.

I'm an Orange Line rider and I encountered Metro volunteers at least twice, handing out info cards and answering questions about the upcoming Surge. But I also notice that most people have earbuds in and/or are looking down at their phones, so I saw a lot of people just walk past volunteers without noticing them (or maybe thinking they were soliciting or handing out non-Metro pamphlets).

As a YL rider to/from Braddock, I am glad to have confirmation that the DCA speed restriction has been resolved (I thought maybe I'd just been lucky lately). I remain flummoxed, however, that WMATA does not make information about such speed restrictions more easily available. As a rider, I don't care whether it is SafeTrack, or unscheduled maintenance, or a sick customer, or a speed restriction, if it is going to add time to my trip, please, WMATA, use the same method for alerts.

I don't know what it is with the speed restrictions and Metro communications. It's hit or miss with notifications to riders when the restrictions come or go.

One possible explanation: Metro officials don't seem to consider the speed restrictions a big deal. They'll say they add only a couple of minutes to a trip, and that may be so. But it doesn't account for potential delays getting the trains into the areas where the speeds are restricted. They seem to get backed up at the entry points the way trains get backed up to enter single-tracking zones.

As a Blue Line rider from Springfield to McPherson, my worry is that WMATA will decide the Orange and Silver Lines run better without the Blue and they'll either eliminate the Blue altogether or cut it back to run between Springfield and Arlington Cemetery. It sure seems like they want to eliminate the Blue given all the service cuts we've had to endure.

I've never heard a Metro official suggest shrinking the Blue Line to Springfield-Arlington Cemetery. It just wouldn't make sense to have the least-used station in the whole system become a terminal.

If Metro goes ahead with its current plan in the new budget, the Blue Line will be the only one to have more service at rush hours, going from the 12 minute headways to eight minute headways.

Even people who have seen/heard don't "know" because most people don't retain something that has no bearing on them in the moment.

I've noticed that highway engineers go through similar debates about where to place signs about road work or lane restrictions. Some people like early warnings, but if you place the signs too far away from the actual problem, people will forget about them by the time they reach the point where they need the information.

It wasn't even a designated seat, but I remember the first time I was asked if I wanted to sit down. It was on the way home from a game in a crowded train. On the one hand it made me feel old (I'm over 50), but I was pretty impressed it was offered. I took it, too, because my balance stinks.

People do these weird things where they try to decide if a driver with a disability placard really is disabled, or whether a person asking for a train seat really looks to be in enough pain.

Yeah, able-bodied people should definitely yield their seats (even in non-designated spaces) to those who need them, but the designated seats are also closer to the doors, so it's easier for people who are mobility impaired to get to a seat quickly when they board and get off more easily when it's their stop.

You're talking to a guy who has guilt feelings when he takes any seat at rush hour.

I also have guilt feelings about standing up, cause I'm worried about blocking the aisles. (I've got to get over this.)

I forgot to mention I'm female, which is why I'm sure it was offered.

I hear from men sometimes who say they're reluctant to offer seats to women for fear of being accused of sexism.

We hear a lot of chatter about Metro being two tracks per line, while "world class" cities like New York have four tracks. Only part of the New York subway is four tracks, mainly the Broadway line and the Avenues in Manhattan. Some lines have three tracks, but many lines like the L, 7, J, M, Z, etc. on the New York Subway are just two tracks. In Philadelphia, a section of the "orange" or Broad Street line is four tracks. The rest of the rapid transit is two tracks. Even large systems like Paris Metro are mostly only two tracks . People comparing Metro to other systems, should do a full comparison and realize that huge systems like New York have multiple lines that are each quite different (and indeed built and operated by separate companies in the day). DC also does not have the ridership to justify four tracks, it is not even close to New York, which has plenty of two track lines too.

Zachary Schrag, who wrote that wonderful history of Metro called "The Great Society Subway," wrote an interesting online article last year "Why doesn't Metro have four-track routes?"

Here's a quote: "Given finite funds, building four-track routes in one place would have meant cutting routes elsewhere. Planners opted instead to build more two-track routes. In the busiest stretch of the system, from Farragut Square to Capitol Hill, this resulted in four tracks: two Red, two Orange/Blue."

The Orange/Silver operators need to clarify that you CANNOT switch to Blue at Rosslyn. I witnessed quite a few people get off who realized they should have stayed on the train. Luckily Metro had employees there but it would have been avoided if the train operator was making announcements prior to the stop that there is no Blue line service.

Now, my train operator did not have this problem. Repeatedly, after we left Franconia-Springfield, he announced that there was no Blue Line service.

I got on a Silver Line train at Clarendon this morning. Both at Courthouse and Rosslyn he made clear announcements that there would be no Blue Line trains at Rosslyn and that if you were going to stations on the Blue Line in Virginia (and he named them), you should go to L'Enfant Plaza and change to a Yellow Line or a Yellow Plus train (depending on the station). Since I work at Union Station, I got off to transfer at Metro Center and so I didn't see how things went at L'Enfant Plaza.

L'Enfant Plaza was very crowded with transferring passengers. I mean more crowded than usual. But it wasn't so crowded that I'd suggest people consider taking buses or doing other things to avoid that transfer.

Thanks for joining me today. If you have other issues you'd like to discuss, or follow up thoughts on what we talked about today, send an email to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

We won't have a chat next Monday because of the Presidents' Day holiday, but I'll be back with you on Monday, Feb. 27.

Stay safe, and I hope you enjoy the holiday weekend.


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: