The Washington Post

Dr. Gridlock

Mar 27, 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, and thanks for joining me on the last chat before I retire. The first of my online discussions occurred on July 31, 2006. That morning, I had gone over to Metro's Reagan National Airport station to review a rail car that had the poles and seats reconfigured. This is back when Metro was experimenting with moving the poles away from the doors at the ends of the car, and realigning seats so they'd be in banks along the sides of the car.

The first reader question I published was this.

Why Dr. Gridlock? Did you write a dissertation? Get an honorary degree?"

Well, after more than a decade, I'm still working on that dissertation. I think of each column and blog posting as a small chapter.

One of the best parts of the job has been the chance to exchange information and perspective in our Monday chats. Gets my week off to a good start.

So let's do that one more time.

Good Afternoon, I use the crosswalk, wait for fresh walk signals, and don't use my phone while walking. Yet, four times in the past three weeks, I have nearly been hit by over zealous drivers. Several were trying to get ahead of oncoming traffic, but at least one was making an illegal right on red (directly below a sign.) How can a pedestrian stay safe under these conditions? Thank you for your thoughts and best wishes on your retirement.

I want to start here and invite your responses, because this is a universal issue.

One of the big changes I've seen over the past decade is an increasing awareness that we need to protect all travelers. The District is among the communities worldwide that have signed onto the Vision Zero program, to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. I think that's achievable -- even before the self-driving vehicles arrive.

Note that this traveler is not saying, "I almost got hit while jaywalking." No, the traveler is describing an all-too-common situation in which the traveler is doing the right thing and feels threatened by overzealous drivers.

A person can't walk too far around here without sharing that experience.

The traveler says people make illegal turns on red where a sign prohibits that. What I see even more frequently are drivers just rolling through right turns on red without stopping. They look left, because they want to make sure they won't be hit by an oncoming car. But they pay no attention to what -- or who -- might be on the right in the direction they're turning.

The only thought I can offer on the issue of how a pedestrian can stay safe is, "Trust but verify." You have to believe that most people will at least come close to obeying traffic laws. Otherwise, we'd stand paralyzed every time we get to the curb. But be alert to misbehavior. Don't step out till you're sure a driver knows you're there and is stopping. (This procedure is not a 100 percent guarantee on safety.)

One of the things that's tricky with automatic headlights is that they don't always recognize rain and other conditions where you really need your headlights on. For me, the solution is to leave them on manual. And I also have the habit of 'right hand turns the key, left hand turns on the lights' while starting the car. Yeah, sometimes I am driving with the lights on in broad daylight. I've done stupider things than that!

Here's another topic that we've talked about lately in columns and Monday chats. It started with complaints about drivers who don't turn their headlights on when they turn on their windshield wipers, as the safety laws require.

Then we moved into discussions of why some drivers don't turn their lights on at all. This is one of the many topics where we can't do anything more than speculate about behavior. And it's one of the many topics where I can't tell you if the behavior constitutes a trend.

But I am attracted to the theory that drivers of newer cars are confused about the headlight settings.

I got my driver's license in 1968 (in Texas), so it's probably true that I'm attracted to simplicity when it comes to vehicle controls. For example, I haven't learned how to use the backup camera in a rental car, and like the commenter, I'd prefer to have the headlights under manual control.

I think we'll see that this is a generational thing, with younger drivers feeling completely comfortable with the new driving aids and the automatic settings.

I saw all over Twitter this morning that the Orange Line was experiencing major delays. I kept checking and saw nothing and am just curious as to why WaPo wasn't providing updates.

Dana Hedgpeth started posting updates on the Eastern Market switch problem at 7:10 a.m. See them here on the Dr. Gridlock blog.

Thought you might enjoy seeing some of the questions that came in during my first chat with you in July 2006:

-- "Any word on when the Springfield Interchange will finally be completed?"

-- "What is your view of the Purple Line's chances of becoming a reality (in our lifetime)?"

-- "Wondering if there has been any further news on the Metro expansion to BWI and all those stops along the way?"

-- "Are you going to do more columns on bike and walking commutes? We have issues too, you know -- like sidewalks closed for construction, and drivers who won't yield."

-- "What type of vehicle do you drive?"

As a (recovering due to being hit by a car) bicycle commuter AND car commuter I offer my gratitude and thanks for all your reporting and work on behalf of ALL road users. Your balance has always been appreciated by this bicycle rider.

Thanks to all you folks who sent in comments about my retirement. I'm pleased by this one because it suggests that I've done something of what I set out to do, which was to break down travelers' tendencies to divide themselves into categories, depending on what mode of travel they choose.

I've been taking Metro to and from work for many years but now find myself forced to drive because of the impact of SafeTrack on my local stop in Alexandria. As I fight my way out of town every night on 15th Street, I can't help but ask why in the heck they allow those vendors and buses to park in the perfectly good right lane between Constitution and E Street. They don't allow stopping and standing on other major routes in and out of town during rush hour. Why do those vendors get a pass?

Talking of trends: I find more and more drivers complaining about food trucks parked in lanes on major commuter routes where parking is banned at rush hours. I know there can't possibly be enough enforcement to deal with every case, but some ticket blitzes might provide some temporary relief -- or at least some satisfaction to the drivers stuck in the traffic.

Is WMATA incapable of running purely 8-car trains on the yellow and blue lines during the current safe-track surge (recently extended through April 12), where trains only run every 24 minutes? Needless to say, it gets crowded, and not everyone can fit on the 6-car trains during rush hour. We Virginians are jealous of what seems like an all-8-car/new-train fleet (every 3 minutes) on the red line.

I totally understand why riders would want all eight-car trains during a SafeTrack project -- like right now at rush hours when Blue and Yellow Line riders know the trains are scheduled to be 24 minutes apart. There have been too many mornings when they aren't on schedule.

We're up to SafeTrack surge 13, as the commenter noted, and I don't recall any in which all trains have been eight-cars long. I can think of two reasons: One is simply that Metro can't make that many eight-car trains at rush hours without diminishing the overall number of trains available on the lines that aren't involved in a SafeTrack project. The other is the issue about Metro needing some power upgrades to be able to run all eight-car trains on a line.

On the commenter's last point: I do see many new car trains now on the Red Line, many more than on most other lines. And more generally, I think I'm seeing fewer of the old 1000 series cars sandwiched in the middle of trains.

Dr. Gridlock, first let me say thanks for all the informative columns, blog entries, tweets, and chats over the years. You will be missed. But I can't let you leave without a final question. Do you know whom I should contact about a problem on Memorial Circle (the Columbia Island end of Memorial Bridge that many people think of as the "Virginia end")? Specifically, during the morning rush hour there are sawhorses and cones put up so that traffic coming up Route 27 from the Pentagon must go onto the bridge and cannot access the circle. It helps keep the area from locking up. But for the past week, charter bus drivers have been stopping in traffic and getting out to move the cones out of the way so they can go around the circle to the cemetery. It's a pain both because they obstruct the traffic to do this and because other drivers then start using the gaps, which both slows traffic and causes near-misses (we almost got hit this morning by someone who swerved through the cones). Since Columbia Island is in the District of Columbia, I know it's not a VDOT issue, but I don't know whether I need to contact the Park Police or someone else. Can you tell me? Thanks!

That's outrageous. Based on your description, I do think it's the US Park Police that would be dealing with this. So here are some suggested non-emergency phone numbers:

(703) 285-1000, for the police station on the George Washington Parkway 

(202) 610-8737, a park police tip line

(703) 285-1000

Dr. Gridlock, sorry to report that I am confused. In other parts of the country, I know that it's absolutely wrong and off-limits to use the left lane as a travel lane, and you can get a ticket and points for doing so. However, I thought that in our vastly overcrowded DC area, in both Maryland and Virginia, it was legal and expected to use all the lanes of the highway all the time. Let's say it's a four-lane swath of the Beltway or 395. I thought that a good driver should stay left or in the middle of the four, fully occupied lanes, without too much lane-changing, and stay on the right for normal right-lane exit and entry ramps (or, in Virginia, occasionally stay on the left for left-lane exit ramps). Now I see in the news that there is a plan to change this in Maryland to make left-lane travel illegal --- and far more surprising, that there is some kind of similar law already on the books in Virginia. Can you explain? Should we be leaving the left lanes largely empty in Virginia and Maryland, or should we use all lanes, but then be technically risking a ticket for left-lane travel in Virginia? Does this only apply to certain state-funded roads? Thanks for your help.

I think the Maryland bill the commenter refers to is the one sponsored by Del. William G. Folden (R-Frederick) that my colleague Katherine Shaver wrote about.

Aggressive drivers love this sort of thing because they think these bills validate their reckless behavior.

I'm not guessing about that. People will write in to tell me that our traffic congestion problems would be solved if only other drivers would get out of their way. Many will use what amounts to a "they made me a criminal" defense to explain their sudden and frequent lane changing, a characteristic of aggressive driving.

When one of these left lane bills comes up in Maryland or Virginia, they embrace it. When I point out there's no law that makes it legal to speed, they respond that drivers aren't responsible for enforcing the speed laws. (Apparently, drivers would be responsible for enforcing left-lane laws, a bit of selectivity that I can't explain.)

Like the left lane bill in Virginia, Maryland's HB 1541 may be a big disappointment to aggressive drivers. It applies to highways with three or more lanes and speed limits of at least 55 mph. It does not apply to HOV lanes, or to drivers preparing to use a left exit. It does not apply to "traffic conditions that require the use of all roadway lanes."

Otherwise, according to the bill, a driver may use the far left lane only for overtaking and passing another vehicle, then must return to the right as soon as it is reasonably safe to do so.

The fine for a first offense is listed at $75. The required statement of fiscal impact shows no significant effect. Perhaps the explanation for that lies in one of the stats cited. In Fiscal 2016, police issued four citations for "Failure to yield to overtaking vehicle on audible signal," as provided under current law.

My own view is more in line with what John Townsend of AAA said in Katie Shaver's story: 

“My concern is this bill says the left lane is the fast lane and, unless you’re going fast, don’t use it,” said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Townsend said he knows many motorists will object, but he doesn’t think the left lane needs a new law. Slower drivers should move to the right as a courtesy, he said. But he said people driving the speed limit in the left lane shouldn’t get a ticket simply because they didn’t make way for others who want to drive above the limit. He noted that about one-third of all fatal traffic crashes in the United States involve speeding, about the same number as drunken driving.

“The person behind [the slower driver] is being unsafe and boorish” if they’re trying to get them out of the way, Townsend said. “We want to ticket the person who’s being aggressive. That’s the person inciting road rage . . . I just think we’d be ticketing the wrong people.”


I just wanted to add my thanks for all the work you've done assisting the area commuters and travelers, and I hope that you have a long and happy retirement! You had mentioned at the end of the last chat about your desire to visit Newfoundland. I've been to or through Newfoundland four times over the last 20 years and hope to get back there again one of these days. Along with viewing rugged terrain, beautiful coastline, and Viking ruins, take a few days to visit France (i.e., Saint Pierre and Miquelon, off the south coast). If you can, try to also visit Labrador (you can make a loop trip - ferry from St Barbe to Blanc Sablon, drive the Trans-Labrador highway around to Goose Bay and Labrador City, then head south to Baie Comeau QC on the St Lawrence). The Churchill Falls hydro plant in Labrador is a must-see (book ahead). You'll find that the main transportation hazard on the island of Newfoundland is moose ( ). The locals will warn you not to drive at night, and with good reason. Although I've thankfully never had an moose accident myself, I've seen the aftermath of a few while living in Alaska years ago and it's not pretty.

I think I recognize this as being from one of our longtime commenters. Anyway, it has the helpful precision that is characteristic of that commenter.

The Dr. Gridlock column always has been supported by an army of researchers, people who want to help out other travelers. I hope that spirit continues.

By the way, the Grid Spouse -- an outdoor girl -- has a New Hampshire bumper sticker that says, "Brake for moose. It could save your life."

Sorry, no question on traffic or transportation, just curious what your connection is to the Vero Beach area.

You're talking about the photo of me that I prefer to display -- as opposed to the unnecessary closeup that appears each Monday on the home page, right next to the elegant one of Tom Boswell, for his chat.

The VB photo was taken as we awaited the opening of the second span on the new Wilson Bridge. (I still call it "new.") I got the cap during a fondly remembered trip to spring training, when we stayed near Dodgertown. It's still my favorite cap.

My longtime commenter informs me that he is not the poster of the comment above that mentions Newfoundland. But I still thank both him and today's poster for their helpful advice. And I intend to follow the advice above. Newfoundland is the one Canadian province that has eluded me in my travels.

Dr. Grid - Congrats on the retirement! Hope you get to travel the world, ride many transit systems, and maybe join a chat of a successor to report out your findings. As for my question - I think one of the most notable differences between Metro and other subway systems is that Metro trains spend an inordinate amount of time on a platform. I think there are two reasons for that: 1) Doors take forever to open (especially on the new 7000s) delaying passengers getting in and out; and 2) Not enough doors, or the doors are too small, meaning it takes a long time to load and unload a train. This results in a lot of time wasted from the train arriving in a station to the train departing. I haven't experienced such slow dwell times anywhere else I have travelled. Is this an issue Metro has identified or is talking about?

Metro identified the dwell time issue years ago, but there's clearly been no solution.

Long dwell times during rush hours at downtown stations create big gaps between some trains, while others get bunched up -- same as with the rush hour buses.

Riders whose trains hold for "service adjustments" are probably the victims of erratic dwell times at downtown stations -- assuming there's nothing else going wrong on the line.

While riders hate those erratic schedules, they also hate it when the doors close before everyone has a chance to board.

One solution is simply to adjust the train schedules to account for the real time it takes to unload and load passengers.

I think most of you know by now that Metro's new budget, which takes effect in July, is going to increase the amount of time between trains on most rush hour trains. That's a money-saving move, but it might have the effect of making the schedule for the remaining trains more realistic.

I believe the Metro people are not promoting their change of schedule properly. While in one sense, it sounds like a pull-back of service, really it is an improvement (no, I am not a PR flak). The service on all 5 interconnected lines (all but the Red Line) will be changed to every 7.5 minutes (exactly 8 trains per hour), including the Blue Line. For that slight 90-second extra spacing on the other 4 lines, Blue Line service between the Pentagon and Rosslyn can be restored to a proper service from its current 12-minute frequency. And the confusing and not very helpful Rush-Plus service, which was a Yellow Line train from Franconia-Springfield every 20 minutes, can finally be abandoned. If you ask me, that's a great improvement for Blue Line riders, and a chance for reliability to improve for everyone (24 trains per hour through Rosslyn, 16 trains per hour between L'Enfant Plaza and Mt. Vernon Square). And congratulations on many great years of being everyone's most trusted Doctor.

Thank you.

I hadn't read this comment when I offered my previous response that included the hopeful bit about the new train schedule. Of course, I do hope it all works out according to the commenter's scenario.

One of my concerns is the elimination of the Yellow Line Rush Plus service. I still like the original idea behind it -- and this goes back many years -- about the growing number of commuters heading to the north-south corridor in the middle of DC. That area continues to boom and needs good rail service.

Congratulations on your retirement. Using the knowledge you've gained from your many years as Dr. Gridlock, what is your best guess as to the effects of the Metro fare increases and service cuts coming this year? Will ridership decline meaningfully? Will revenue go up or down? Will this help save the system or accelerate the death spiral? Assume no major new funding from government sources.

I want to say a few things on this topic, but first let me cite my column headlined, 'Death spiral?' No. Metro is too necessary to fail.

I've been hearing references to Metro's "death spiral" since 2004. It hasn't died yet, and it isn't going to. It's become way too important to the future of the region. It's the backbone of the transportation system and a key factor in shaping commercial and residential development.

So it's time to stop wondering at what point Metrorail will sink into oblivion and start figuring out how to fix it. Really fix it. That's not something that comes up in everyday conversation. I'm talking about big improvements in operations, financing and governance.

But on the commenter's specific question: Metro's budget acknowledges that ridership will continue to decline. Metro's financial planners always make this sort of calculation when the transit authority contemplates a fare increase. Often they underestimate the extent of the decline, but they always calculate for it.

The fare increases and the service cuts won't save the system. They're not calculated to save the system any more than SafeTrack is designed to save the system. They just get the system through a phase.

There's a lot more work ahead, both within the transit authority and among the region's leaders.

Dr. Gridlock, I've always enjoyed your columns and your chats good luck to you in this next stage of life! I want to leave you with something funny I've noticed - despite our overall dislike for the concept of Metro using the word "momentarily" no matter the situation - I love (sarcasm) how it's actually programmed into the brand-new 7000 series automated announcements. So, we're not getting away from it for a loooooong time. Happy retirement!

Isn't that odd? If there's one word that Metro riders despise, it's "momentarily." Yet we'll be hearing "momentarily" for a long time.

I'm all for speed cameras as long as there are two caveats: they don't ticket within 5 or 10 mph over the speed limit and second that they are realistic. That's the gripe with DC going down to 15 mph. It's absurd. If governments would be fair about it I'd be all for putting them on the beltway and 95: speed limit is 55 and you start getting ticketed at 65.

I'm fine with speed cameras anywhere -- neighborhood streets, school zones and interstate highways. And I think the buffer that Maryland allows between the speed limit and the ticket is excessive.

My apologies--I guess I was looking for it on the front page like it usually is when there are massive delays. Thanks!

We often do have that red banner across the regional home page, but I'd suggest bookmarking the Dr. Gridlock blog. Dana Hedgpeth, The Post's early morning reporter and a former Metro transit reporter, keeps a sharp eye on the a.m. commute, but not all of what Dana writes winds up with a home page reference.

How is nearly running over a pedestrian in a crosswalk overzealous? Over reckless? Yeah, I an see that. Rushed. OK, maybe, but a few other things too. Criminal? Perhaps, if the pedestrian hadn't manage to avoid the car. Calling driving too quickly and in violation of the rules of the road zeal is granting it a status it doesn't deserve.

I think the original commenter was being polite in the reference to drivers.

You don't have to be an Einstein to get a driver's license. Or Mother Teresa. It's mostly just ordinary humans.

Leif Dormsjo, the DDOT director, told me on the first day he pitched the Vision Zero safety program that we shouldn't be designing a transportation system for smart people who always do the right thing. We need to design it for how travelers really behave.

Given traffic volumes in the DC and Baltimore areas, the left-lane bills would have little impact here simply from a practical standpoint. It's the rural highways where they matter a lot more. Surely you've all been stuck in the situation where you have a line of tractor-trailers going 60 mph in a 70 mph zone but you can't get around them because someone is parked next to them going barely faster than they are, say 63 mph, and has no interest in moving. That's the sort of thing for which this sort of bill could be worthwhile. Obviously in urban areas the volume of traffic is so high that proper lane discipline will never be a realistic expectation.

I understand what you're saying, and certainly have been in the same spot in hilly areas. The Maryland bill makes no reference to the type of scenario you're describing. Neither did the bill's sponsor in The Post story.

I think the bill, if it passes, will have no effect on traffic congestion in the D.C. area.

