Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 26, 2007; 11:00 AM

Robert Thomson, Dr. Gridlock, diagnoses your traffic and transit problems and offers up his prescription for a better commute..

He was online Monday, Feb. 26, at 11 a.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 morning, travelers. I'm trying to get my outrage level back up after a week in Mexico City traffic. The freestyle driving there should be an Olympic event. But I figure that if we accepted our problems just because someone else has it worse, there would never be any progress.

I see questions from you about driving conditions after the snow, transit concerns and issues of road etiquette, so let's begin.


Arlington, Va.: Today was no different than any other day after a snow storm. I noticed dozens of cars and trucks driving along the Beltway with about six inches of snow and ice on their roofs. The Washington Post reported that several chunks of ice flew off of roofs into windshields after the previous storm. Is it actually legal to drive a vehicle with snow and ice on the roof? Do you think people are unaware that this is dangerous, or are they just apathetic and figure it's okay as long as it's someone else that gets hit with a chunk of ice?

Dr. Gridlock: I believe it's illegal to drive with snow and ice on the roof, but I can't offer a citation. During the last storm, I recall hearing a radio traffic reporter talking about police stopping cars and telling the drivers to clear their roofs.

But really, let's not bring it down to legalities. How tough can it be to clear off your roof and give fellow drivers a break?

The ice storm was particularly dangerous. We did report on damaged windshields from flying chunks of ice. But any storm is hazardous. We should do what we can to help each other. Mother Nature is tough enough.


Bowie, Md.: I'm sure few would argue against severe penalties (such as stoning) for those who insist on driving on the highway with snow on their vehicles. Last week when we had ice, it was understandable to a certain degree, but yesterday's snow storm gave us wet snow, which is easily removed. I saw many SUVs, and even cars, with snow packed on them. If people with SUVs really took any initiative to remove the snow, it would be gone. People around here don't care about anyone else but number one. I couldn't believe it when I saw someone on the highway this morning with snow caked on their rear windshield.

Dr. Gridlock: What other conditions did you folks notice on the roads today? How was the cleanup from this storm compared to the ice storm?


Red Line: Dear Dr. Gridlock,

In reference to the letter from Mr. Battisti in yesterday's column, it is highly unlikely that any of his proposed scenarios will play out. While I don't work for WMATA, I am under the impression that the trains from Dulles will run to Stadium-Armory, trains from Vienna will continue to run to New Carrollton, and some trains from Franconia-Springfield will run to Largo while others will run to either Mount Vernon Square or Greenbelt (I won't go into the technical details that explain why it could be one, the other, or both). It is not possible for a train from Dulles to get to Arlington Cemetery without going to Foggy Bottom first. Also, it would be unthinkable to end trains from Vienna at East Falls Church, although the question of how ridership at Vienna, Dunn Loring, and West Falls Church may change once the Dulles Line opens.

However, as you also noted, there won't be any trains to/from Tysons for (at least) a few more years, and a number of different scenarios could play out, including some that rarely make it to public discussion right now.

Finally, if you want a bit of Metro trivia, White was supposedly at one time the color they planned to use for Dulles service. See here. Just some thoughts from a rider in the know...

Dr. Gridlock: Red Liner is referring to my column in Sunday's Metro section, where we discussed how in the world Metro is going to make the planned rail line to Dulles work without bringing the rest of the transit system to a halt.

Definitely, it will be tricky. But the basic idea is to run trains that start at Dulles to Stadium-Armory. The Orange Line route would not change. You could do something different with the Blue Line: Send it across the river to L'Enfant Plaza rather than through the Rosslyn tunnel, where it now competes for space with the Orange Line.

But Metro hasn't made any such decision yet. (First part of the new line isn't scheduled to open till 2012.)


Tysons Corner, Va.: Dear Dr. G,

As a close neighbor to the proposed decade of construction, I am concerned about the recent flare-up of Metro discontent.

The anti-tunnel contingent has certainly presented itself more clearly than the above-ground crowd, and I would be persuaded if I weren't so cynical.

The argument against is very simple; The federal funds could be lost if a redesign is undertaken. That is not to be over trivialized. However, the strong opinion expressed by many is that this can be done in a timely manner.

What do you and yours think?

Dr. Gridlock: Here's what I think: The rail line will not be built without the $900 million in federal funding. It's tricky -- and I think too tricky -- to try to go for a tunnel rather than an elevated at this late stage.

If the whole project out to Dulles actually gets done at the current cost estimate of $4 billion, no one will be more surprised than me. It's going to be one of the most costly transportation projects in the nation. If we lived somewhere else, we'd call it a boondoggle project, like that bridge to nowhere in Alaska.


