Dr. Gridlock - Live Online wih Robert Thomson

Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, August 14, 2006; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's new Dr. Gridlock , succeeding Ron Shaffer , who had tracked travelers' problems for two decades.

He was online Monday, Aug. 14, at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.

Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

A transcript follows.


Dr. Gridlock: Good afternoon, fellow commuters, I just got in from a trip on Arlington Transit's No. 41 bus, which travels between the Columbia Pike and Ballston-Court House corridors. One of my learning experiences in these first few weeks as Dr. Gridlock is to travel around by bus. More coming up on that.

By the way, I've asked folks on our

Get There

blog to share ideas about what travel will be like around here this fall, once everyone gets back into town. So if you chatters have some thoughts on that, as we enjoy the last few weeks of summer, bring them on.

But now let's get to some of the questions and comments you've already sent in.


If Metro is reading this . . . : I am hosting a mid-size group of visitors to DC and would like to encourage them to use Metro to visit various sites instead of driving. I am looking to get copies of the Pocket Guide that metro had (you know the one that says how to use metro & it has a map of all the stations.) I have tried e-mailing the place the web site said to contact, but have never heard back from anyone. How does one get bulk copies of these guides (or should I just go to the metro stations and keep taking them from all the kiosks.) Please find out who I can call, as their e-mail communications don't seem to be working at all!

Dr. Gridlock: One great source for all kinds of regional transportation information is CommuterPage.com. Those nice folks gave me a tour of there operations, including one of their Commuter Stores -- the one in Rosslyn - and showed me the stacks and stacks of brochures and maps they have available for distribution.

To order a Metrorail pocket guide, try this

Commuter Store



Alexandria, Va.: I have driven in Metro D.C. for 23 years. I must say in the last year I have become terrified on occasion. Am I imagining things or in the last 2-5 years has a surprisingly large percentage of drivers become homicidally belligerent and insanely reckless? Has anyone else made this observation? If it is indeed a real phenomenon, what is the cause and what can be done about it? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I think a very, very small percentage of drivers take reckless actions -- but in a region as densely populated as ours, that's still a lot of drivers.

Police have a program called Smooth Operator, in which the region's departments periodically devote extra efforts to cracking down on reckless drivers. They've shown us the stats documenting the numbers of citations they've issued over the years the program has been operating. But it's not clear to me that this is having as much of an impact as we all would like.


Silver Spring, Md.: What's happening on University Blvd east of Piney Branch? Without any warning, they're replacing center curbs, blocking one lane east bound and creating huge backups. In the 25 years I've been driving there, I've never noticed that the curbs needed any work. If they were reconfiguring the left turn lanes, this sort of work might make sense, but they're not doing that. Is is this one of Jack Johnson's boondoggles?

Dr. Gridlock: That's a nasty and congested bit of roadway, and if the work is for safety enhancements, then I'd applaud it. It's not about the Purple Line transitway, which could eventually send light rail or rapid buses along that route.

I think that's a state project -- nothing to do with Prince George's County government -- and I'll check on it.


Nowhere, Man!: A quick gripe about the speed camera in the southbound 3rd Street Tunnel -- and not for the reason you think! Everybody knows the camera is there, and everybody dutifully slows down; the problem is, the posted speed is 45 mph (posted at the tunnel entrance and again within sight of the camera), but everybody slows to 30-35! Of course, as soon as they're out of camera range, it's back up to 60 mph. Tell me again how this is helping?

Dr. Gridlock: Don't you folks see the same thing at any speed trap? Even if we're talking about a state police car, parked by a highway in one of their usual haunts, doesn't everyone slow down to about 15 miles below the speed limit before hitting the gas the moment they think they're out of range?


Arlington, Va.: Greetings, Doctor!

I was curious about your views on the proposed 300M National Army Museum at gridlocked Ft.Belvoir? With all these competing service museums, and war memorials that are morphing into war shrines, what about the idea of a NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM at the Arlington Metro, bundling all the competing services and war vets into a great National War Museum, thereby freeing up Fort Belvoir, and stopping the Spartanization of our imperial Athenean capital? THANKS PS this is being championed by the Coalition to Save the Mall

Dr. Gridlock: Northern Virginia's leaders seem torn: They want the museum and they want all the workers and service people. It's great for the region's economy. But no one involved in this process has displayed a transportation plan that inspires confidence.

Doesn't it seem like the federal government needs to be more heavily involved in dealing with the impact of the base realignments?


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dr. G,

Do you (or the chatters) know if it is possible to get directly on the northbound side of the G.W. Parkway from 395 South? If you drive out of the city over the 14th Street Bridge, you see signs for the G.W. Parkway going south (I assume the signs are for the airport) but nothing about going north on the parkway.

Thank you!

Dr. Gridlock: Chatters, help me get this right, because it's not a route I normally take. Isn't the first I-395 southbound exit on the Virginia side the one for the northbound GW Parkway?


Falls Church, VA: Can you contact, or give me contact information for, someone in charge of oversight of the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge? The sidewalks are covered with rubble and broken glass from the construction and the section by Roosevelt Island is overgrown with weeds. The bridge is a major artery for bike commuters from Arlington/Fairfax and needs to be cleaned. I have personally brought clippers some years after getting whacked by weeds (which turned out to be poison ivy!) and spent 10 minutes last Friday trying to pick up broken glass.

Dr. Gridlock: I believe that's the District's Department of Transportation (DDOT). I'll check with those folks about the maintenance issue you raise and about the state of the current repair project and will report back on our Get There blog.


Nowhere, Man ( and getting there fast!): Doc-

In your last chat, you mentioned checking the TrafficLand cameras before leaving the office as a way to plan your commute. I do that myself, but often find it as infuriating as it is informative. Various cameras in DC are often offline for extended periods of time, and even when they're online they're often aimed and focused in the wrong direction, on the location of some forgotten incident from days ago.

The camera at NY and FL Aves. in DC has been offline for months, and the one at NY & NJ Ave has been out for at least three weeks. And whatever happened to the traffic cam at the mouth of the 3rd Street Tunnel on NY Ave.? I used to depend on that to tell me whether the tunnel was a viable route on any given evening, as it would show me how far back into the tunnel the line of traffic extended. That one disappeared some time ago (though the housing still seems to occupy its perch on the street light post), only to be replaced with the one at NY & NJ Aves (which is just about useless for me and anyone else trying to use the tunnel).

Who's in charge of aiming and maintaining the traffic cams in DC?

Dr. Gridlock: Excellent point and way too true. I just clicked on TrafficLand.com now and the first thing is see -- or don't see -- is the image for I-66 at the Beltway. Where the image should be, it says "No Video."

I remember hearing that some of the cams were knocked out by the big storms we had early this summer. But it's hard to believe they couldn't have been fixed or re-aimed by now. It's not a problem exclusive to the DC cameras. I appears to affect all jurisdictions.


Owings (Calvert Co.) Md.: It's great to have you as our new Dr. Gridlock!

In addition to your Sunday Metro section feature are you going to publish Thursdays in the local "Extras" like our "Southern Maryland Extra?"

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you, and yes: The Dr. Gridlock column in The Post's Extras will return this Thursday. Please look for our Extras behind the Home section in your Thursday paper.


Centreville, Va.: Thank you Dr. Gridlock for this chance to comment on the miserable DC area traffic. Something I've noticed that is detrimental to safe driving is drivers' lack of using turn signals at all or using them when they are already at their turn. Could you please find out why using turn signals has fallen into disuse? I find it very frightening when a car in front of me with no turn signal suddenly stops with no warning for no discernible reason and then signals a turn. By that time, it's too late! Same goes if one is waiting to get out onto a busy street and the driver from the left doesn't signal a right turn, thus preventing the person turning from knowing it's safe to go out into traffic. I have waited so many times for a car before going out in traffic, only to find the driver is making a turn and signaling as he or she gets right to the turn. It's second nature for me to use a turn signal and I can't understand why it's not a natural part of caution when driving today. I won't even start on stopping at stop signs -- apparently they are now pause signs.


Dr. Gridlock: I agree completely with you that use of turn signals has fallen into disuse. Ron Shaffer, my predecessor as Dr. Gridlock, received many letters on the topic. Lots of people said that they no longer signal on highways because they fear another driver will spot that and move up to close the gap.

I know that happens sometimes, but I don't see that as a satisfactory explanation for what we're seeing. Think of how many times drivers fail to signal right or left turns on two-lane roads, where there's no chance of anyone overtaking them.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I've noticed more flagrant driving violations by Vespa and other scooter drivers (i.e., driving through red lights, riding on the sidewalk, etc.). Are they exempt from driving rules and regulations? If not, where are the traffic cops to cite them?!

Dr. Gridlock: Nope. Like bicycles, the scooters are subject to the same traffic laws as other vehicles. By and large, I think people follow the rules -- rather than making spur of the moment decisions about whether to act like a driver and use the road, or a pedestrian and use the sidewalks. But I see the same sorts of behavior from time to time that you report.


Bowie, Md.: Instead of tearing down the old Wilson Bridge, why aren't officials considering keeping it to help ease the traffic situation even more?

Dr. Gridlock: Wouldn't help. The old bridge is in the way of the second span of the new bridge. It has to come down, or the second span can't be completed. Due date for that, by the way, is 2008.


Washington, D.C.: I am planning on going to the North Carolina coast for Labor Day weekend, but probably won't be able to get off early on Friday, meaning I'll be leaving at about 5 or 5:30. Are there any ways out of town that won't leave me sitting in traffic forever?

Dr. Gridlock: One thing my editor, Steve Ginsberg, discovered when he was transportation reporter is that more and more people people are traveling at odd hours on holiday weekend. It's been getting to the point that traffic in the Friday evening rush period looks almost normal -- for that time of day, anyway.

But you chatters may have other opinions on that. Any recommendations for our NC-bound reader?


Washington, D.C.: In your chat and others, people complain about Metro. Many of these things could be corrected at low or no cost. Yet Metro does not correct the problems. Here's one that is an ongoing frustration of mine. Why won't Metro post signs (hand-written is fine) if subsequent elevators or escalators in a series are out of service? I've asked at several different stations where I encountered this problem and all station managers refused. Standing on a moving escalator is not the same as walking up or down stairs (or worse a stopped escalator). The fact that Metro won't take this simple step to improve customer service, demonstrates quite clearly what they think of customers.

Dr. Gridlock: Anybody from Metro looking at our chat today and want to comment on our reader's question about the lack of signs?


Metro Media Relations, Washington D.C.: In response to the person looking for a bulk shipment order of the Metro pocket guide, the person can either call (202) 962-2772 and leave a voicemail message or send a fax to (202) 962-6103. In both cases, the person should provide a contact name, address to ship the pocket guides, phone number, and the number of pocket guides needed.

Thanks for your interest in Metro, and we apologize for any delay in the ordering process. Steven Taubenkibel, Metro Media Relations.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, Steve.


395 South to G.W.: The chatter must be confused. The very first exit after the bridge is the on ramp to the north bound G.W. parkway.

Maybe he tries to fly by all the traffic in the right lane and fails to notice that the reason it's so backed up is that people are trying to get on the G.W.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the response on the chatter's question about how to get from southbound I-395 to northbound GW Parkway.


Washington, D.C.: How is the I.C.C. going to speed things up if it's going to be a toll road?

Dr. Gridlock: I know the theory of this type of toll system is called congestion pricing: If the road is getting more crowded, the toll goes up, so supposedly, fewer drivers would use it during that time period.

Whether that will work for the intercounty connector highway across Montgomery and Prince George's, that I'm not so sure of.


Annapolis, Md.: Why is that drivers need to slow down to a crawl to read the variable message display boards on area highways! It is so frustrating to be tooling along at 65 mph, to suddenly encounter a slowdown so people can read the signs. Is their eyesight that bad? Maybe you shouldn't be driving if that's the case.

Dr. Gridlock: It's unclear to me that our region's electronic highway signs were worth the investment. So often the message is "Report Suspicious Activity." Fine, but that's not really what I expect out of a highway sign.

Some of them don't seem to be in very good repair, so you may not even be able to read the message. Some drivers will slow down as they try to make out a garbled message.

If you're driving southbound on I-95, that message board just before the Capital Beltway is an example of what I'm talking about.


Alexandria, Va.: Would increased bus service along the I-66 corridor be effective in reducing traffic on that highway?

Dr. Gridlock: Something needs to change, right? I-66 traffic is just amazing. I'm a big fan of using buses as a partial solution to our traffic problems. The trick is to make it a legitimate choice over driving by yourself. It has to be modern, comfortable and on time. The last thing is especially difficult of the buses are using lanes jammed with cars.


Variable toll rates: So in essence you could get on the toll road at one rate and then end up having to pay more -- how will you know?

Dr. Gridlock: I believe that the electronic controls for such systems can eliminate that particular problem. This is similar to the popular E-ZPass system that you're probably familiar with. You have a transponder in your car that deducts the toll amount from an account that you have established.

I think it could be more of an issue of knowing what the toll is going to be before you leave home. I'm not sure how that's possible.


Alexandria, Va.: Tried to get to a PNats game yesterday down Prince William County way. I-95 South bumper-to-bumper. It seems to be 'always' like this, night or day. What on earth is up with this stretch of road?

Dr. Gridlock: This is a stretch of highway I also have come to dread. My experience with I-95 in Virginia came mostly from visits to our Richmond Bureau during the General Assembly sessions. No matter what time I left to head south, somehow, someway there always would be a jam up. Didn't matter if there was an accident or not. I think it's partly a function of this being a major corridor for East Coast traffic as well as a major commuter route for us.


Ashburn, Va.: Dr. G, were you riding the bus during the last heat wave? Did the buses always have AC working properly? Well my girlfriend rode one from West Falls Church to Herndon with out AC. How can the F.C. or Metrobus allow a bus into its route when the heat gets that bad and the air conditioning is broken?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro pledged during the heat wave to check on all buses and rail cars to make sure that the AC was working.

That was a tough time: Even when it was working it didn't always feel that way. Same in the underground train stations.

Metro has a number to call for complaints: 202-637-1328. Their folks always ask that you be as specific as possible. Tell them the number of the bus or the number of the rail car that was malfunctioning.


Falls Church, Va.: Good Day to You Being new to the area can You tell me the difference between the inner and outer loop? Thanks

Dr. Gridlock: This question comes up all the time, and I have yet to read an explanation that satisfies everyone. Traffic on the outer loop moves in a clockwise direction. Traffic on the inner loop moves counter clockwise.


Love the Bus: A compliment for Metro: I have been incredibly impressed by the professionalism, courtesy, and work ethic of the drivers on the "3" Metrobus routes -- these go to and from Rosslyn Metro on Lee Highway. I ride from the Cherrydale area to Rosslyn, and have had nothing but great experiences with all the drivers on my route. I can't say enough good things about them. They make my commute fast, safe, and extremely pleasant.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm a big fan of buses. Glad to hear of this good experience.


McLean, Va.: One suggestion to ease at least some traffic/crowding on Metro is to have express buses on 66 going from, say, West Falls Church straight to downtown. I am surprised at the lack of Metro express bus routes from Northern Virginia to downtown.

I would love to whiz down 66 on a bus than deal with Metro and its delays and overcrowding. I am going to be moving back to Old Town Alexandria where I will be taking the good old 11Y to and from work downtown. I used to do this and much prefer it to my current hour plus parking/Metro commute. Every day I look at 66 and think there must be other ways to use that road during rush hours.


Dr. Gridlock: I like the idea. Sure looks like the main commuter routes, like I-66 and the Orange Line, will need a supplement soon -- like maybe now.

One issue will be how to pay for our various proposals. I wish Virginia's General Assembly could get its act together and approve a better financing system for this vital need.


MetroBus Rider, D.C.: First to respond to Going, Nowhere! -- if people followed the speed limits to begin with instead of driving in D.C. like they are on the Autobahn, we wouldn't need speed cameras, would we?

Now to my question. I ride the bus and buy a weekly bus pass every Saturday or Sunday while grocery shopping. This is the second week that the Watergate Safeway didn't have any bus passes. Safeway blames Metro and Metro says it's Safeway's responsibility to get the passes. Whose responsibility is it to GE the bus passes to the distribution points? And why couldn't Metro have bus pass vending machines in Metro stations? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: I publish this in hope that Metro can respond during the chat to the reader's question about the bus passes.


Alexandria, Va.: A common theme sounded by some readers of the "old" Dr. Gridlock column over the years has been the refrain that people need to live where they work.

I have a different take on that. For the past three weeks I've been out of town on business, and the office I'm using is right across the street from the hotel. Most of our meals are being catered in our office. We walk across the street in the morning, walk back in the evening and seldom go anywhere else. Quite frankly, it's depressing and it feels like you never leave work! Going through this experience makes me realize one reason why the "live where you work" attitude is never going to fly with many people, especially in a city as full of workaholics as D.C. You HAVE to leave work; you can't let it take over your whole life. Living across the street from the office doesn't allow you that chance to get away and clear your mind.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm certainly not dogmatic on this issue. For many years since we moved to the Washington area in 1988, I've had nine mile commute from Silver Spring to The Post's downtown newsroom. My wife, however, works at The Baltimore Sun, in downtown Baltimore, which imposes a very lengthy commute on her.

(She always says I told her that Silver Spring was halfway between Washington and Baltimore, but I don't recall that.)


Owings, Md.: OOPS! You got the flow of traffic on the Beltway loops backwards!

Traffic on the Outer Loop moves counter-clockwise and traffic on the Inner Loop moves clockwise. (When viewed from above).

Here's another way to think of it. If you think of the Beltway as two 10 mile radius circles drawn around the Washington Monument, one slightly larger than the other, then when you drive the Inner loop (clockwise) Washington, D.C., will always be to your right and the outer suburbs to your left.

When you drive the outer loop (counter-clockwise), D.C. is always to your left and the outer 'burbs to your right.

Dr. Gridlock: See? This is just what I mean about the inner-outer thing: The writer is quite right and thanks for the correction.

(I was on the Beltway yesterday. Amazing that I managed to get home.)


Inner and Outer Loop: The inner loop is closest to D.C. The outer loop is farther.

Dr. Gridlock: I like this explanation. This is pretty simple, isn't it?


Arlington, Va.: Please, if anyone from Metro is reading this, please implement one of the following three suggestions: Put machines on the platform so waiting riders can add money to their SmarTrip cards, enable riders to exit the station without paying a fare if they haven't gone anywhere (thereby allowing waiting riders to replenish the SmarTrip card), or put up display screens showing when the next train is coming outside the turnstiles (again, allowing commuters to make use of waiting time to replenish SmarTrip card). Any one of these would be extremely simple, and then commuters can do something useful while waiting for the next train.

Dr. Gridlock: I hate to try to replenish my SmarTrip card before going to the platform. I'm so sure that a train is bound to arrive while I'm feeding money into the machine. I always do it when leaving the station.


Washington, D.C.: I must disagree with you about how bicycle riders behave on the road. Based on my observations at the stop signs I encounter on my walk to the Union Station metro station, virtually all of them blow through the stop signs, endangering pedestrians all the time. All I can say is, if you, Mr./Ms. Bicycle Rider, show me a complete lack of respect and courtesy when I am walking, I will return the favor when I am in my car.

Dr. Gridlock: I've got a few comments from bicycle riders and motorists with various opinions on the other's performance.

But I don't see any lasting benefit in responding in kind to bad behavior.


Variable toll question: California has been quite successful at variable tolls. Think of it like Metro -- they have rush hour pricing to encourage people to take it during the slower times and spread out the congestion.

Remember, the tolls and federal government are paying for this road -- the state of Maryland is not putting up any money and the funds it is getting from the feds wouldn't go to any other project in the state. That's the big misnomer the anti-ICC people are trying to propogate.

The highway can't come soon enough for me.

Dr. Gridlock: If I remember the funding issue correctly, the gripe is that the ICC will soak up most of the federal highway money coming to Maryland in the next two decades. Opponents ask whether one highway project is really that valuable.


Downtown, D.C.: Turn signals: just to caution that driver, you can't always assume that someone is turning right when their signal is on. Sometimes people forget and just leave it on for miles. And if you assume they're turning, and pull out into traffic, and they hit you, you're still at fault. It happened to my sister and totaled her car.

Dr. Gridlock: I think it's very good advice to drive defensively.


Inner Loop is closer to D.C.: That explanation doesn't do you any good if you're from out of town or in an unfamiliar place.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm sure that we'll revisit the inner-outer issues plenty of times in future chats.


Arlington, Va.: Bicycle commuter, here.

For the most part, drivers in the area are increasingly courteous and attentive to bicyclists on the road. As one who has commuted by bike (off and on) for more than twenty years, I can testify to a great improvement.

- On the VA side of the GW Parkway approaching the Memorial Bridge, drivers in one lane will often slow or stop for joggers and bikers. Great, except that drivers in the other lane won't necessarily stop, and drivers behind them will often dart around. This creates a potentially life-threatening situation for people crossing. Can signs be put up to ask driver to yield to cyclists and joggers?

- On the Memorial Bridge, the traffic pattern for the bike path for coming into DC recently changed, moving the crosswalk 10 yards closer to the bridge. This seemingly small move has made the crossing much less safe... automobiles are speeding turning the corner coming into DC not realizing there's a crosswalk there (the extra few feet gave them breaking room). Can it be moved back?

Dr. Gridlock: Another view from the biker side.


Dr. Gridlock: Well, I guess we should wrap up for today. I feel the need to do some Beltway driving. But don't panic, I haven't headed in the wrong direction yet.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company