For those of us old enough to remember, the dashboards used to be illuminated only when the headlights were turned on. So if you were driving in the dark and did not turn on your lights, chances are you could not see your speedometer very well. Cars now have lighted dashboards 100% of the time, so you may not notice that you have not turned on the headlights at night. For those who don't turn on their lights when would be great if car makers would automatically turn on the headlights when the wipers are on.

I remember.

The future, of course, has self-driving cars that will have headlights on when appropriate and will obey traffic laws. (That's a far future, I think. I haven't encountered engineers who actually are planning projects for self-driving cars, and there are many technical hurdles to overcome before automated cars are safe. I'm writing about that in Thursday's Local Living column.)

Who's going to be the next Dr. Gridlock?

No update on that. But as I said last Monday, this isn't a topic on which editors need to consult me.

When I was going down Memory Lane on the old columns, I was reminded that there was a gap of a couple of months between the time that Ron Shaffer retired as the first Dr. Gridlock and I started. (Earlier, I was The Post's transportation editor.)

Every day, dozens of cars are parked illegally on Constitution Avenue in the downtown during rush hour, effectively eliminating a lane during the peak travel time and in fact making things worse because of constantly merging and "unmerging" traffic. Why aren't these laws enforced?

Not enough people to enforce them. What I've said in recent years is that there need to be more D.C. traffic control officers. The numbers have increased, but I want more.

Unless your path is completely unobstructed by any kind of shade, having your lights on during the day makes you more visible to other travelers. It's the first thing they teach in defensive driving courses. This is particularly true if your car is any shade of gray to black and can blend in with the pavement. Dr. Gridlock, enjoy your retirement. Now's the perfect time to finish that dissertation! As a driver/bike commuter/metro commuter who walks a mile to/from my stop, I too will miss your even-handed reporting.

Thanks very much. You know, I've always appreciated that my newspaper columns have to fit into a set space. It imposes discipline and tends to diminish the wonky dissertation-like stuff. I hope.

Robert, Why won't they add another lane to this road? It is jammed virtually all hours of the day from 5:30am to 8pm. Even on the weekends, there are traffic jams all the time except maybe the late evening and very early morning hours.

It's just not going to happen. The parkway is controlled by the National Park Service. Note the middle name. The primary mission has nothing to do with asphalt.

Now that you're retired, are you going to submit questions to your old chat? Hopefully, ones that will stump your successor!

Woah. I'm not quite retired yet. Still have two columns to go. (And trying to figure out how to say everything I want to say -- but then, I also think, Doc, have you really not said everything you wanted to say over the past 10 years?)

One thing: I'm not going to be a curmudgeon, harassing my former colleagues. Besides, they're smarter than I am.

Why doesn't VDOT add an extra lane to both I-95 SB and NB between Garrisonville and Fredericksburg? All the new one-way toll lanes will do is move the traffic jams further south.

The VDOT long-range plan is to extend the HOT lanes south to Fredericksburg and add lanes across the Rappahannock River. That would get traffic past the most congested areas in Northern Virginia.

Hello, I read the column in Sunday's Metro section written by the Chevy Chase bike commuter who got into an altercation with a driver when the bicyclist tried to cross Conn Ave in Chevy Chase. It sounded like he was simply crossing at a random place, with no crosswalk. The column was inconclusive about whether that is legal. I am also a bike commuter and I would never cross a six-lane road except at a crosswalk and with the light, unless traffic is essentially nonexistent. This seemed to me like an example of poor behavior on the part of the cyclist, although the driver seems to have reacted very badly (by getting out of his car and punching the cyclist -- there is obviously no call for that!). I think the cyclist's behavior in this case did endanger himself, and also could have resulted in a driver unable to stop quickly enough actually hitting him.

Here's a link to that Local Opinions column by Paul Basken.

Readers can judge the situation for themselves.


I've never asked a question and am sorry to learn you'll be leaving The Post. Here goes: Last fall Maryland officials put up an array of reflector sticks on Little Falls Parkway, where it intersects with the Capitol Crescent Trail. I understand the motive of slowing traffic, but so many sticks make it impossible to easily spot pedestrians and bike riders. At nite it's a real mess. Anyone else raise this issue on a busy road in Bethesda?

Thanks for writing. I haven't heard this particular issue raised.

A recent audit report faulted Metro for not doing enough advance planning for the various Safe Track surges. Metro's response was that there was not enough time to do the planning. This sounds to me like management by crisis. Your thoughts?

The SafeTrack program is definitely management by crisis, in that there was a crisis in track safety that needed to be managed.

On this particular issue -- the speed with which SafeTrack was launched -- I'm more inclined toward Metro's desire to act than the feds' desire to second guess.

In the past you have shot down the proposal to build a maglev train to Baltimore. As such I was surprised it was listed as one of Gov. Hogan's priorities. Is there anything else going on with this idea or was it just his way of saying thanks for the tour he had in Japan of one?

There may be times when the governor doesn't listen to my advice.

But I'm pretty sure that none of us will be riding maglev between DC and Baltimore.

