Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 11, 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, Sept. 11, at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues. A transcript follows.

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.

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Dr. Gridlock: Hello, fellow commuters and travelers. Since we were last together in this forum, the heat of summer has eased, along with at least some of the stresses transit riders. On the other hand, we're in the September Shock phase on both roads and rails, in which we all get that unpleasant reminder of how difficult it can be to get around this region when everyone's in town.

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Wilson Bridge Woes: I thought, with all of the fanfare and ceremony, that the Wilson Bridge was finished. Surprised me last night to find extremely rough road surfaces and extremely confusing signage. We got thoroughly confused about where lanes began and ended, or where ramps were actually going. After seeing traffic still slow on 95/495 approaching the bridge, I now see why. Any idea on when the roads will really be completed?

Dr. Gridlock: We celebrated this summer when the first of the two new spans opened. It was a significant achievement in a region beset with traffic problems.

But this is one of the biggest public works projects in the nation and it has a long way to go before it's done. Another six lane span is scheduled to open in 2008. That will be the end of the bridge work. But there are two major intersections in Maryland and two in Virginia that are under reconstruction as part of the project. That work should extend to 2012.

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Alexandria, Va.: Traveling through the Pentagon City Metro station yesterday, I noticed a series of what appear to be speaker boxes being installed at regular (10 foot) intervals along the platform. Are these part of Metro's efforts to improve communications? Will they be installed throughout the system? And most importantly, will they help to create sounds and announcements that are not only audible, but also INTELLIGIBLE?

Dr. Gridlock: I posted this question in hope that someone from Metro might be joining us today and would know what's up with those speakers at Pentagon City.

The clarity of train announcements -- both on the platforms and in rail cars -- has been an issue for years. Not all train operators speak clearly, while other times the problem appears to be with the equipment. Some operators have very distinctive voices and styles, and they can be a pleasure to listen to.

The other complaint I hear about is the new "doors closing" voice. It's a much sharper warning than the old one, and the chimes are more insistent. But that was part of the idea of using the new message.

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Metrorail: For me, it boils down to this: why are we so rude to each other on Metro? Why are you standing in the operating doorway? Why are you using football footwork to get on the train ahead of me (and then standing in the doorway!) Why does your bag sit on the seat instead of the floor? The trains are not that crowded when I ride, but the behavior is unbelievable.

Dr. Gridlock: I posted this message as a follow-up to the previous one. It's a big region, and there are some people who behave badly, whether it's on transit or on the roads. One of the reasons for that new "doors closing" message was to get people's attention with a more commanding voice.

On Metro, the basics of behavior seem so simple: Don't block passengers from getting on and off. Don't eat or drink, don't play music others can hear. Don't litter.

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Vienna, Va.: Dr. G. - Regarding the Tysons Metro controversy, why is an elevated track such an impediment to reconfiguring/revitalizing Tysons Corner? I agree it would be aesthetically better to have a tunnel, but how does an elevated track prevent these grand dreams of making Tysons some kind of town center? Downtown Chicago has elevated trains; traffic and pedestrians coexist just fine with the tracks. Last time I looked, the Loop wasn't cutoff from the rest for the city even though it's surrounded by elevated track. Not that I believe that Tysons will ever be approved -- too many special interests.

Dr. Gridlock: I thought Gov. Tim Kaine did the right thing last week in approving the elevated rail track through Tysons. It's better to have this new Metro line, complicated and expensive as it is, than to blow the chance by risking the federal funds.

Tysons was poorly planned. It's becoming a city supported by roads. That's dysfunctional. It needs sidewalks and a subway.

I grew up in New York and know what elevated tracks look like. It was easier on those of us who didn't live in those neighborhoods than on those who did. People tend to move away from them, not toward them.

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16th Street, Washington: I beg you to remind city drivers that they MUST stop if a pedestrian is in a crosswalk. I live near the non-profit Green Door, which helps mentally challenged people learn to live on their own, at 16th and Corcoran. I can't tell you how many of those folks are scared to cross 16th Street because the cars don't stop. The city installed those metal signs in the middle of the street a while ago, but once they got smashed up a few times, they got rid of them.

It's to the point where I just walk out into the street, and make traffic stop for me. Stupid, I know, but how else can I cross?

However, I must say, I find that the cars that do obey this law the most are taxi drivers. Who knew!

Dr. Gridlock: This note about the situation in Columbia Heights/Mount Pleasant in the District

Dr. Gridlock: It reminds me of the situation in Tysons, which is divided by Routes 7 and 123 and someday by an elevated train track. We need these big commuter routes. But we should be able to plan and adapt our transportation network to take neighborhood concerns into account.

I think the writer is quite correct. The 16th Street corridor can be like the Grand Canyon for walkers. I remember seeing the signs marking crosswalks. It was frightening to see them pulverized over the course of a couple of weeks. It was like jousters had used them for practice.

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Middle Lane Squatters: While driving I-66 this weekend, I noticed a common type of driver -- the one who "parks" in the middle of the three lanes and stays there. Slightly below the speed of traffic, refusing to move to the right lane. Theoretically, shouldn't any slower driver cede the lane and move over?

Dr. Gridlock: In Virginia, I believe, a driver must move to the right for an overtaking car that indicates a desire to pass. Rest of the region has no such laws.

But look, you're talking about a driver in the middle lane, which we consider the travel lane on a three lane road? Why not just pass on the left? It's not that hard. A vehicle does have the right to proceed below the speed limit, as long as it hasn't fallen below the highway's minimum speed.

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Laurel, Md.: I was appalled to read that DC does not recognize handicap placards issued by other jurisdictions. Do you know if the same is true for Metro stations located in DC? I routinely drive to the Rhode Island or Fort Totten Metro stations, park there and proceed into downtown DC. It would make things much more difficult if I couldn't use the handicap spaces.

It would make things much easier if they could ever get most of their escalators working, but that's another story.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's another question that I was hoping Metro officials might be able to respond to if they're looking in. The writer is referring to a column item in which we said that DC is in the process of changing it's law so that out of state handicapped tags are accepted for parking in spaces for the disabled.

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UpMo, Md.: I am a new returnee to Metro, having not ridden it in about five years. I work in Rosslyn and get on at the Largo Town Center, right where the Redskins fans (and I wish I was part of the galloping horde) will be getting off to walk to the stadium. Should I leave work now?

Dr. Gridlock: Wouldn't hurt to cut out a bit early today -- and you've got a good excuse. Yes, I do think Largo bound trains will be crowded this evening because of the 7 p.m. season opener at FedEx Field.

Largo isn't the best place on the Blue Line for riders to get off, though. The closest station and the one with the best access to FedEx is Morgan Boulevard. That's nine-tenths of a mile.

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Alexandria, Va.: The point the other poster made about yielding to pedestrians is interesting because when I was walking back from getting lunch I was thinking just the opposite: Many D.C.-area pedestrians need to remember that when the "Don't Walk" hand lights up on the sign, it is time for the pedestrians to yield to the drivers. I never cease to be amazed by how many pedestrians seem to want to challenge the cars by crossing against the light and staring at the drivers while doing so. At an uncontrolled crosswalk, shame on the drivers. When the sign says "Don't Walk," though, a pedestrian has no business expecting any driver to slow down or yield.

Dr. Gridlock: I know what you mean. Certainly this happens and it's truly annoying. But most of us don't want to hit a pedestrian to make a point. I'm sure you don't.

There needs to be education on both sides. Pedestrians need to know the rules and so do drivers. We need to know what to expect of each other -- and still need to be conservative about our behavior.

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Dumfries, Va.: Good afternoon, do you happen to know the status of the MAGLEV system that was supposed to be built between DC and Baltimore? I haven't heard anything about it in quite a while. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I think this is a pipe dream on the part of some government officials. The advanced technology for this high speed train system is challenging and expensive. How practical is it to build an expensive, super high speed line between DC and Baltimore. We need improvements in that commuter corridor. That's certain. I hear lots from MARC train riders.

But isn't taking a MAGLEV the equivalent of taking a 747 from Reagan National to BWI?

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Fort Belvoir: The previous poster about stopping for pedestrians brings up a question -- what is the difference between stopping for pedestrians in a crosswalk, as in D.C., and yielding to a pedestrian, as in Va.?

Dr. Gridlock: Not sure there is a legal difference. We usually have to defer to pedestrians in crosswalks in any jurisdiction. Local governments have made efforts over the past couple of years to step up their enforcement of those laws, sometimes using decoy officers at the crosswalks to see if drivers yield and then ticketing those who don't.

But we're not just trying to avoid tickets. We're trying to keep each other alive.

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washingtonpost.com: D.C. to Make Meters More Accessible (Post, July 27, 2006)

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Arlington, Va.: Is the T.R. Bridge rebuild on schedule yet? I have to say, the delays westbound in the evening have not been bad (though I hope that doesn't jinx it). When will it all be done? Oh, and will they pave asphalt over the concrete or leave it as it is?

Dr. Gridlock: Many of you are writing in to ask me about the work at the Roosevelt Bridge and around the Lincoln Memorial. I've got some checking to do on this and will report back on the results.

If you've got further thoughts or information on the situation in that area, please e-mail them to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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Memorial Bridge commuter: Dr. G.,

Forgive my blunt manner, but who is the IDIOT responsible for the the new traffic lights and patterns around the Lincoln Memorial circle and Henry Bacon Drive? It's a nightmare to get to the bridge from Constitution any time around rush hour because of the two new lights that have been installed there. Anyone who's taken that route over the last two years of construction has felt the pain of it, but is this really the payoff? Please tell me it's going to get better!

Dr. Gridlock: Here's another note asking about the situation in that area, and again, I'll be checking into that. I haven't been there in a while and will go down and take a look.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Doc,

Welcome to cyberspace. Yesterday I had the opportunity to drive on the Whitehurst Freeway because of road closings for the 9/11 Freedom Walk. What a wonderfully smooth concrete deck the contractors built during the last renovation. The surface provides a quiet and bump-free ride.

Compare that to the new concrete deck recently installed on the inbound Roosevelt Bridge and it is like night and day. What a jolting ride! Granted my aging Ford Explorer no longer handles the roads like it used to, but this concrete work is abominable. I also noticed that there is no construction on the outbound roadway. Do you know what's going on here? Many thanks. Dan in Arlington.

Dr. Gridlock: Same on this. Another thought about the work at the TR Bridge.

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Reston, Va.: The Vienna Metro station has a dangerous road crossing between the North Parking Kiss and Ride exit and the neighboring condos on Virginia Center Blvd. There is no traffic light there and many pedestrians are crossing in the dark. This lack of a traffic light is dangerous as well as for cars trying to cross Virginia Center Blvd. The nearest traffic light is at Vaden Drive which does not help with the safe flow of traffic at the station.

A map of these roads is available at:

http://www.stationmasters.com/System_Map/VIENNAST/viennast.html

Is there any way that we can get a traffic light for this area of Vienna Metro station?

Thank you for your help with this dangerous situation.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll check on this situation at Vienna. I'm not sure whether Metro or VDOT has jurisdiction on the traffic light issue.

It's interesting how many of you write in to ask about pedestrian issues. I've been learning what an important component that is of our regional transportation scene.

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Baltimore (Red Light Central): "I know what you mean. Certainly this happens and it's truly annoying. But most of us don't want to hit a pedestrian to make a point. I'm sure you don't."

I wouldn't count on it anymore. I've actually started to rev up and inch or lurch forward at them to make a point. Not to the elderly or those running to get out of our way, but the defiant ones taking advantage of the laws that make pedestrians omnipotent and fearless.

"There needs to be education on both sides. Pedestrians need to know the rules and so do drivers."

And when was the last time you saw a pedestrian ticketed for obstructing traffic? I'll bet you all the money in my wallet that the cops will bust the driver every time.

Dr. Gridlock: The two issues in our chat today that I'm getting the most responses on are pedestrians vs. cars and on passing the middle lane driver.

This is pretty typical of the types of letters to Dr. Gridlock that we've gotten over the years.

I love the debates in forums like this, but I just don't believe that getting angry at each other on the road is a winning strategy.

And I feel certain that people who have enough concern about transportation issues in our region to read and comment on forums like this aren't picking off pedestrians and crunching the bumpers of slower drivers.

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Kingstowne, Va.: Dr. G., do you perchance know why VDOT has banned trucks on VA-123 going into Tysons from the Beltway? I was out of town for most of August and was surprised to see big "NO TRUCKS" stickers on the big green signs at the 123 exit when I went to Tysons the week before Labor Day.

It doesn't affect me since I don't drive a truck, but I was just curious.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks, I hadn't noticed that sign, though I've been out on 123 in that area a couple of times lately. I'll check with VDOT and respond on our "Get There" blog or in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column.

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Alexandria, Va.: While we're talking about people who need to pay attention to the rules of the road, can we talk about the menace that is a good chunk of the bicycle-riding population. People, you NEED to stop for red lights and stop signs. Don't care if that slows down your momentum -- if you can't handle it, pick another mode of transport. Also, STOP riding on the sidewalk. I can't tell you how many times I've nearly been run down by bicyclists.

Bicyclists can pat themselves on the back for reducing the amount of pollutants and all that, but they need to remember that they are bound to follow the rules of the road, same as cars.

Dr. Gridlock: How could I have forgotten about this other great divide among our region's travelers? The motorists vs. bikers issue has been another constant source of letters to Dr. Gridlock.

My sister is the great bicyclist in our family. She does some long routes out in Napa County, CA. I'm afraid I've slacked off in recent years. But since I've been doing the Dr. Gridlock column, I've had a chance to talk to many bikers in our area.

I'm impressed with the ones who tell me that bikers need to be part of the traffic flow. (You can't follow the rules for drivers one minute and the rules for pedestrians the next. Consistency contributes to safety. We need to know what to expect of each other.)

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Arlington, Va.: Could you suggest the fastest route between Ballston and the North Bethesda/Rockville area during rush hour traffic? This will be my new commute starting next week, and the thought of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on 66 sounds horrible.

Thanks in advance for responding!

Dr. Gridlock: That is a pretty gruesome route, with I-66 likely to be the worst of it. So I'm wondering if transit is an option for you? That's Metro's Orange Line from Ballston, with a transfer at Metro Center to the Red Line to Rockville, I believe. If you live or work a long way from the stations, how about the ART buses in Arlington and the Ride Ons in Montgomery to get to and from the trains?

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Vienna, Va.: Aloha new Dr. G,

Question, albeit pointed:

Where do you think that residents new to the area should live?

Why I ask is that I am relatively new to the area, and have gotten the feeling from reading this column/blog/chat that the answer has been, "anywhere you like, as long as you don't drive on MY roads, or ride on MY Metro".

There has been a lot of bashing any development at all, be it near a Metro Station (Vienna) or out along any commuting corridor. So what is the deal, should people stop moving here so that current residents are not inconvenienced?

Cheers.

Dr. Gridlock: Aloha. (When I was a kid, I lived in Honolulu. Used to get lost routinely on Army school buses. MPs were always driving me home.)

I don't like telling people where to live. It's a free country. And individual needs vary. I like living in Silver Spring, two miles from Metro's Red Line. But my wife works in Baltimore, so she's always trying to decide whether Route 29 or I-95 is the best bet for a drive of more than 30 miles each way.

My only advice is that people should know what they're getting into when they pick a spot to live. Don't test the commute on Sunday morning.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: So just how bad will the commute be this evening with an early 'Skins game, rush hour and Yankees in Baltimore? Can we say "Snow Day"? >Please people , let's all be a little more courteous tonight.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, the eastern side of our region should be jammed in the hours around the games at FedEx and Camden Yards. The Beltway and I-95 should be particularly troublesome.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Has the Post ever thought about splitting the commuter column and having one person write about highways, parking, HOV, etc., and another focused on mass transit? Lately, your column and this chat have become so Metro-centric that it hardly worth my time to read either.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm a transit advocate and if I can think of ways to help drivers by suggesting transit alternatives, I'll do that. A million riders take transit each day across our region. That's a pretty big constituency.

But I'm not out to stiff drivers. I've put quite a few new miles on my car in the past two months, since taking on the column, and will continue to do so.

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Washington, D.C.: Oh, Dr. Gridlock, why are the orange/red lines getting some eight-car trains before all lines have six-car trains? I know the old refrain of ridership, and I am with them on that. But perhaps they should consider that by making the commute for people on these lines better, they continue to make service on the yellow and blue lines terrible. I regularly take the blue line towards Largo and reboard at Metro center so I have at least a chance of fitting on one of the blue car trains.

Also, the announcements about the bus situation at the Pentagon last week were awful. My train operator did not make one mention of it, nor did anyone at the Pentagon until we had already exited the station.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro's board last week allocated the first 50 of the new cars on their way to Washington. Many people are sure their own line is getting shortchanged by Metro. I've been trying to ride all lines to get a better idea of conditions throughout the system.

Looks to me like everything is more crowded than it should be. Many days this summer were unpleasant for riders.

Bottom line is that we shouldn't be pitted against each other, but rather united in seeking more resources for the region's transit systems.

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Georgetown: I pretty much always use the middle lane, because the right lane is a pain with people entering and exiting. And I don't drive all that fast. (I consider 5 to 10 over the speed limit to be plenty speedy, thankyouverymuch, although this seems to be a minority opinion.) It drives me BATTY when people either drive angrily on my bumper or pass me on the right. Hello! There's an entire left lane there! Use it!

Dr. Gridlock: Thought I'd finish off by showing you two more comments on the middle lane issue. This was the first.

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Md. middle lane parker: What's the problem with using the middle lane? You can get around us easily. Those of us who "park" in the middle lane do so because we don't want to block the nutcases zooming past us at a million miles an hour in the left lane or passing lane, but we also don't want to block or be blocked by those exiting and entering the interstate.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's another.

Please stay cool out there. I want you all to live to join me for our next chat.

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