Dr. Gridlock

Sep 21, 2015

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'm going to start with some of your questions and comments about travel while Pope Francis is in DC this week, since I won't get a second chance on those. But I see there are other topics, too, including the new Active Traffic Management system on I-66 and issues about Metrorail delays.

I work near Nats Park and use the Douglass Bridge/295 to the Wilson Bridge. I can't telework Wednesday. I'm having horrible thoughts about my commute in and then home during normal rush hour times.

We're warning everyone about the likelihood of extensive traffic delays on Wednesday and Thursday. This is on a scale of an Inauguration Day, but it's really different in terms of its impact on individual commuters, because the events are strung out over several days and because so many people will be trying to conduct their normal business.

In other words, the results are unpredictable. But commuters should have Plan B's and probably Plan C's -- and they should certainly allow themselves extra time.

On this particular route to near Nats Park, I think there's likely to be considerable traffic Wednesday morning as people head for the pope's parade at the Ellipse. The gates open at 4 a.m., though the parade isn't till 11 a.m. It's the best chance for people without any tickets to see the pope.

I think this particular route is doable, with extra travel time built in, but I think the commuter would be better off taking Metrorail to Navy Yard station on Wednesday morning.

I bike to work, come across Memorial Bridge, and then ride up the Mall to get to my office near the Capitol. From maps you've posted, I know the Mall will be closed, but it looks like Independence Ave will be open in both directions. Do you know if the sidewalks along the north and south side of Independence (from Ohio Drive to 12th Street SW) will also be open so that I can avoid riding in traffic?

We don't have any reason to believe the sidewalks will be closed anywhere that the streets are open. Watch for pedestrians.

My colleague Luz Lazo had some tips for bike commuters in a Dr. Gridlock blog posting about the pope's visit. This link goes to the full posting, but these were some key points:

  • The expectation is that roads that are officially closed due to papal events or security reasons will also be closed to bike traffic. The closures will impact the bike lane network in some areas of downtown.
  • Finding parking could be more difficult given that there is the possibility that more people could choose to ride, and there would be fewer spots to lock up bikes outside the secured perimeters.
  • If you use Capital Bikeshare, you may have trouble finding an available bike or an open spot to park because the road closures will make it difficult for staff to rebalance the bike network.

I'm coming from Baltimore to the Nats/Os game on Tuesday (GO NATS!), and unfortunately I probably won't be able to leave Baltimore until about 5:30. Given the Pope's arrival, will driving to the park be a problem? I know rush hour will be hellish, I'm just not sure if it will be EXTRA hellish at that time. I do have a parking pass, so that's not a concern. Our other option is to take the MARC train and metro, but that seems like it will take almost 2 hours! Recommendations?

Is this trip something you do regularly? It's a 7:05 p.m. start. I'd find it challenging to go from Baltimore at 5:30 to Nats Park and make first pitch under any circumstances, with or without a pope in town.

The pope's arrival at Andrews and travel into DC probably won't be much of a factor on your Tuesday evening route, but we don't know exactly how he's traveling in from Andrews.

My suggestion, even though you've got a parking pass: Drive to the Greenbelt Metrorail station, park there, and take the Green Line to Navy Yard station.

But I'm curious if others have a take on this trip.

This might be a dumb question, but the roads that are closed to all vehicles during the Pope's visit, does this include bikes too? I"m really specifically asking about the part of the MBT Trail that goes through Catholic University which is being closed on 9/23.

Definitely not a dumb question, but I've heard nothing about closing the Metropolitan Branch Trail that runs parallel to the CSX and Metro tracks near Catholic University. (We're talking about Wednesday, when the pope will go to the National Shrine in Brookland.)

Readers will notice that on some questions I build in a hedge that "I've heard nothing about ... " Sometimes, plans change at the last minute. And police always reserve the right to make any on-the-spot changes they think necessary for security.

But if you see a map with a street closing, that street is closed to bicycles as well as autos.

I have to be in Baltimore at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. I'm thinking of leaving Arlington between 6 and 6:30 a.m. to be safe. Ordinarily, I'd go 395 to 695 to 295 to the BW parkway. Do you think there will be much disruption on that route due to the road closures in DC at that hour? Should I allow more time? Would I be better off going up the GW parkway to the American Legion bridge and across the beltway to the BW parkway? Or some other way? Thanks for any suggestions.

My guess on the worst time for commuting during the pope's visit: Wednesday morning, when the rush-hour commuter traffic will combine with the visitor traffic heading for the pope parade around the Ellipse.

So I do think 395 to 695 to 295 will be dicey at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday -- or any time during the morning.

I also worry that backups into DC on the Roosevelt, 14th Street and Memorial bridges will slow traffic on the GW Parkway.

While I favor the idea of taking the Legion Bridge and the Beltway around to the BW Parkway, I wouldn't want to go through the Roosevelt/14th Street/Memorial Bridge zone along the GW Parkway to get there.

Do you expect metro parking lots to fill up early?

Yes. Metro thinks the parking lots and garages -- especially those at the ends of the lines -- will fill up early on Wednesday and Thursday mornings.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly told me that Metro plans to send out e-mail alerts, text messages and Tweets to advise people when parking areas are filling up.

But it would be wise to leave extra early on Wednesday and Thursday.

Q: I live on Capitol Hill (by Union Station) and work in Annapolis. My commute normally takes 30 minutes. How terrible will it be getting out of the city around 8/8:30am and returning home in the evening around 5:30/6pm? Thanks!

I think you will be okay on Wednesday, but Thursday morning's commute is likely to be more difficult. That's the morning that the pope visits the Capitol.

You can see all our maps of street closings here.

But when you look at the maps and see your route is outside the red zones, don't think you've got smooth sailing. The effects of those closings will ripple out for many, many blocks and they're likely to last for hours.

The thing is -- and I'll keep saying it -- we don't know exactly how bad travel conditions will be. We've dealt with big events before, but nothing quite like this.

This is the way I've described it: Plan your travels as though the World Bank meetings in Foggy Bottom, the Nuclear Security Summit at Mount Vernon Square, the National Christmas Tree lighting on the Ellipse and the Concert for Valor on the Mall were happening within hours of one another.

I may not be able to get out of meeting in Laurel, MD. Am leaving from Tysons Corner. That's 495 to 95, circumventing DC. I need to be in Laurel around 9:30 am. Your advice? Thank you in advance.

I've had a lot of questions from travelers worried about Beltway trips on Wednesday and Thursday, because of the pope's visit.

I think the congestion problems caused by pope traffic will be within the Beltway, but won't have much impact on the Beltway.

The Beltway is likely to be its usual bad self. That trip on the inner loop from Tysons through Bethesda is almost always difficult at rush hours.

I had already planned on taking off Thursday and Friday, but with the office now closed Wednesday, I would like to get out of town early if I can. Everything I read is about the doomsday scenario for getting into DC that day, but nothing about getting out of the city. When would be the best time (other than super early) and what would be the best route? Going 66 to 29 to Lynchburg, so need to get from Adams Morgan to 66.

Because of the street closings around the Vatican Embassy on Mass Ave near the Naval Observatory, I'd be cautious about southbound travel on Rock Creek Parkway early Wednesday. That may be a very congested route.

You might be better off going north on Connecticut Avenue to the Beltway and taking the outer loop around to I-66.

Check the map that shows the Mass. Ave. closings.

Advice from others on this one?

Hello! Thanks for all you do for us! I live in Van Ness and work in McLean. I generally take Nebraska to Arizona to Canal Road to Chain Bridge. None of those roads are scheduled to be closed, but do you think traffic on them will be awful with all the other closures? It's a reverse commute so on regular mornings not too bad leaving the city on Chain Bridge. Also, is there expected to be an impact on the Thursday morning commute? Thanks so much!

If that's your outbound route on both Wednesday and Thursday mornings, you should be okay.

We should all take the congestion warnings seriously and check the closure maps. But this doesn't mean the entire D.C. street grid will be locked up for two days.

I'm flying in to DCA on Wednesday arriving around 11am. Since that's parade time, should I make the best of everyone watching the Pope and hurry to my destination on Metro or should I plan to hang out at the airport until everyone clears out?

Over the past week, I've gotten many questions from travelers wondering about flying in and out of the D.C. region's airports during the pope's visit.

It just shows me how many people will be trying to go about everyday life even as tens of thousands are trying to get into DC for these special events with the pope.

On this particular question: If the plane lands about 11 a.m., I'd go immediately to Metrorail to reach your destination. If you linger, you might get caught in the crowding as spectators leave the pope parade at the Ellipse, scheduled to begin at 11 and end by 11:30.

This is going to affect travel on the Blue, Orange, Silver and Red lines, since those lines stop at stations within walking distance of the Ellipse.

What will Metro itself look like during the visit? When Metro isn't in the midst of a breakdown, my commute is about 30 minutes door to door with about 7-10 minutes being on the Red line. Is it just going to be a little crowded, or should I leave a lot of extra time? Somewhat related question- has Metro built in any contingencies for the inevitable breakdowns that will occur during the busiest parts of this week?

It's going to be a lot crowded.

These are the times I'd be especially worried about rail congestion: Any time Wednesday morning as the crowds arrive on the Blue, Orange, Silver and Red lines for the 11 a.m. parade around the Ellipse.

And on Wednesday morning and afternoon on the east side of the Red Line. There's a papal Mass at the National Shrine, right by the Brookland station. The Mass is scheduled to start at 4:15 p.m. The gates open at 10 a.m., but people could start arriving at Brookland before that.

It's not just that the trains will be crowded. They'll be crowded with visitors who may be taking their first rides on Metro. They'll be confused. They won't know how veteran commuters do things. It will take them longer than it takes regular commuters to get on and off the trains. They may try to hold the doors open. The doors will break.

Metro will put on extra trains at off-peak periods, but for rush hours, Metro already sends out as many trains as the track system on most lines can accommodate.

I've got more of your questions and comments about the pope's visit, but I'm going to switch topics for a while.

I know the fire dept activity outside Stadium Armory was not Metro's fault, but deciding to offload and turn around already delayed and overcrowed Blue line trains at Rosslyn or Foggy Bottom certainly was. Forcing Blue line commuters to wait (along with everyone else) for even more crowded Orange or Silver line trains on dangerously overcrowded platforms in the heart of rush hour was just plain stupid. Do the people who make these decisions ever actually ride Metro?

Suspending train traffic through Stadium-Armory during the morning rush caused a huge problem for Blue, Silver and Orange Line riders all along the routes. The platforms at Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom don't need much help to get jammed during rush hours.

(By the way, if you're reading the chat live, check out Dana Hedgpeth's latest update on the disrupted service.)

I don't know what Metro had in mind with this morning's turnbacks. I know in a general way that during disruptions, Metro's operations center tries to do several things: Favor the inbound direction; turn back trains to prevent inbound platforms from becoming dangerously crowded; attempt to space the trains so that there's not a useless jam up through the disrupted part of the system.

It will take us a while to figure out how those things applied to the continuing problem at Stadium-Armory.


Do you think the Metro system is in such disarray and the funding so shaky that Metro is having trouble convincing a qualified executive to take over as General Manager? Aren't we nearing a year now on replacing the GM? Even with the delay caused by the media leak, that seems like a long time. Today's news of yet another fire/smoke related SNAFU can only add to the problems.

Early on, I thought, okay, it makes sense that the Metro board wants to resolve what type of manager it wants to recruit. But now this has gotten ridiculous.

Yes, it's about a year since the last general manager, Richard Sarles, announced he was retiring.

Metro doesn't need any one thing as much as it needs a new, permanent boss with full authority to make long-term changes. (This is not a smack at interim general manager Jack Requa, who I think has the worst job in Washington.)

That said, I'm not sure how to evaluate Metro's response to this morning's incident. I don't see how Metro officials could have done otherwise than to shut service through Stadium-Armory. The problem on Jan. 12 at L'Enfant Plaza was partly caused by sending a train into a smoking tunnel.

Hello Dr. Gridlock! VDOT turned on their Active Traffic Management (ATM) system on I-66 this past week. I thought one of the important selling points of the ATM system was the ability to open the shoulder lane at times other than during rush hour since there are now cameras that can determine if the lane is clear. I figured this would be a huge game changer on weekends when there is often a lot of traffic and the shoulder is closed. I was rather unpleasantly surprised to see that the lane had red Xs over it this weekend, with plenty of congestion. What gives? Will they be opening it on weekends or was the ability to open the lane outside of rush hour limited to traffic incidents? -"thetan"

I've got a bunch of comments from travelers asking just about the same thing regarding VDOT's new system of sensors and signs on I-66, which debuted last week.

Among the many hoped-for benefits of this new smart-road system is that VDOT has more flexibility in opening the shoulder lanes to all traffic when congestion gets really bad.

I know many drivers were frustrated when they encountered heavy traffic and the shoulders weren't open. I'm trying to find out what the deal is with that.

Meanwhile, I'm going to publish a few more of your comments about this.

Why are we WASTING an astronomigical amount of hard-earned, TAXPAYERS' money -- $38.6 million -- on "management systems" on I-66, why not take the SIMPLE AND FREE route of just keeping the "red" shoulder lane open 24/7? BTW, so far the management system has been a complete FAILURE, says me, who sits in traffic needlessly when the "Red X STOP" lane is supposed to be "Green Go!" Stop the boondoogle NOW. Easy solution: Get developers to FAIRLY kick in money for the roads they congested to begin with.

Please explain how the new traffic signs on I-66 are supposed to help. Thursday afternoon around 5:00pm, traffic was crawling on I-66 west from the beltway to US-50. I never made it above 20mph. One sign reduced the speed limit to 50 another said to resume normal speeds. Other signs said 45 and 40. Great, but with the average speed around 8mph, knowing the speed limit had been reduced to 40mph meant that I was only 32 miles per hour slower than the speed limit. Might as well have put 15 on the signs as that would have been closer to reality. End result was 35-40 minutes to get from the beltway to US-50... Bravo new traffic management system, you worked wonderfully, NOT!

Are their specific criteria for opening the red X lanes during non-rush hour times? Traffic on 66 East Saturday afternoon was heavy, and the signs were helpfully telling us the speed limit was 50 or 45 or 40 or 35 MPH as we were going much slower than that...but the red X's remained. Also, it was particularly helpful the other day on 66 West during rush hour that the signs told us to "resume normal speed" and re-posted the 55 MPH speed limit...as we sat in bumper to bumper traffic near Nutley St

I worked from home over the summer, and since starting back to a regular commute last week, the Orange Line has been at a crawl essentially every morning. It should not take 40 minutes to go from West Fall Church to Metro Center. I know that there have been some one-off incidents like the fire this morning, but this has been happening again and again.

Leaving aside those extra special days like today, the day in and day out problem that Metro officials themselves have identified is that they can't get as many Orange, Silver and Blue Line trains as they thought through the tunnel between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory.

So many of you will recall that the solution Metro proposed over the summer was to widen the gap between trains on the Orange and Silver lines. The gap between Blue Line trains would be shortened from 12 to eight minutes, but that's not such an advantage, because the trains would likely get more crowded.

The Metro staff asked the board for permission to hold a hearing on this idea, but the board so far has demurred.

One of the issues that I think the board members recognized is that it would be difficult to tell if widening the gaps between trains was making service more reliable. Trains would still break down. Meanwhile, it would be very obvious that the trains were getting more crowded.

I'm heading from Silver Spring MD to Lewes DE next weekend. Will beach traffic be better by this time of year? Planning to leave Saturday morning and come back on Sunday evening. Thanks.

The traffic should be better than on a July or August weekend, but I'd still be wary of congestion on Route 50 eastbound toward the Bay Bridge on Friday evenings and -- to a lesser extend -- on late Saturday mornings.

Meanwhile, watch out for a road resurfacing project on Route 404 in Denton. That's a popular route to the beach.

I'm going back now for more questions and comments on travel during the pope's visit.

I am planning on going to Washington Hebrew (3935 Macomb St NW, Washington, DC 20016) for services on Wednesday and its is not metro accessible (I live near Chinatown). What roads should I expect to be closed if I head there around 4 PM or a little later. A similar issue exists for those going to Kesher Israel in Georgetown.

See all four of the street closing maps with this Luz Lazo story full of travel tips.

Washington Hebrew is well north of the Massachusetts Avenue closing zone by the Vatican Embassy. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the big traffic-generating event will be in Brookland, at the National Shrine, so I'm hopeful about the travel conditions to Washington Hebrew and to Kesher Israel around that time.

My employer is pushing Tuesday as a car-free day and encouraging people to ride Metro. At first, I thought is was a joke. The pope is in town, there is a baseball game and a concert. That alone would make me wary of taking the train. But to add to it, Metro is constantly single-tracking, checking tunnels for smoke and dealing with police or fire activity at stations. Can you make a good case for me to leave my automobile at home Tuesday and take Metro. I cannot think of a single reason, including cost. By the time I pay for parking at a Metro garage and put money on my Metro card, I am over my transportation budget for the day.

Good for your employer, and I hope many people are aware of this annual event. See more about Car Free Day here.

Sponsors encourage commuters to leave their cars at home and travel by train, bus, carpool, vanpool, bike, on foot -- or telecommute.

Metrorail has plenty of problems, and I'm not into transportation ideology, so if Metrorail doesn't work for you, don't take it.

For me, Metrorail almost always works, because it means I don't have to pay $12 to 15 to warehouse my car all day long.

The big traffic days for the pope's visit are Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday, not so much.

To get around on Wednesday and Thursday, when the traffic close in to DC is likely to be very bad in many areas -- and unpredictable -- I'd take my chances with Metrorail.


I know you have said this event is like the Inaguration. For Thursday, around the Capitol, are there going to be check points and limitations on how pedestrians get near the Mall? (Pedestrians without tickets to the Mall event and headed to offices near the Capitol. )

I've said that the pope's visit is on the scale of an Inauguration Day in terms of its big impact on travel, but it's not like an Inauguration Day for individual travelers. For an inauguration, the job of the transportation system is to get people into an event and then to get them back out again.

This is different. It's a bunch of special events across the District at times when many thousands of other people will be trying to do their everyday commutes, doctors visits, service calls, airport and Amtrak trips.

The checkpoint areas are as you see them on the maps on this page, including the one around the Capitol on Thursday. If you're not within those red zones, it's good to be a pedestrian on Wednesday and Thursday.

My office is near Pennsylvania Ave. and 18th St. NW. I commute in on the Clara Barton Parkway/Canal Rd. to Whitehurst Freeway to K Street. I plan to work from home on Wednesday and Thursday though.

Yes, I think Tuesday's commute will be pretty typical. Wednesday and Thursday, you're very smart to work from home.

Hi Doc - any impact to Rock Creek Pkwy commuting during the papal visit?

Yes, I think the southern part of Rock Creek Parkway is likely to be extra crowded, Tuesday afternoon through Thursday afternoon, with some traffic diverting from Massachusetts Avenue because of road closures.

In my experience traffic was extremely light this morning. I expected the opposite, i.e. that those who normally would have taken the Monday off or telework, would rather do it during the Pope's visit and commute today. So do people just take a week off due to the Pope's visit?

I spent the morning rush hour at the new Silver Spring Transit Center. So I can't speak about traffic overall. But I was a bit surprised at how light the traffic was around this new facility. (Anytime something new opens and changes travel patterns, I expect disruption and congestion.)

Monday would normally be a lighter travel day than Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. So I'm not sure we can make any conclusions about people taking the entire week off. Some people just work a Tuesday-Saturday week, or make a three-day weekend that includes Monday.

Taking the entire week off because of the pope's visit would be extreme, but a good plan for Wednesday and Thursday.

Thanks for joining me. I've got to break away now, but we'll have more about planning for the pope's visit on the Dr. Gridlock blog. And then we'll be following things pretty intensely on Wednesday and Thursday both on the blog and on the Dr. Gridlock Twitter feed.

Stay safe through all this unpredictability and give yourself extra travel time. Come back next Monday and we'll assess how things went.

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.
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