I liked the question you posted about the Springfield interchange being completed; what a throwback. I remember when it was being built in the early 2000's, people would always say 'once they finish it, there will be so many more drivers in the area, it will be obsolete'. A decade after it has been completed, what do you think about quality and impact of its construction?

It's like all the projects that have gotten done in the past decade: It doesn't solve all traffic congestion issues. And even the ones it ameliorates just get shifted down the highway.

I started paying attention to the traffic engineers working on such projects. They were not telling me that traffic congestion would disappear. They were telling me that if we built the project they were working on, then traffic would be less worse than it would have been if we did nothing.

Doc, not having poles etc. near the doors is a bad design. I get that Metro doesn't want crowds near doors, but that's where people get on and off, and they have to hold on to something. I fall into people whenever the train moves, let alone when it jerks and the brakes slam. It's poor form to hang on to the next person's sleeve.

I can tell you that the Grid Spouse would agree wholeheartedly with the description.

This is a transit version of the comment I just made about road projects. Moving the poles away from the doors did push people into the middle of cars and cleared some of the congestion around the doors at the ends of the cars. That, by the way, may have made the dwell time issue less worse than it would have been if nothing had changed in car design.

But it also created a problem for riders. In a crowded car, you want to start moving toward the doors before the train stops. As a train jolts its way into a station, people get tossed around and the only thing to grab onto may be another rider.

I have ridden subways around the world, and a large majority have seats with backs against the walls around the perimeter of the car. This means that every person gets exactly the space he needs, no more or less, and there is more space for standees in the center of the car. Metro's arrangement requires two people to squeeze into a bench together, or often leaves a bench occupied by one wide person alone while others stand. I realize that the original decision might have been motivated by the idea that Metro would function like a commuter rail system, but that was long ago. Has Metro ever even tried experimenting with perimeter seating? I suspect it would be popular.

Yes, that was the experiment back in 2006. Metro had several test cars with bench seating and recorded the results. Transit officials said what they found was that the cars weren't carrying any more people than the ones with the traditional design, so the experiment did not evolve into anything.

If memory serves, isn't "Doctor Gridlock" a title that moves on as the reporter doing the job of keeping us up to date on traffic and commuting issues changes? (Like the Federal Diary guy has changed?) - anyway, enjoy your well-earned retirement ...

Yep. It's like the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride.

But it's a bit different from the Federal Diary. I notice I often write phrases like, "Since I became Dr. Gridlock ... " It actually winds up feeling that way. You become this other personality, the travel doctor.

What transportation technology available today would you institute immediately to help alleviate traffic? i.e. computerized signalization, v2x transponders, fleet management for the bus system, HOT/bus lanes in MD?

Yes. All of the above. What I mean is that our local travel issues are so extensive and so complicated that it's difficult to imagine one tech change having a really dramatic effect on the overall scene.

Also, I've noticed that whenever some new technology comes along and I think, "This looks like something that's going to be quick and easy to do," it never turns out that way. Some snag always emerges. So we need to press forward on many fronts at once.

What is the protocol for how drivers determine when to close the doors? I get that they're under pressure, but during rush hour drivers frequently try to close the doors before passengers have had a meaningful chance to board because disembarking took so long. Thanks, and good luck!

I think the train operators have some discretion, but they need to make some attempt to stay on schedule. Some are more ruthless about that then others. (I speak as one of the many who has had doors closed in his face.)

Farewell, Doc! You have performed an invaluable service to commuters all across the region and modes of transportation and I appreciate all the information and wise counsel you've doled out over the years. Although I am one of the hybrid drivers who utilized the legal incentive to drive solo on I-66 for the past 10 years -- and thus the object of your scorn -- I always enjoyed your perspective. I hope the Post ensures a seamless and immediate transition to an equally dedicated crusader for safe & efficient transportation. This issue really rules our lives in the region!!

Now, this is an endorsement I will treasure, coming from one who indeed has felt little joy from my comments about hybrids in HOV and HOT lanes.

You know, I started working for newspapers in 1973, but my best job is Dr. Gridlock. It lets me write about topics I care about deeply and -- more important -- that readers care about deeply, because they're part of every day life.

When I am a pedestrian, I attempt to make eye contact with any driver with the potential to injure/kill me--before I enter the crosswalk. If there is a driver who doesn't make eye contact, I probably won't enter the crosswalk. When I am the driver, I make sure to make eye contact with pedestrians and indicate that I've seen them and will yield to them. So that's another strategy for stayin' alive (ai, ai, ai, ai, stayin' alive). But I am not the kind of person who makes illegal left turns in the first place. I think what is needed in that we all need to take a step back and consider that we are not more important than anyone else, and all the traffic laws apply to us as well as to everyone else. And that the time you think you might save by cutting someone off is miniscule compared to the time you will lose if you get in an accident or kill someone.

Couple of thoughts: I notice that all sorts of travelers hate to break their momentum. Drivers hate to take their feet off the gas pedals. Bikers and walkers hate to stop at intersections.

