Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 18, 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. 18, 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. Bring on your questions about our roads and rails. I was out this morning checking the new traffic lights around the Lincoln Memorial in response to some questions and complaints I got last week.

People seemed real burned up about the backups caused by these lights, and I can now see why. We can talk about that, or any other issues that interest you.


Fairfax, Va.: Submitting this early... have to take my kids down to Fredericksburg next weekend for a soccer game. I hate hate hate I-95 and don't mind going out of my way to avoid it. Is there a nice, (not I-95 or Rte. 1) roundabout country road way to get from the Burke area to Fredericksburg that you or other chatters can suggest? Thanks in advance.

Dr. Gridlock: Anybody want to take a crack at helping plan this route? Looks to me like it's a question of getting from Burke to Route 28 and then left onto Route 17 to Fredericksburg. I know that's not very creative, and it's certainly not the "country road" route.


Woodbridge, Va.: I read your posting earlier today concerning the new traffic lights at the Lincoln Memorial. The major sticking point is the synchronization of the lights. It seems nonsensical to me that the traffic proceeding straight through must stand at the light while the left lanes get a green arrow. This worsens one of the historical dangers of that intersection, which is that drivers habitually weave into whichever lane they think might get them through faster. I am hoping that the lights will be synchronized better after their initial impact is known. Can you influence the guys with their hands on the controls to make the necessary adjustments?

washingtonpost.com: Commuter Complaints About Lincoln Memorial Turn (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 18, 2006)

Dr. Gridlock: I'm seeking further information on the situation from the Park Service. I've learned already in doing the column that my commonsense impressions of a situation aren't always the whole story.

However, from just standing by the circle and watching the traffic flow, I'm with you: I can't figure out why the lights aren't green at the same time. And I can't figure out why they routinely turn red, without the presence of oncoming traffic or pedestrians.

I thought drivers were handling the situation quite well, considering that for many of you, the light comes toward the end of a long and annoying commute through the Virginia suburbs.

There was very little horn-honking or any obvious signs of rage. There was some blocking of the intersection in the fact of oncoming traffic and pedestrians.


Traffic Shift on Connecticut Ave: What is this new traffic pattern there are huge signs up about on Connecticut Ave? It says it will start on Sept 22.

Dr. Gridlock: I just checked with DDOT. We think you're seeing signs about the upcoming work at Klingle Bridge on Connecticut Avenue.

Please stay in touch about the impact of this project. Here's an excerpt from a DDOT statement describing it:

"The first stage of the rehabilitation includes work on the under-belly of the bridge and work on the sidewalks of the bridge. The sidewalk on the east side of the bridge will be closed to pedestrians to facilitate work. Proper

signage is being posted to alert pedestrians to use the west side of the bridge. Once work is completed on the east side of the bridge, pedestrian flow will switch to the west sidewalk. Hours of work are Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 7 pm.

"Work on the bridge will include removal of old lead-based paint, cleaning the bridge girders, repairing/replacing components of the under girding and bridge surface, and rehabilitation to the sidewalks and road surface.

Weather permitting, the project is slated to be completed in 18 months."


New to the area: I just moved to downtown Silver Spring (right near the Metro) and I work in Foggy Bottom. I took the Metro today (took about an hour, door-to-door) and I'm wondering if the commute can be significantly shorter if I drive.

However, I know that some roads are utterly horrible in D.C. rush hour... any tips for the best route to take? Would it be foolish just to ride 16th Street most of the way down?

Thank you very much!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm surprised to hear it took so long. The rush hour train trip itself should be about half an hour, including the transfer to the Orange Line at Metro Center.

The drive down 16th Street isn't bad, and I think that once you turn right to head toward Foggy Bottom, you'd be going against traffic on some DC streets. But I think that you should consider the wear and tear on yourself and your car from the drive. That will start to take it's toll, and you'll wind up appreciating the idea of leaving the driving to someone else.


Fed up Virginia: Who is the total idiot who came up with the lights at the Bacon Drive/Memorial Bridge/23rd Street? Do they realize that these lights cause backups well onto 395 North in the morning and to 14th Street on Constitution in the evening? This is just a horrible, horrible decision. Please, everyone complain about this.

Dr. Gridlock: I've gotten more letters about this situation around the Lincoln Memorial than any other topic during the past few days. No one had anything good to say about those lights at 23rd and at Bacon.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Gridlock: One thing I'm a little fuzzy on about the proposed Metro extension to Tysons Corner and Dulles: what's the eastern terminus of the line? Will Silver Line trains stop at West Falls Church, or continue on along the Orange Line to New Carrollton? Is there room on the crowded Orange Line (and the crowded tunnel under the river) for them?

Dr. Gridlock: I believe the thinking at this time is that the trains taking people from Dulles Airport will continue eastbound through downtown Washington on the Orange Line. In other words, no transfer.

There are lots of advantages to that setup, as an airport rail link. But your point about the ultimate capacity of the Orange Line is well taken. Only so many trains can squeeze through the Rosslyn tunnel -- and some are coming in along the Blue Line.

There's a possibility that some Blue Line trains that now enter the District through the Rosslyn tunnel could be diverted so that they follow the Yellow Line path into the city. But I believe these issues are unresolved.


Dead Escalat, OR: Good afternoon, Doc.

At the beginning of May, the escalators at the Rockville Metro station were shut down for rehabilitation. Fine.

Here's the rub. May, June and July were taken up for the rehab of the first escalator. Now the second one is scheduled for completion at the end of October.

We will have been without a functioning escalator for SIX MONTHS at that point.

Half the time the 2 workers aren't even on site, the other half of the time they are either yakking about non-work things or working at the pace of a tortoise.

I guess my conclusion is that we really don't need escalators at stations like Rockville where a staircase would suffice. The escalators could just be left in place but turned off.

I mean, if it's okay to go without for six months without, why doesn't Metro just bag it altogether and save the money for higher priorities?

Does six months seem reasonable, and is this the norm? sheesh

Dr. Gridlock: This is one of a few questions and complaints I'm seeing today about the escalators and elevators. That situation has been with us for way too long, though I do believe Metro is putting more effort into its solution.

Regular users of stations look at those busted things for months. Elderly and disabled riders are particularly affected because they may have to travel to a different station and then get a shuttle ride to their original destination.


Washington, D.C.: At Metro Center, there was (finally) a sign saying the broken-down, down escalator (broken for nearly two months) would be fixed September 15. Today, the escalator is still broken and now there's a sign that says Nov. 5! Why can't Metro get their act together; what's going on that it takes two months to fix an escalator?

Dr. Gridlock: Another comment on the same popular topic.


Springfield, Va.: Not only are the lights around the Lincoln Memorial affecting morning rush hour, but the back up on Constitution Ave. going home in the afternoon is also much worse. Obviously, there are more tourists in the afternoon hours, but the timing is horrible. Hopefully WDOT will look at what this is doing, and make some fixes. You'd think they'd be happy that the Va. commuters are leaving!

Dr. Gridlock: Most of the complaints I've been getting have to do with the inbound commute in the morning. Some people have told me they think the outbound commute in the afternoon is actually better, so I'm interested in Springfield's comment about the p.m. (By the way, I think it's National Park Service, rather than the District Department of Transportation, that is doing all the traffic work around the Lincoln Memorial.)


Strange Machine on T. Roosevelt Bridge: What is that strange looking machine that is always parked between the lanes of the T. Roosevelt Bridge on the D.C. side?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not sure, but I'm thinking that's the gadget that moves the lane barriers for the morning and afternoon commutes. Anybody know that for sure, or have a better idea?


Washington, D.C.: "Dr. Gridlock: I'm surprised to hear it took so long. The rush hour train trip itself should be about half an hour, including the transfer to the Orange Line at Metro Center.

The drive down 16th Street isn't bad, and I think that once you turn right to head toward Foggy Bottom, you'd be going against traffic on some DC streets. But I think that you should consider the wear and tear on yourself and your car from the drive. That will start to take it's toll, and you'll wind up appreciating the idea of leaving the driving to someone else."

This is all wrong. Of course, it's an hour from Silver Spring on the Metro..the trains not only run at reduced speeds but it's a lot of inner tunnel waiting. Half an hour in your dreams!! 16th street is one of the worst choices -- 14th moves a little faster but that is a bad commute regardless. The commuter may just have to get up earlier!

Dr. Gridlock: I take the train from Silver Spring to Farragut North. Usually takes me about 20 minutes, but that's without our correspondent's transfer to the Orange/Blue at Metro Center to get to Foggy Bottom.

I used to drive down 16th Street to The Post's newsroom at 15th and L NW. As commutes go, it wasn't bad: a seven-mile straight shot. The bailouts were 14th and 13th NW.


Silver Spring, Md.: The Silver Spring-Foggy Bottom commute via Metro can easily take an hour when you add walking at both ends, plus waiting at SS.

Driving down 16th to FB can also take close to that if there is any traffic trouble -- there is simply no "slack" on any D.C. commutes anymore.

Also, going home can be a real pain up the 16th Street corridor.

I'd stick with Metro.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's another view, but same conclusion as mine regarding sticking with Metro.


Arlington, Va.: I'm confused by the signage on Mass. Ave near Mount Vernon Square. The older signs say No Parking Monday-Friday during business hours. Newer signs now say No Parking Sundays Only 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Just to be sure, is it okay to park along Mass. after 2 p.m. on Sundays? Or does that mean you can only park there during Sunday a.m. church hours?

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't seen these signs, but from that wording, I wouldn't know what to do on Sundays. I'll ask.


N. Arlington, VA: Strange Machine on the bridge: Unless there is something else added to the mix, you are correct about the purpose of the "strange machine" Would be neat to watch them move the barriers! Wonder what time they do it.

Dr. Gridlock: A response to the previous question about the gizmo on the Roosevelt Bridge.


San Francisco, Calif.: Believe Wikipedia or don't, but the Silver Line as envisioned by at least some planners will run to Stadium-Armory:


Dr. Gridlock: This was a response to the earlier question about the Metro trip people may someday be able to take from Dulles Airport to the District.


Washington, D.C.: What was the National Park Service (I'm assuming) thinking with the new stoplights around the Lincoln Memorial? They addressed a problem that did not exist and have made the traffic situation in that area worse. I thought when they opened the third lane allowing two lanes to turn onto 23rd that congestion would be eased, but the lights combined with whatever they are doing that has part of the right lane of 23rd closed between the memorial and Constitution has really made things far worse. Have you heard an explanation for all of this?

Dr. Gridlock: I've got a call in to the Park Service, because I believe that agency is working the entire Lincoln Memorial project. Like I've been saying, from just standing by the circle and watching the traffic flow, I don't get why the greens can't be longer and why the straight-ahead light needs to be red at all unless pedestrians need to cross. Hardly anyone used that crosswalk during this morning's rush hour.


Springfield, Va.: What are your thoughts about the Northern Virginia transportation "wish list" that came out last week? Maybe I'm getting cynical in my old age, but what was the point of the whole thing? None of the projects listed will ever occur in our lifetime. It was the usual cast of crybaby politicians whining about the way Richmond ignores Northern Virginia when it comes to transportation issues.

Dr. Gridlock: The thing I liked about the wish list put out by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority with the backing of some local jurisdictions is this: Unlike the 2002 wish list that accompanied the transportation tax proposal, this new one is more than a list of projects. It seems to me that it's an actual transportation plan to relieve congestion. Also, it links roads, rails, pedestrian ways and bike routes.

So it's a more comprehensive proposal than what I've seen before.

I understand the frustration in Northern Virginia about whether anything will ever get built. But I think it would be wrong -- self-defeating -- for people to assume that nothing can be done. Put pressure on the General Assembly and the governor, with the special session coming up in Richmond next week.


Arlington, Va.: Re: Silver Spring to Foggy Bottom - it might be worthwhile to take the Red Line to Dupont and walk from there. I used to live in Foggy Bottom and would sometimes walk up New Hampshire Ave to Dupont, and it wasn't too bad. Might be faster than waiting to transfer to the Orange line.

Dr. Gridlock: How about that? Saves the transfer at Metro Center.


Escalators: Braddock Road spent much of last fall with one escalator while they went through the agonizingly slow repair process. After all that, the thing still breaks down on a regular basis...

Dr. Gridlock: The current leadership of Metro inherited a problematic system of escalators: Too many moving parts exposed to the weather. But that doesn't mean it can't be solved.


Van Ness, D.C.: I commute from Van Ness to Silver Spring on the Metro and it takes me 35 minutes. The people saying it takes an hour just to get from Silver Spring to downtown must just have bad luck with slow trains.

Dr. Gridlock: Our original correspondent did say that the one hour was door to door. I was focusing too much on the actual train travel time. When I started taking Metro, rather than paying 10 bucks to warehouse my car downtown all day long, I began to enjoy the walk time to and from the stations.


Frederick, Md.: I have many questions about driver behaviors but I'll ask about them one at a time. First up -- tailgaiting. I'm not so interested in your response or from readers who see it but rather from the drivers who do it.

Can anybody please explain why, whether you're going 40, 55, 70 or well above, you maintain a car's length or less between you and the car in front? In heavy rain and on wet roads? In snow and on icy roads? In fog and limited visibility? In the right lane when there's an open left lane for passing? On two-lane roads with a line of cars ahead of you where nobody can possibly go any faster than the car ahead of them? Behind school buses or motorcycles or police cars?

Why do you put yourself in a position where you couldn't possibly react quickly enough to any sudden slowdown or incident ahead of you? Why do you willfully put your passengers -- your children, spouse, friends -- and other drivers at risk for injury or death?

As I said, I'm most interested in responses from tailgaters themselves. Those of us who really do make an effort to maintain safe distances from other cars would really like to know.

Dr. Gridlock: This will set people off. I agree with "Frederick" that there's no good reason for tailgating.


Washington, D.C.: Everyone likes to complain about Metro. I have a complaint with the users. I mostly use the bus and cannot understand why people wait until they are on board to look for their money or pass. I have sat through three traffic light sequences as each person fumbles through their purse or wallet to find their fare or fare card. You know you are going to take the bus. You see the bus coming, so get your act together to board in a timely fashion so the bus might stay on time.

Dr. Gridlock: Anytime you get a lot of us together in one place to do one thing, there are bound to be problems like this. I totally agree that it's annoying. And I know you all can cite similar examples from the roads and rails.

Still, patience will always be a virtue among commuters.


D.C.: The most compelling reason to "stick with Metro" for the suburbs to D.C. commute is the high cost of daily and monthly parking downtown. As a D.C. resident, though, I can't muster any sympathy for the suburban commuters who sit one in a car and complain that the streets are too packed.

Dr. Gridlock: The majority of commuters do drive alone. Truth be told, I think many people prefer that, but others will say they have no choice.


Georgetown: Another Silver Spring to Foggy Bottom alternative is to get off at Farragut North and transfer to the westbound Circulator. It takes the smart card, it's only 35 cents when you're transferring to the Metro, and it'll get you to 21st and K, which is pretty close to Foggy Bottom. Personally, I'd probably walk from Dupont Circle like the other poster suggested. Or there's always the bike ride down Rock Creek.

Dr. Gridlock: Another good alternative to the train transfer. I love the Circulator bus system. It's so simple, and I like the design of the buses.


Memorial bridge commuter: Dr. G--Thanks for looking into the Lincoln Memorial circle fiasco; I had asked you about it in your chat last week and I appreciate that you were good to your word that you'd investigate. But for reference, the p.m. commute can sometimes be worse than the a.m., particularly heading west on Constitution, and particularly when tour buses and other dolts decide to park in the right lane on Bacon, allowing just one lane to get through. Add that to the light patterns and it's a real mess. A question: it seems to me like it's an ideal location for an underground pedestrian passageway or two to allow people to cross without bringing traffic to a complete halt--any idea why wasn't that done?

Dr. Gridlock: Sounds like I should get back out there and look at the afternoon commute.

No, I don't know if a pedestrian tunnel was ever considered, but I doubt it. There aren't many of them in our region, and I think the issue is the expense. I believe there's a similar issue involving pedestrians crossing Georgia Avenue in the Forest Glen area of Montgomery County.


Silver Spring, Md.: Silver Line from DC to Dulles? Just what we need, more people with large rolling bags on the METRO at rush hour.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, that can be annoying. Many of us think of Metro as our commuter line, but we share it with tourists and other occasional users like the airport and Amtrak travelers. Again, patience. Those folks paid their fares, too.


circulator correction: "...it's only 35 cents when you're transferring to the Metro." Oops: I should have said when you're transferring FROM the Metro. Transferring to the Metro, of course, you don't get any discount at all. Silly Metro.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for the fix.


Tailgating: Because if I leave too much room between me and the car in front of me, another car will cut in there, which of course is a direct assault on my masculinity.

Dr. Gridlock: Ah, I knew I hear from you cynics out there. I remember my Dad admonishing me not to leave too much space ahead of me, because someone was bound to cut in.


Tailgat, OR: OK, I'll bite. Sometimes I tailgate, and my explanation is best expressed in the form of questions:

1. Why do you insist on traveling in the left lane exactly at or below speed limit?

2. Why do you decrease your speed to about 45 mph when you see a cop? Do you really believe the cops are going to ticket you for driving the speed limit?

3. Why is there a 20 car distance in front of you, when the roads are dry, the skies are clear, and you are in the left lane?

4. Why do you drive 20 mph below the speed limit when we get even the tiniest amount of rain?

5. Why are you so aggressive about driving in the left lane, instead of moving over to the right?

Dr. Gridlock: Lots of responses to the tailgating comment. I'll try to pop in a few more.


Tailgating: I keep less than a car length from the car in front of me so you can't get in -- even if you signal. I might get where I am going 10 seconds later. Seriously, it is very frustrating to those of us who like to keep the distance to have people constantly jump in front and cut our safe room in half. It is there for a reason - leave it!

Dr. Gridlock: Here's one more.


Reston, Va.: In regard to the planned Metro cars, my wife is short and cannot reach the overhead bars. She needs the vertical bars to remain standing while the the train stops quickly. I am handicapped, and I need the vertical bars also. So please leave the vertical bars and seats as they are. The current Metro cars are much better for handicapped and short people than the New York-style straphanger subway cars. I have major problems remaining standing in the New York City subway cars. The big problem is that you have a large floor space with nothing to hold on to.

Dr. Gridlock: My wife is 5 feet tall. She had the same reaction when I described Metro's plan to remove some of the vertical bars near the front and rear entrances of the rail cars. Metro's idea is to get people to move toward the center of the car, where extra poles will be located. But many riders say this idea doesn't match the realities of crowded trains that stutter stop into stations.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you have a link to the story stating the top Virginia transportation priorities? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: N.Va. Leaders Lack Consensus on Tax (Post, Sept. 16, 2006)

Dr. Gridlock: Here you go.


Silver Spring, Md.: I've been on this kick for a while. Any reason why Metro can't use EZ-Pass to collect parking fees instead of that SmartCard. The $5 fee for the card amounts to legalized theft.

Dr. Gridlock: I like the E-ZPass idea. I'll ask Metro if there's been any discussion of this. I don't recall hearing any. E-ZPass becomes more of a convenience on the highways each year.


Washington, D.C.: I know you're received several posts on the new lights near the Lincoln Memorial. The blinking red lights were a nuisance -- but at least the traffic moved (albeit slowly). The new LONG red light, however, is much worse. Please tell me real relief is actually on the way.


Dr. Gridlock: For at least a couple of days last week, the new lights were blinking. Then they started to cycle red and green. Readers told me that happened last Wednesday, and it only got them more annoyed.


Baltimore: Dr. Gridlock:

I caught the tail end of last week's discussion, where a number of people defended their decision to drive in the middle lane, and complained about people passing them on the right. Here's the thing: you can't have it both ways. You can't refuse to drive in the right lane and then get mad when others do. If you expect others to follow the rule of "pass on the left," then you need to follow the even more basic rule of "keep right except to pass."

It's not a question of "rights." You have the "right" to drive in the middle lane, yes. But I have an equal "right" to drive in the right lane. So we can both be completely "right" and completely PO'd at the same time.

It's really a question of courtesy and traffic flow: things move more smoothly and efficiently when slower drivers stay right and faster drivers stay left. And courtesy begets courtesy, just like rudeness begets rudeness. If someone in front of me is making an effort to stay to the right, then I will let them in when they need to pass someone, and I will try to pass them on the left. But every day I see people simply hovering in the second or third lane because they have the "right" to drive there, regardless of the effect they are having on traffic (hint: big open space in front of them, big line of cars behind them -- I guess they either never look in the rear view mirror or just don't care). These people are showing no courtesy to the drivers stuck behind them, so why should they expect any courtesy in return? And of course you're presuming that it's even possible to pass on the left, and that there isn't a big line of traffic stuck behind the guy who is exercising HIS "right" to drive in the left lane.

If you don't like being passed on the right, the solution is very simple: move right. Then everyone will have to pass you on the left.

Dr. Gridlock: We had a good discussion last week on lane courtesy and lane rights, and this was a follow-up on that.


Georgetown: The answers to the tailgating question seem to run along the lines of "because the other drivers don't drive the way I want them to."

News flash, my tailgating friends: you don't have control over their behavior. You don't get to decide how other people drive. Sorry: they do. Wish they would drive differently? Absolutely. Grumble a little? If you must, but think of your poor passengers who don't want to listen to you.

No, what you do have control of is how YOU operate the large, dangerous vehicle that YOU are driving. Leave a gap.

Dr. Gridlock: ... And another one of the many responses I got to the tailgating comment.


Wheaton, Md.: Dear Dr. Gridlock: I frequently see "Go Redskins" or similar messages flashing on the destination signs on Metrobuses and other transit systems' buses. Does the most valuable franchise in the NFL pay for this, or are the cash-strapped transit systems giving away this ad opportunity?

Dr. Gridlock: I don't believe those messages are ads -- hard to imagine who around here would sponsor those "Have a Nice Day" messages.

Thanks for all your questions and comments this week. I'd better sign off now, but I'll see if I can get some more answers for you -- on both the posted questions and the ones I couldn't get to -- and get back to you later this week on the Get There blog.


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