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Spring renews conflict between D.C. locals and tour buses

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, April 4, 2010; C02

Each spring renews the conflict between local drivers and tour buses.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I was on Reno Road NW on Saturday afternoon [March 27] and came upon a sightseeing bus blocking the road.

The bus was between Woodley and Cathedral, southbound, straddling the lane marker, with flashers on, stopped dead. It was not at a traffic signal.

I figured the driver was letting the folks onboard take pictures of Washington National Cathedral. After about two minutes, it moved on, then stopped, again straddling the lanes so no traffic could get by on either side. After about 30 seconds, it moved on, turning left.

The bus stopped again, straddling the two lanes and blocking traffic. Cars had backed up behind it by this time. I figured the driver was telling folks about the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory. Finally, the bus moved on and slid into the left lane, allowing us to get by.

Now, I'm happy to allow tourists the chance to enjoy our city, but I had never seen this kind of behavior by a sightseeing-bus driver. I don't think this practice is safe. Is it permissible for these drivers to block lanes and tie up traffic like this?

-- Bob Witten, Chevy Chase

No, bus drivers shouldn't be blocking traffic, and police -- if they spot them -- should get the buses moving properly. Other spots where dawdling or improperly stopped buses have annoyed drivers include Woodley Park by the National Zoo and the commuter routes around the Lincoln Memorial. Where else?

Rough riders

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I'm a frequent Metro traveler and find myself getting annoyed with the rough-braking operators on a regular basis. It feels like they are stomping on the brakes, and sometimes they pump them pretty hard, which is very uncomfortable for the passenger.

Because this doesn't happen on every trip, I am assuming it is not a design flaw in our trains that requires this gut-lurching brake stomping, but rather the operators' lack of grace or training.

I don't want to unfairly blame them if this is something that they can't help, but I suspect that is not the case and yearn for a smoother ride that doesn't cause me to either stumble like a drunken sailor at every stop, or get my head snapped back when I am seated. Is there any remedy for this?

-- Emily Whiting, Alexandria

Many thousands of riders will identify with this complaint. It has been a common one since the transit authority suspended automatic train controls as a safety measure after the June 22 Red Line crash.

The controls in the front cab aren't like those in our cars. When the system was under automatic control, operators got some practice starting and stopping at off-peak hours, but now they must do it all the time.

There appears to be a steep learning curve for operators when they are required to brake the trains, particularly at rush hour with trains crowding the lines.

The last time we had so many complaints about lurching trains was a decade ago -- the last time Metro suspended automatic control. The operators got better as they got more practice, and complaints declined.

It's been nine months since the crash. Are you noticing an improvement in the ride or learning to brace yourself better?

Awning appreciation

This letter is a reminder of how many little things make up a traveler's experience, and what it takes to make it a good one.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Metro hasn't had much to be cheeky about lately. In the spirit of giving credit where due: Metro did a great job with the new awnings installed over the bus run walkways at West Falls Church. I don't even need to carry an umbrella anymore.

So if you ever need to counter the insults hurled at Metro, tell them about the new awnings.

-- John Snyder, Berryville

The rehabilitation of the bus bay was supported by Fairfax County, Virginia and the Federal Transit Administration.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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