Somebody's got to stop.

On eye contact: I endorse what the commenter says as a staying alive strategy. But when I say my personal guideline is "Trust but verify," one of the things in my memory is the time when I was biking through an intersection where I had the right of way and a driver at a stop sign stared at me, then pulled directly into my path.

There's a behavioral theory about this that generally goes by the name of "The Invisible Gorilla." We tend to see what we're looking for and nothing else. A driver looks for other drivers, and therefore sees other drivers. The driver may not see pedestrians and cyclists.

Don't be completely satisfied with eye contact.

Are these lanes really enforced and if so, what is the fee(s) for using them without more then 2 people in car?

I don't recall what the Maryland fine is for violating the HOV rules. They're very difficult to enforce where the HOV lanes are not separated by barriers from other lanes. That's true in Virginia, as well.

We can't "repeal and replace" Metro, so we BETTER fix it. Best wishes to you in retirement.

Thank you. About Metro, what I've been noticing in recent times is that some people seem to think Metro is in such bad shape that there will come a point at which we decide to sell it for scrap.

That's just not going to happen. So people will need to decide whether the region can afford to live with a poor transit service, or whether it's going to be fixed.

But people haven't decided that yet.

Happy retirement, sweetie! I don't think you'll ever stop looking and commenting on traffic and transit, will you? I'm ready to listen!

One of the things about online chats is that you can't identify the source. But I'm hoping this is a comment from My One And Only, because I'll need someone to listen.

Does not mean "in a moment". At least not when Metro uses it. It seems to mean "sometime soon, but we don't know exactly when, and from what we can tell it won't be 15 minutes or half an hour either" . Drivers are trained to use it, and that's enforced. Honest. Blame management, not the drivers.

Tough job especially in this area. You did a great job despite being a mass transit supporter. Enjoy retirement and that part time job as a school crossing guard. Clifton, VA

I'm going to retire this year, too, an event which I'm approach with both joy and trepidation. I wish you the best in your retirement and than you for everything you've done for transportation and transit in our area.

When I was a kid, I thought "retirement" was the thing you do just before you die.

My views have evolved.

Hey Doc -- have you heard anything definitive about the 66 hybrid exemption going away? I need to prepare for it if I loose my exemption. I'm not sure where to find out more details. I saw that Tag Greason was trying to get it extended... but precious little seems to be out there other than that. Help!

The hybrid exemption will go away on I-66 inside the Beltway when the HOT lanes become operational. That's scheduled for this summer.

On I-66 outside the Beltway, the exemption is scheduled to remain until the end of the big rebuilding project to create the HOT lanes out to Gainesville. That's going to be about five years.

Ok, first, good luck on the retirement. Hopefully, you'll end up someplace where there are no transportation issues or hassles.. Wish I could suggest one. With the continuing downward spiral of Metro, what would you suggest would be the best way for people to get from here to there and back again?

For many trips, I still think Metro is the best bet. I almost never drive my car downtown, for example. The last time I remember doing that was for Paul McCartney's 2016 concert at Verizon Center. I didn't want to worry about Metrorail's midnight closing.

Part of my retirement plan is to get a Senior SmarTrip card and use that for visits to Smithsonian museums.

Will it have any riders? WIll the cost of a non rush hour fare between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom be less than $20 each way?

Ten years from now, Metro service will be better and more reliable than today, and will have many more riders than today.

I don't believe that's either a bold or Pollyannaish prediction. I think it's just the way things have to be, given Metrorail's central role in regional transportation.

Mrs. Gridlock: "No more columns, now, I mean it!" Dr. Gridlock: "Anybody want a peanut?"

Don't let the Metrorail door trap you on your way out.

I know where to stand.

I have seen you often refer to having lived in Montreal in the past. You often speak of the Montreal Metro as having a well run system. When were you in Montreal and why were you living there?

1963 to 1968, so I was there when Metro opened. My father worked for the U.S. Quarantine Service. Under a deal with the Canadian government, the U.S. stationed quarantine officers in Montreal, so they wouldn't need to be spread out across all the Great Lakes ports.

When Metro opened, all we could talk about were the rubber wheels. I haven't been on the Montreal Metro in decades, but would like to get back up there, for a Metro ride among other things. It's a great city. I root for Le Blue Blanc Rouge.

Both you and your predecessor have mustaches. Is having a mustache a prerequisite for the title of Dr. Gridlock?

I hope not, because there are plenty of people I think could do the job who are stache-less.

Re the comment about no poles near the doors in the 7000 series cars, no one seemed to take into account that often the cars are jammed completely full including the aisles and the spaces near the doors, so you have maybe 15-20 people with nothing to hold onto near the doors. In addition, the head room at the doors is only maybe 6'4", making it impossible to install overhead handrails and forcing taller people to bend their necks to avoid hitting their heads on the ceilings. Seems like a bad design.

It's certainly not a perfect design. All designs involve compromises. But when Metro starts promoting the next generation of rail car, riders should make their preferences known.

