Dupont Circle Metro repairs require many layers of safety for riders

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The 19th Street Metro station entrance at Dupont Circle is closed for 8 1 / 2 months for escalator replacement. Those steep escalators were constantly broken, causing quite a hardship for elderly and disabled passengers.

Now all the action from that entrance has moved to the other Dupont Circle entrance on 20th and Q streets. A police booth has been set up at the top of the escalators, and the people on duty are usually sitting there doing nothing.

Often, there are also large groups of WMATA staff members assembled, usually busy talking among themselves. However, none of this is as outrageous as a situation I recently raised with WMATA concerning the internal escalators in the station at the 19th Street end — the four escalators to and from the tracks have been running for months while the station is closed.

When I wrote to WMATA to report this situation, which not only wastes energy but also has no purpose, the response was an inane message saying something like, “they keep them running in case of an emergency.”

Emergency for what? Even if you used them, you couldn’t exit the station at that end, because there are no escalators or elevators going to the street.

David B. Sherman,
the District

DG: In a station as deep underground and as busy as Dupont Circle, there would be no such thing as a small emergency. If the station is going to remain open for most of a year with one of its two exits closed, we really want all of those protections in place.

We want the police unit at the top of the long bank of Q Street escalators to close them off and help people get out if there’s a problem down below. We want personnel on the mezzanine below to monitor the movement of trains and riders and to communicate quickly with emergency personnel.

We want extra staff members ready to assist passengers and make repairs if any of the remaining escalators breaks down. And we even want those platform escalators on the south side operating in case people need to move quickly from one platform to the other, or get out of the station via the new stairwell built into a vent shaft before the project started or by the one south side escalator remaining in place for emergency evacuations.

Those were elements of the emergency plan worked out among Metro and D.C. safety officials in the months before the escalator replacement began in February. The alternative was to shut the station completely, which would have inconvenienced the 50,000 riders who normally use Dupont Circle on a weekday.

But that would have been far better than risking their safety by failing to layer on safety measures. A station fire and evacuation would be a nightmare. But even a train breakdown up or down the line has the potential to create dangerous crowding inside a station that’s easier to enter than to exit.

Riders are often curious about active machinery and apparently-less-active personnel. But at Dupont Circle, our best-case scenario is that those escalators continue to cycle, even with no one using them, and that emergency personnel have relatively little to keep them busy.

Where to cross

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

After reading the letters you included in your column May 20, I was reminded of my own observation about pedestrians crossing the streets in the middle of a block instead of at the corners. I was always told that this was not safe, and I received a ticket for doing this in the District about 25 years ago.

But then I think about this fact: At the corners, where the walk/don’t-walk lights are, traffic can approach from every direction, whether or not the driver sees the traffic lights, and drivers might turn into the pedestrian lanes whether or not they can see the pedestrians as they begin their turns.

But in the middle of the block, traffic can approach from only two directions, which sounds — and feels — safer to me! I can only assume that walk/don’t-walk lights are installed at intersections to minimize the number of stops that drivers have to make, and perhaps to maximize the number of parking spaces on the streets. Perhaps safety is not the primary concern of the planners.

Charlotte Melichar, Bowie

DG: Traffic planners have the difficult task of protecting everybody while keeping traffic flowing. In an urban environment, it’s difficult to reconcile the two goals.

Getting through an intersection is one of the most difficult things drivers do. Many fail to appreciate the number of observations and decisions required. But at least they’re surrounded by huge hunks of metal. Pedestrians also need to make many quick judgments and have no such protection.

Still, a mid-block free-for-all won’t do, despite the good point Melichar makes about pedestrians having just two ways to look. At least at intersections, we have a better sense of the rules of engagement. The challenge is to get more people to accept those rules.

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.
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