Washington, D.C.: It is very easy to get snow off the top of your car if you use a broom to push it off before it ices over. This trick can really help if the car is tall and you are short.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, Washington, even when we're talking about a snow storm, it's smart to clear the roof -- and the lights -- right away, before it has a chance to ice over.


Rockville, Md.: I saw several cars with thick sheets of ice on top of them -- and one was hanging by several inches, just about to fall. I have no idea how much damage that ice could do to another car but I could imagine someone getting killed. Is the rule of driving to do nothing if it is not self serving?

Dr. Gridlock: Even from a self-serving point of view, we all know that the snow can slide down and cover the back window, obstructing the driver's vision.


Reston, Va.: Dr. G.

How would someone report a dangerous driver, whom I (and coworkers) see on the Greenway/Toll Road on a daily basis? By report, I mean report with a chance of actually getting her to either improve her driving skills, get off the Toll Road and go to Route 7 (where she wouldn't endanger traffic, she'd blend in) or at least get her a fine?

It's frustrating to repeatedly see the same stupid, dangerous behavior and know that unless there is a cop waiting right there that nothing would be done to her. She affects the days of many drivers on a daily basis.

Thank you.

Dr. Gridlock: Reston, I was speaking to a group out at Heritage Hunt recently, and those smart folks reminded me that you can always hit #77 to report a dangerous driver.

They tell me it works. But it's bound to be tough for most of us to know that. We rarely get to see the follow-up. (One thing that scares me is that every once in a while I get a letter saying something like, "This guy was doing 90 and weaving in and out of lanes for 12 miles." Then the writer says he knows that because he followed the driver.

Please don't do that.


Metro Bus Safety: Metro Bus safety has always been a problem, but now it is finally getting some attention.

1. Don't ever get between an "Out of Service" Bus and the bus garage. On I-66, in the 8-10 p.m. range, buses headed back to the Ballston garage are always speeding and overtaking people. On the GW Parkway, I have been overtaken by buses going 60 mph as they head back to the Alexandria garage.

2. Overtime. Would someone please look at how much time individual drivers are clocking? My understanding is that 60-70 hours a week is standard. Great overtime pay is the union incentive to folks. If more bus drivers are hired, there will be less overtime, which means lower pay. At what cost to the public? Do away with the excessive overtime.

3. Move the buses to where they belong. I constantly see buses on I-66, I-395 that are "out of service." How many miles are being logged just to get a bus back and forth to its route? What cost in terms of gas, wear and tear, and labor?

Dr. Gridlock: Metro doesn't have enough drivers. As a result, many of them are working way too long each week. Metro recognizes this as a problem, and not just because of the expense. There's a real concern about safety if these drivers are drowsy.

Of course, that's not the only problem affecting Metrobus safety. The Post had a very good story on Sunday's front page. We'll put up a link to that in a sec.


washingtonpost.com: Metro Chief Vows Better Bus Safety (Post, Feb. 25)

Dr. Gridlock: Here you go. See the latest in this story about Metrobus and what the new GM, John Catoe, is doing.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Dr Gridlock,

What are the rules for stopping when a pedestrian is at a crosswalk? Should we be stopping if the pedestrian is on the apron waiting to cross? Does this vary between Md., Va. and D.C.? (In London, vehicles stop if a person is approaching the crosswalk. Here, they almost have to be in the middle of the lane for someone to stop.)


Dr. Gridlock: This is my understanding (meaning I haven't consulted with any official since we started our chat today): You must stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, anywhere in our region.

But just as with the legal question about snow on the roof, let's get beyond the legalities. You don't want to hit a pedestrian, anywhere anytime, right?

We've all seen people walk out in the middle of the block without looking. That doesn't mean it's open season for drivers.

Pedestrians should also be cautious, and most are. Most, for example, won't take advantage of their legal right to step out into a crosswalk in the face of oncoming traffic. That's why they've lived as long as they have.


Alexandria, Va.: It looks like the traffic signals around the Lincoln Memorial and leading to Henry Bacon Drive are out of sync again. Traffic has been backing up past Memorial Bridge and back towards 95 again. Have you heard anything on this?

Dr. Gridlock: Hi, Alexandria, That was one of the first problems I wrote about after I became the new Dr. Gridlock last summer. The District Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the timing of the lights, did work on them and promised to keep making adjustments as necessary.

But I should be checking on that again.


95 South: The HOT lanes are unwelcome. Most of us who currently use the HOV lanes as carpoolers or slugs or designated drivers only believe that this will service people who have high incomes and/or companies that will pay the cost (just as they did before points were given for violators). I can't understand why my NOVA tax dollars can't be used to provide a highway like the 295 corridor is provided to the people of Richmond.

Dr. Gridlock: I know many I-95 sluggers are opposed to the high occupancy or toll lanes proposed for I-95, because they believe that once you let solo drivers pay for the faster trip, it will bring carpooling to an end.

As many of you know, the express toll lanes are sometimes called Lexus Lanes, because critics fear they establish a class system on the highways. But studies have indicated that this doesn't occur. In fact, many drivers use the lanes only when they calculate that the time saving on that particular day is worth the cost -- like when a parent is late to pick up a child at day care, for example.


Ice on Bike Trails: Good morning,

Is any agency responsible for clearing the area's bike trails? On Saturday there was still packed ice from the previous ice storm along several parts of the W&OD trail, rendering it dangerous and almost unusable.

Dr. Gridlock: This is a good question, and I have no idea what the answer is, about who is responsible for clearing bike trails and how well, generally speaking, they do the job.

I would think that in the modern era, bike trails deserve that sort of attention -- not that they should be cleared first after a storm, but certainly a week's delay is too long.


Arlington, Va.: Does anyone know how early the Springfield Metro parking lot fills up?

Dr. Gridlock: Offering this question to the group, in case anyone knows about Springfield, specifically. Many lots and garages at or near the ends of the lines fill up between 7 and 8 a.m.

It's a constant complaint among my readers. There are some new parking structures on the way -- Glenmont, for example -- but they're not coming on line fast enough to meet the demand.


Arlington, Va.: Re: Lexus Lanes, doesn't it seem wrong to design a traffic system whose underlying premise is that you can extract maximum fees from drivers most desperate to travel someplace or more able to afford those fees? I mean, the goal of our transportation system should be to encourage safe, environmentally-friendly, easy travel. Why is Virginia committed to providing that only for those who are desperate to get someplace (as opposed to those just slogging to work) or those who have the cash to space? That hardly seems like it looks out for average drivers.

Dr. Gridlock: I understand you're frustration, Arlington. Many travelers in our country are having difficulty with this relatively new concept: That their highways will be marketed to them, based on supply and demand.

But the plain fact is that the state and local governments don't have enough money to build the roads we want. Look at what's happened in the Virginia General Assembly during the past two months. All that fighting and only a thin chance that a substantial transportation improvement program will actually emerge.


Farragut North: Hello Dr. Gridlock!

This might be a strange question but I was thinking about this when waiting for the train this morning. What should a person do if they somehow did fall onto the track and a train is approaching? Would it be best to lie down flat and wait for the train to pass or can you climb up on those light boxes along the side?


Dr. Gridlock: I hope you never find yourself in need of this information, but you should get into the space beneath the platform. Don't get between the tracks or approach the third rail. There's enough space right under the platform to protect you from a passing train. (And please, don't anybody experiment with this information. Stay back from the edge. I see people hanging ten on the granite. It's crazy.)


Metro to Dulles: You noted that "the basic idea is to run trains that start at Dulles to Stadium-Armory." In fact, I don't think they have any other choice. There is no pocket track, which is a third track between the other two that is used for storing trains or reversing direction, anywhere between West Falls Church and Stadium-Armory. They HAVE to run the trains all the way downtown because people won't want to change trains, and that means going all the way across town.

Unfortunately, the Yellow and Green Line tracks at L'Enfant Plaza have no connection to the Orange and Blue Line tracks, so Blue Line trains sent over the bridge can't link back to the normal route and continue to Largo--they have to go to Mount Vernon Square. It will be REALLY interesting to see how they solve this one.

By the way, I have not used the new Yellow Line service to Fort Totten. How do they handle reversing the trains there with no pocket track? Do they just reverse at the platform and then switch over, given that they only go up there at non-rush times?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, the original design of the system puts a severe limit on what Metro can do with train movement. Steve Feil, who's in charge of rail operations, knows that very well, but he says he can make the Dulles to Stadium-Armory system work by getting really sophisticated about train movements along that line.

It's a fancier operation than what we see now.

I'm not positive but am pretty sure that you're description of the Yellow Line extension to Fort Totten is correct. I haven't ridden a Yellow Line train up to Fort Totten since the experimental service started. Anyone got a report on that?


Bethesda, Md.: RE: Ice on Bike Trails

I don't know about the Virginia trails, but the Capitol Crescent in D.C. is usually plowed by the National Park Service. The Maryland side, however, is not; so you can be riding along a nice open trail and then suddenly hit an unrideable packed mess. It's too bad because it just means that some of us end commuting up on the roads slowing cars down for the 2-3 weeks that it will probably take for the trail to finally melt.

Dr. Gridlock: That was a followup on earlier question about who's responsible for clearing bike trains.


"You must stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, anywhere in our region.": But that doesn't mean that it's okay for a pedestrian to walk whenever and wherever he wants. If you are a pedestrian and the sign says "Don't Walk," and there are cars approaching the green light, you do not walk, plain and simple.

I don't hesitate to lay on the horn with pedestrians. Sure, I sometimes get the finger in return, but most of them know they're in the wrong and will hop to it...and they seem surprised that anyone will challenge them on their illegal crossing.

Dr. Gridlock: This is one of a couple of responses to the earlier exchange we had about pedestrians in crosswalks.

Here's my thought: It's not my job as a driver to teach anyone a lesson. I'll slow or stop if I see a person ahead of me in the roadway. I know that in a confrontation between a car and a pedestrian, the car always wins. Don't need to test that equation.


Silver Spring, Md.: Regarding the pedestrians-waiting-to-cross question, obviously we will stop when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk. But are we required to stop when a pedestrian is waiting to cross, not in the street but standing on the apron. My view is that motorists should yield, but this could present a dangerous situation during heavy traffic or on four-lane roads.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll tell you what I do: If the person looks like he or she is about to cross, I'll stop. But I've also had the experience -- as I'm sure many of you have -- of stopping, and the person doesn't do anything. I've then created a dangerous situation for me and other drivers.

Even if I know the rules, it doesn't mean the other person does, or that the other person trusts me or other drivers to do the right thing.


Silver Spring, Md.: I would like to compliment Metro on my problem-free commutes on all the vaguely snowy days we've had thus far this winter. They've even had their sidewalks shoveled, unlike the other delinquent landowners in the suburban office park locale where I toil. I complain enough when Metro messes up that I want to compliment them when things are uneventful.

Dr. Gridlock: My train trip from Silver Spring to Farragut North this morning was just fine. Concrete at Silver Spring is pretty torn up, though, and some of the lighting outside the station isn't working.


Silver Spring: I hate to see snow covered vehicles on the road as they are a danger to themselves and others. What really gets me are the ones who don't even bother to clean off the rear and side windows and have just a hole for the driver (saw one this a.m.) Not to mention a quick brush to the head and tail lights. You don't even need a broom to clear the roof -- they made extendable handles for the scrapes/brushes made just for this reason.

Dr. Gridlock: Those drivers probably would tell us they had no choice because they were late. That never makes any sense to me. They knew what the weather was when they went to sleep. What could it hurt to get up a few minutes early and clear the car?


Rockville, Md.: Safety training?

I hate to be cynical, but when they say "safety training" I imagine showing the drivers a picture of a person(s) in the street and then saying "Don't run over them."

What safety training do they need to not run over people? Or are we talking about people who walk into the sides of the bus?

Dr. Gridlock: I think the new GM, John Catoe, is determined to improve safety. But we've got to make sure that the training is more than what you envision, Rockville. I'm worried about that too. Take that double fatal at 7th and Penn. There were more than a half dozen collisions there involving Metrobuses and pedestrians in the past two years. Did that not come to someone's attention at Metro?


Windshield Woes: A good friend had her windshield totaled by a sheaf of ice from another car in the last storm (not yesterday). She got the license number of the car from whence it came, and reported it to Fairfax County Police department, who looked them up, went to their home, and cited them for negligence. (Am still looking for the exact citation that falls under!)

Dr. Gridlock: Good to read this. I know many of you have seen the problem but not seen any action.

Just like with aggressive driving, we can't count on the police to catch every violator. Some individual responsibility required here.


Blue-Line Split confused: Dr. Gridlock,

I would like someone to explain to me how, as a user of the Blue line -- Braddock rd. to Farragut West -- it would serve me better to take a Blue line train that goes over the Potomac on the Mount Vernon line? If I wanted the inconvenience of changing trains and a longer commute I would take the Yellow line. Farragut West is one of the busiest stations, and if Metro officials actually rode the rails they would notice that the trains virtually empty at this station.

Yes it is crazy crowded, and yes there is a bottle neck, but geez -- we already receive less treatment than our Orange line counterparts -- why should easy access to Farragut West be taken away too?

Why can't we have more trains and 8-car trains like the Orange line?

Dr. Gridlock: Sometimes I think it's civil war between Blue Line and Orange Line riders. Each has legitimate complaints about crowding and concerns about what the future holds for them.

I'm not aware of any completely satisfactory solution to the Potomac crossing issue, but at least, there are more rail cars on the way to end the four-car trains on the Blue Line.


Dr. Gridlock: Folks, I've really enjoyed today's discussion and all your good questions and comments, but need to wrap up now. Safe travels to all of you.


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