Your comment regarding "self driving" vehicles is terrifying - why would i want to turn over my freedom of movement over to a computer and/or the government? I for one would never want that.

Among drivers, there's a Lake Wobegon Effect, as Tom Vanderbilt pointed out in "Traffic."

Many drivers can't imagine that a computer could do a better job than they can.

But many years from now, when self-driving cars begin to appear in showrooms, they will perform at a level that human's can't match. I call that the John Henry Effect.

Dr. Gridlock, Sad that this is my one and only question/comment. Congratulations on your run! I've really enjoyed learning from your columns. Noted in a question above was a complain that speed camera enforcement at 15 MPH was absurd. If anything, that is the most appropriate place for speed cameras. The difference between 15 MPH and 25 MPH is far greater to anyone that gets hit by a car than the difference between 55 MPH and 70MPH. As someone with an admittedly heavy foot, I won't do more than 5 over in a residential area, and try to hold the limit on the nose. On limited access highways in particular, there is less need for strict enforcement. There is no crossing traffic, there are no pedestrians, bikes, or scooters. "Keep Right, Pass Left" and things take care of themselves. Throw some unmarked cars into traffic and nail the people that are slaloming from lane to lane with reckless abandon, regardless of their speed. I guess I do have to ask a question though. Those impact energy dissipators (the crumple barriers that split the lanes at access points) between the local and express on 270 get hit with great frequency. Why do you think that is? A. Drunk drivers B. Lack of adequate warning and/or poor visibility C. Driver miscalculation; i.e. "I think I can cram my way over here... WHAMO!" D. Bad design E. All of the above

On that particular thing, I think it's on the drivers. And those dented guardrails are one of the things I think of when I conclude that maybe we're not all above average.

I observe this also on neighborhood streets that have been been given a traffic calming treatment, with bump outs and barriers to protect pedestrians. I notice how many of those protections show the impact of tires and bumpers, even where speed limits are reduced.

You all need to spend some time in Rome. Where crossing a street is an interactive video game. Drivers don't care and they don't slow down. You have to assertive and aggressive to survive. I learned this my first time in Rome over 40 years ago and I get refresher courses every time I return. In DC I apply the same tactics. Even better is cursing out the driver in Italian but only in DC has it ever come to blows and the driver lost.

I had a very different experience in Rome. I was scared at first about walking out into traffic circles. Then I realized they don't want to injure you. They just want to toy with you. So if you keep walking and don't start doing unexpected things, they'll come close, but you'll be safe.

In Paris, they want to kill you.

Dr. G, I'm wondering if you have any recommendations on what sources we should use for commuter and transportation analysis going forward in your absence. I assume your colleagues will continue your blog. For non-Post sources, I follow Adam Tuss and Martin Di Caro on Twitter. I'm both a Metro rider (when SafeTrack is not hitting the Virginia end of the Blue and Yellow Lines) and a driver, so I don't want to focus solely on one mode of transportation. Biking to work isn't happening due to commuting with my wife (who wouldn't be able to bike) and due to no shower at the office. Thanks again for all the years of helpful information.

I think you're going to all the right sources.

I'd like to recommend three books: The Great Society Subway for understanding Metro; The Big Roads for understanding how our highways got like this; Street Smart for thinking about the future of urban transportation. (That last book is by "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, who popularized the word during a New York City transit strike.)

for the chats and columns over the years. Congratulations on a well deserved retirement! A question I've always wanted to ask: If speed limits in the U.S. are usually 65-70 miles per hour, why do cars go 140 etc? Why don't they max out car speed at, say, 90. That would prevent cars from going absurd speeds of 100 and up (though 90 is absurd to me) which I see on the Beltway daily. Police/emergency vehicles exempt of course. I know there are likely many reasons why this isn't realistic but I'm tired of seeing reckless drivers speed for no reason other than they think they're more important than everyone else.

What I hate are the car commercials that suggest every driver needs the police interceptor package to get the kids to school.

We've made lots of progress on traffic safety in recent years, but we've got a long way to go.

You'll be missed!

Congratulations on your retirement. Many thanks for your excellent reporting over these many years.

I, too, was amused and saw the irony in the questions that you gave from your first chat almost 11 years ago. Being an employee of a government contracting company I have had the opportunity to drive and take the Metro (bus and rail) to many work places in the greater DC area. I have enjoyed reading and occasionally pitching in on your chats and the previous Dr. Gridlock. I have learned some and shared some.

Just writing a note to say thanks for your calm demeanor and your no non-sense ways of dealing with angry people. The way you write reminds me of my dad and always makes me smile (my dad is also retiring soon!). It also makes me try to think about calming down when I next get on the road. I hope that you have a great retirement with your wife!

Just in case you can't tell: I'm very reluctant to close the chat. I've had a great time today, and a great time exchanging comment with you for the past decade.

My wish for you is the same as always: Safe travels!

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: