Dr. Gridlock: D.C. region’s commuters share frustration, but little else


A metro train pulls into McPherson Square station on November, 11, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Robert Thomson
Columnist July 24, 2013

Could there be light at the end of the chronically congested tunnel? There has been a lot of talk lately about traffic easing up, road improvements taking effect and people telecommuting more.

Yes, there are serious indicators that the mental health of commuters is improving. In a Washington Post poll conducted last month, commuters in the Washington region who drive reported on average that their trips take 31 minutes, down six minutes from the average in a 2005 poll. And they’re adopting more sensible habits. For example, 20 percent of commuters said they telework at least once a week, compared with 11 percent in a 2010 poll.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

But “Dr. Gridlock” isn’t ready to take down his shingle as your congestion counselor. The average commuter doesn’t believe in averages, and many don’t sense the improvements that show up in regional surveys. These individual drivers, transit users, bikers and walkers are my people, and here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of providing therapy to the travelers who write to my column.

All travel is local — and very personal. My travelers don’t see the Washington region’s transportation network the way planners do. Planners imagine the transportation network as a big, unfolded map, stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Eastern Shore. It has interstates, secondary roads, rail lines, bus priority corridors and intermodal transportation facilities.

To my travelers, it’s not a big, unfolded map. The transportation network is a line from Point A to Point B, a line they follow every day. To them, improving the transportation network isn’t a question of building a highway or a rail line.

It’s a question of getting a few more seconds of green-light time at that intersection where they get stuck each morning. Fix that traffic light, and our “transportation problem” is solved. But our problem isn’t really that simple.

Commuting is complicated. A morning backup at the 11th Street bridge over the Anacostia River in the District might delay a traveler from Bowie on the way to work at the Pentagon. An afternoon jam at the George Washington Parkway exit from the Capital Beltway’s outer loop makes a commuter late getting home to the Navy Yard neighborhood from a job in Gaithersburg.

Transit riders lead equally complex lives. Fairfax County has been trying to please commuters with a more efficient bus service plan that will take advantage of Metro’s forthcoming Silver Line. Tell a Reston commuter who rides a bus all the way to the West Falls Church Metro station that she can have a much shorter bus ride to a train at the new Wiehle Avenue Metro station, and the commuter will say “thanks, anyway.”

Her job is near West Falls Church, but you’re going to send her bus to Wiehle Avenue, put her on a Silver Line train to East Falls Church, and then make her backtrack to West Falls Church on the Orange Line? She’d rather drive.

With travel patterns intertwined in many ways, problems are easy to create. It’s the solutions that are difficult.

There are some unifying experiences. Complaints tend to be of the same nature, no matter where commuters live. The frustration Marylanders express is shared by those in the District and Virginia. That frustration often centers on the unreliability of travel, whether by road or rail.

Those who commute across the region know it’s going to take longer than they would like. What they really want is the time to be consistent. It’s the uncertainty that fuels their anxiety and, in large part, accounts for their sense of wasted time.

Has the shared experience created a united front for change? No.

Travelers divide themselves. They rarely unite to improve commuting conditions. Instead of finding common cause, they often splinter into mistrustful factions. They divide into categories. And then they subdivide.

So it’s not only transit riders against drivers, and drivers against bikers, and pedestrians against everyone. It’s also Blue Line riders against Orange Line riders, and both of them against Red Line riders. To Beltway drivers, any car to the rear is a relentless tailgater. Any car in front is impeding the flow of traffic.

Dividers get conquered. About half my letter-writers complain about something a government agency did or didn’t do. With Metro, it might be the cutbacks in service on the Blue Line because of the Rush Plus program. Among drivers, it might be the failure of Maryland to do anything about the bottleneck on the west side of the Beltway in Bethesda.

But the other half of my writers want to complain about one another. Among Metro users, the top complaints are about people who eat or drink on trains or who won’t stand to the right on escalators. Among drivers, the top complaint is about other drivers who don’t know how to merge when a lane ends.

I enjoy the discussions in my column about travelers’ behavior because they raise consciousness about the things we can control out there. But too much focus on one another’s behavior can let the transportation agencies off the hook.

Progress is possible. The rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the nearby interchanges eased traffic congestion on the east side of the Beltway. Doubling up the exit ramp for the Dulles Toll Road reduced a chronic bottleneck. Construction of interchanges on Route 29 in Maryland eliminated some commuting delays at traffic signals. Throughout the region, the addition of ramps, turn lanes and longer merge lanes improved travel conditions.

In transit, the extension of the Yellow Line north, to Fort Totten, expanded Metro service to support the growth of residential, office and entertainment areas in the middle of the District. Limited-stop bus services such as the S9, on 16th Street, and the 79, on Georgia Avenue, offered alternatives to Metrorail and eased crowding on major commuter routes.

But many don’t seek solutions. Many travelers are aware of such progress and fashion well-reasoned appeals for more road and transit improvements. But often, the comments I get are contained in fired-up e-mails, sent from an office computer just after a difficult drive through the morning rush or from a smartphone on a crowded Metro platform in the late afternoon.

While they would like to see a fix, they are so beaten down by daily commuting that they don’t really expect it. The most common closing line in a “Dear Dr. Gridlock” letter is: “Thank you for letting me vent.”

Planners are developing visions for 2040 and beyond, when cars filled with ride-sharers will drive themselves to multimodal transportation hubs. Back in the real world, many commuters see only the next red light.

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