Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 23, 2007; 1:00 PM

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

He was online Monday, April 23, 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.

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Dr. Gridlock: Welcome, travelers. Hope your commutes are more pleasant in this beautiful weather. Let's get to your questions.

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Annapolis, Md.: Dr. Gridlock, I have to commute for a few months from the Annapolis area to Fairfax (past the end of the Orange line). I was wondering if any of your readers had any tips on the best route to take (Beltway north or south or straight through town). Despite Wilson Bridge traffic and it being longer mileage-wise, I was thinking the southern Beltway route would be the faster option. Anyone who can weigh in on the drive? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Annapolis, I think a lot of our chatters would be glad to help with this. Write back, though, and see if you can narrow it down for us: What part of Fairfax are you bound for and are you talking about standard commuting hours?

Glad to hear this commute will last no more than a few months. It's one of the more difficult ones, crossing the entire region. You've got the District, the Potomac and Tysons in the way. Some readers probably will suggest cutting through the District. One important thing for a commute like that is knowing some bailout points -- alternatives you can resort to at various points when conditions change.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock -- WHAT is up with the traffic signals in Dupont Circle? They seem to be some sort of different material with smaller shades around them. They are so hard to see. I was first in line at one of these lights this morning and couldn't tell when it turned green. I had to wait for someone to honk to know it was green. This seems like a serious risk. Do you have any info?

Dr. Gridlock: No, but I'll take a walk up there and look. It's just a few blocks. I don't recall hearing about a recent change in the traffic signal style. Anyone else seen this -- or remember something I'm clearly forgetting?

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Suitland, Md.: No question, really, just an observation. The back-up on Suitland Parkway each weekend when they close the South Capitol Street bridge is horrendous. In order to get into the city, all cars must turn right onto Firth Stirling and then get onto 295N. This can take up to 45 minutes! One of the main issues is that there is no merge area when getting onto 295N, so traffic never flows smoothly. There doesn't seem to be that much traffic on 295N, and it seems that it would be a lot better if they were able to close the right lane on 295N so that all the detoured traffic from Suitland Parkway would be able to merge more easily.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll pass along that suggestion to DDOT. The Transportation department says it's been watching the weekend bridge closings to see how it might fine tune its plan for the July-August shutdown of the entire bridge.

I had one experience with the traffic during a weekend closure, and it was very different from yours. It was on Saturday, March 31, between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. I tried as many routes as I could around the closure and the detour, trying to get into trouble, but didn't have much luck. The only place I saw a backup was on the Howard Road ramp from 295.

The 11th Street Bridge, Suitland Parkway, etc., didn't present any difficulty at the particular time I was surveying the scene. I have heard from drivers who encountered lots of trouble on Fridays, after the bridge lane closures began at 10 a.m.

Now, the weekend closures of the inbound lanes have ended. There are a bunch of weekend closures of the outbound lanes coming up. When those are done, get ready for the big one this summer, which will shut all lanes of the South Cap bridge for a major rehab.

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West End: Now that there is so much development in the West End area there is a huge dearth of street parking for my guests as compared to 2-3 years ago. Do you know if the city would ever open up the parking lot of Francis Junior High School on nights or weekends? Seems silly to have all those spots unavailable.

Dr. Gridlock: This is strictly off the top of my head, and readers are invited to correct me:

No, I think there's little chance that the D.C. school system would be into opening up Francis or any other school grounds for public parking. I don't see how school officials would regard that as a win for them.

I do sympathize with the problem: Parking is getting more difficult in many city neighborhoods. In part, that's a sign of economic progress, but that's not much comfort if you're hosting a dinner for some friends.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Last week, I heard rumors that there was going to be a rolling truck protest this week slowly circling the Beltway and the White House protesting an issue related to Mexican trucks in the U.S. I didn't see any signs of it on my way into work today. Was this for real or just another out of control rumor?

Dr. Gridlock: We've heard those rumors, too, but so far today, we've seen no sign of this NAFTA protest around the Capital Beltway. Has anyone observed what we have not? Supposedly, the trucks would be traveling in a group at 55 mph, and you know what that would do to Beltway traffic if it actually happened.

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Metrorail Surveys: What's up with the Metrorail surveys?

I see boxes at every Metro station to place filled out surveys, but nowhere do I see where to pick up the actual surveys.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's what's up: 300,000 Metro questionnaires are being distributed on weekdays through May 24, but they're not hitting every station at once. By May 24, Metro says, all 86 stations will have been surveyed.

Riders can mail the self-addressed, pre-paid survey card or drop it off at those collection boxes you've seen.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the deal with Rock Creek Parkway? There are cones up and the right lane is blocked going south, but no work being done all week!! How long are they going to torture us with this stupid derailment of rush hour traffic?

Dr. Gridlock: A long time. This is a major project on the parkway between Virginia Avenue and P Street that the park service plans to complete in spring 2008.

Here are the details of what's being done:

Roadway reconstruction, bridge deck resurfacing, stone median replacement, widening of the multi-use trail and repaving of the Parkway and Thompson's Boat Center parking lot. Construction will also include drainage work, grading, roadway paving and curb replacement. The multi-use pedestrian and bicycle trail will be closed for approximately four weeks for reconstruction during the first phase of the project.

Here's what the work hours are supposed to be:

Monday through Saturdays 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 11 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Weekend work hours are from 7 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday. Three travel lanes are open during rush hours.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi. I'm a cyclist who commutes from South Arlington over Memorial Bridge. I cross GW Parkway (using the path starting at the Pentagon). Usually, I don't have to wait too long before a kind driver stops to let me cross at the signs in the crosswalk. Otherwise, I would have to wait for rush hour to end. I've been doing this for years, but lately, I observe increasing aggression by other drivers toward the drivers who stop for a few seconds to let people cross. Friday, a motorcyclist almost rear-ended the driver who stopped in front of him, and hopped the curb into the grass to avoid a collision. If joggers and cyclists had been waiting there to cross, someone would have been seriously injured. Any thoughts on this area?

Dr. Gridlock: Of course, I don't like that situation. Motorists should be following other motorists at a safe distance in the first place -- especially in such a congested and difficult-to-navigate area where clearly there are going to be bikes and pedestrians.

It's probably the end of a long commute for many of those motorists. Sometimes the mind can wander and sometimes commuters are just so determined to get it over with that they chafe at any delay.

I think safety awareness campaigns like "Street Smart" are good things, but some engineering -- whether it's signs, better pavement markings or ped/bike overpasses -- in various locations would help us all get safely to our destinations.

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NAFTA protest: Heard on the radio this morning that it's been moved to later in the week - Wednesday to Friday, I think.

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for that response to our question about the rumored trucker protest on the Beltway.

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New Metro cars: I hate them. The same guys who would take up two seats on the old cars are doing the same on the new (which has fewer seats). And yes, it's always guys in my experience.

Dr. Gridlock: You see those mostly on the Green Line now, I believe. (The rail cars, I mean, not the sprawling guys.) That's where the first wave of 6000 series cars are tested and deployed.

During the past few weeks, I heard plenty of complaints about crowding in all Metro cars, but these conversations -- some of them on our "Get There" blog  -- have focused on tourists, luggage and strollers, rather than big wide guys.

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Crossing GW Parkway: That crossing is a death-trap. Would it kill Arlington (or the National Park Service??) to install a signal there?

Dr. Gridlock: When I test out such ideas on traffic engineers, sometimes they say, yep, that's the solution. But more often, they furrow their brows and tell me about the dangers of routinely bringing traffic to a halt and the number of rear end collisions likely to result.

(By the way, I've found the Arlington traffic officials to be very, very into bike and pedestrian safety.)

For the parkway spot we're talking about, you think some sort of overpass is possible? Something that would entirely separate peds and bikes from cars?

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Crystal City: Are there plans to smooth out the Roosevelt Bridge? For a brand new surface, it is horrible. The new surface on the Wilson Bridge is like glass compared to the Roosevelt washboard.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know of any plans to modify the surface at Roosevelt as that project wraps up.

I agree that the Wilson Bridge surface is smoother. Don't know if a different type of concrete was used. I know that a quick-trying concrete was used on the Roosevelt so that traffic disruptions could be kept to a minimum.

The mailbag has contained letters from Roosevelt travelers complaining about the smoothness of the surface. After I got the first couple, I drove the Roosevelt, then went up to the Legion Bridge for comparison. Didn't notice any substantial difference on that particular experiment.

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K St.: The other day I saw the Circulator bus back on K St. in Georgetown. Has there been any word of the success/failure of this new trial run through M St.? Everyone I've heard from wants the bus back on K to speed things up considerably, so I was hoping that the bus was back on K St., until I saw another one later going up M.

Dr. Gridlock: I don't believe there's been any change in the recently established route for the Circulator that takes it up Wisconsin Ave. If you folks have more thoughts on the Circulator service, post them here or on "Get There," or send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Recently, I got a letter from a commuter complaining about the frequency of the service. It's supposed to run every 10 minutes. That's part of the attraction: You don't have to worry about schedules. But my commuter correspondent has observed bigger gaps and some bunching up of the buses.

Last week, I waited 17 minutes before one jam-packed bus arrived. So I stood back, and the next one came about three minutes later. Got on that one, and it soon passed the first one on the way to Union Station.

That's not so good.

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Washington, D.C.: I just wanted to say thank you. I don't know if it was because I asked, because you answered, or not related to us, but over the last two weeks they have re-painted and re-signed the Logan circle mess. It is much much much easier to understand when to stop, when to go, and which lane is which.

Dr. Gridlock: Wish I could take credit for that. I should list this improvement in my Road Watch column on Sunday. Are others happy about the Logan Circle alignment?

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Arlington, Va.: When cyclists use their hands to signal, should they always do so with their left arm? I saw one last week who used his right arm to point where he was going (basically a right turn) and it confused me because I was expecting him to hold his left hand up. Thanks

Dr. Gridlock: Cyclists can correct me, but I believe the standard is to signal a left turn with the left arm and a right turn with the right arm.

There's a good new biker's bible booklet (PDF) that Arlington biking enthusiast Paul DeMaio pointed out to me. It covers lots of the rules of the road.

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Logan Circle: What happened to the lights on and around Logan Circle? They used to be timed and traffic moved efficiently. Now, 13th Street gets completely backed up because the light at O Street turns red just as the cars from 13th are giving the green arrow to enter the circle. Only 3-4 cars in get the circle, while everyone else waits behind the red on O, wasting about 30 seconds of the green arrow. Can this be fixed? Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Clearly, a very different view of the Logan Circle situation from our previous posting.

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Falls Church, Va.: Roosevelt Bridge -- I drive it every day and have so for the past nine years. The surface is fine. Nothing extraordinary, but perfectly passable. Thank goodness the repairs are almost done. When they were grading and milling the surface THAT was when the pavement was bad. It's much better these past couple months.

My question: on 17th Street between E Street and H. What are those black "smokestack" vent-type things that appear in various places? I presume they're covering manholes or something during the various construction projects in these couple blocks, but taking away one lane going northbound (between F and Penn Ave.) in the morning does cause significant backups.

Any knowledge on how long these "stacks" will be in the vicinity?

Dr. Gridlock: I apologize to you folks who've asked me about the steamboat in the middle of 17th Street, near the Old Executive Office Building. I've been meaning to learn more about that. It's been there a while and is quite disruptive for traffic.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: If commuting to work were a non-issue, where would you live in the D.C. area that was close enough to be able to take advantage of the cultural and educational activities, but be out of the constant day-to-day traffic and hustle?

Dr. Gridlock: When I first moved to DC in 1988, I thought of our Capitol Hill neighborhood that way, but I'm sure the group will have plenty of nominees. (We're a two-newspaper family: The Gridspouse is the outdoors writer for The Baltimore Sun. We left Capitol Hill after a year to shorten her commute -- just a little.)

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Annapolis to Fairfax: do not know what part of Fairfax, but I would suggest taking 50 to 295, and bypassing the inner loop traffic to the Wilson Bridge. That's one alternative I did when I lived in Bowie but worked in Alexandria. Certain days you can read the 295 traffic to see if cutting through D.C. would be faster than 95 and the Wilson Bridge.

Dr. Gridlock: Thank you for that response to our Annapolis to Fairfax commuter who's looking for the best route.

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Bowie, Md.: I commute everyday from Bowie to Herndon/Dulles and will be doing it only until the near future. Route is much shorter northbound on the Beltway. Southbound, it's mainly clear, but it's a longer drive and the Wilson Bridge can be backed up for miles and miles, not to mention backups heading towards Tyson's.

Since I leave early in the morning at 5'ish, it's not that bad, but the return drive can be demoralizing. I've often dozed off and have tried coffee before starting my commute, but that usually results in the need to use the rest room if the roads are backed up. I'd imagine it would be even worse for the Annapolis driver.

The span from DTR to I-95 on the beltway is usually the worst during the afternoon, but I heard it's equally bad as you near the Rt. 50 interchange. Of course, Rt. 50 East is gawdawful during the evening rush, especially since it's getting warmer and people want their crabs, sand and water.

Dr. Gridlock: By the way, there was a very interesting story about "extreme commuters" in the April 16 issue of The New Yorker. Bowie's experience seems to fit the "extreme" patterns.

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Arlington, Va.: Where I grew up (Milwaukee), I was taught to always signal with the left arm. Straight out for a left turn, and up at 90 degrees for a right turn. The reason for this (I was told, and it makes sense to me) is that cyclists are typically on the right hand side of the road, so a right arm signal might not be easily seen by a trailing motorist, while a left arm signal will be.

Dr. Gridlock: It you get a chance, check page 12 of that biker's guide I mentioned about, with the link. Look at the signaling diagram with "Communicating."

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bikers on the parkway...: I feel for those guys, especially when there's a continuous flow of traffic and they can't cross. Of course, then there are the bikers who willfully ignore stop signs and right of way (one way street, anyone?) and I think that most motorists don't really feel like being courteous to cyclists.

About the crossing though...seems like the same sort of flyovers the bike path uses around the airport would work. Also, a writer mentioned Arlington, but that area is under the exclusive pervue of the NPS.

Dr. Gridlock: This is one of a few responses I'm seeing on the parkway/bikers/pedestrians question. I'll show you a couple more.

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Arlington, Va.: GW Parkway crossing: There is an overpass for boats leaving the marina just south of the crosswalk. Couldn't a sidewalk be installed at river level allowing pedestrians and bikes to cross here? Still leaving enough room for the boats of course.

Dr. Gridlock: Here's another.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

This is a general question, but one that I have been grappling with more lately. How and when does one make the determination to forego public transit and buy a car? I have lived in the area for almost seven years and own a home across the street from the metro station. In recent months I have been contemplating the cost/benefits of owning a car and commuting instead of dealing with the increasingly crowded and annoyance of the Metro. I know others have confronted this same dilemma and would like to hear what others feel about the topic. Thanks. (And for what it's worth, I live in Silver Spring, Md., and work near Capitol Hill).

Dr. Gridlock: I think the cost/benefit calculation is personal. The only thing I can suggest is that you find some way of factoring stress and personal satisfaction into the equation.

I made a switch myself around 2000, trading in a nine-mile drive from Silver Spring to downtown Washington for a Metro trip between Silver Spring and Farragut North. Mostly a money issue: I calculated what it was costing me to warehouse my car all day downtown. Emotional element: I enjoyed reading on the train.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've been hearing a rumor around downtown silver spring that metro is considering (maybe mo county?) making an entry/exit that opens out towards East-West Highway. Have you heard anything like that? It would be a great idea, not only for convenience for NOAA workers and people who live there, but also because that bridge underpass is shady at night to cross under. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: Here's a link (PDF) you might find useful to some of the latest news about the upcoming construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center. That area is going to be disrupted for a while.

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Beltway at 55 mph: I would absolutely love it if I could travel the beltway at 55 mph during rush hour. On my daily commute through the inner loop stretch from the Robinson Terminal to Tyson's Corner, I'm lucky if I get to travel any faster than stop-and-go. I'm sure it's the same on other stretches of the beltway. So, this truck caravan should plan to drive during non-rush-hour (which is what -- 11 a.m./3 p.m.?)!

Dr. Gridlock: On our rumor -- so far unproven -- that there might be a trucker demonstration on the Beltway this week.

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Prague: Actually back in D.C. now, but an observation from my trip.

We spent a week cycling around in the Czech Republic, in busy city traffic and on country lanes and highways. Cars were considerate and knew how to share the road. I felt much less threatened by traffic there. We could learn a thing or two from the example!

Dr. Gridlock: We definitely are not at that level of mutual respect among drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

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Buying a car: I'd like to point out the FlexCar and ZipCar programs to the previous poster. If a car is only needed for occasional errands, he/she might find it more affordable to join one of these groups. Rental cars can be used for weekend trips. In the long term it may save him/her money.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a very good suggestion.

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Tunnel under the Potomac: Hi Dr. Gridlock,

Why don't the powers that be build a tunnel under the Potomac to get to D.C.? It could be a toll tunnel like Baltimore's tunnel, using only EZ-Pass, with cameras to enforce it. No disruption of the cityscape, and it could have two or three exit areas -- toward the SW freeway, into D.C. and toward the Kennedy Center.

Dr. Gridlock: As a concept, I love it, but am doubtful that any level of government would go for that expense. Maybe a private consortium, but it's hard to imagine how high the tolls would have to be set for private partners to recoup an investment so large.

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Old Town and National Harbor: Are you familiar with downtown Denver at all? They have something there called the 16th Street Promenade. It goes for about 2 miles from the State Capitol to the Train Station. It is a pedestrian mall, full of shops and restaurants. Only free shuttle busses that stop every block and arrive every 2 minutes are allowed on it.

Do you think this idea could work for Old Town and King Street? All the cars could be moved to Camron and Prince Streets (which are already one way) and allow King Street to be full of people between the River and the Metro Station!

Dr. Gridlock: I love that section of Denver. Around here, we're going to have to get more creative about moving people around. Various forms of shuttle buses and personal people movers have to be part of the future all across the densely populated communities.

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Arlington, Va.: Yesterday, I was on a reconfigured Metro car which had four side seats on each side and also seemed to be configured by railings to force passengers inside the car rather than cluster around the entry doors. I don't see anything wrong with this.

Dr. Gridlock: That sounds like the Metro test car that's experimenting with more bench seating (where you face into the car) in the center. It's also got the element of the 6000 series rail cars that eliminates the three poles around the front and rear doors, so that travelers will stand deeper into the cars.

Lots of people were worried about this last summer, but I haven't heard many complaints lately.

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Dr. Gridlock: Think I'll take a walk up to Dupont Circle to check those traffic signals and then over to Logan Circle for a peek at those pavement markings. (Look at that sunshine: Do I have a great job, or what?)

Thanks very much for joining me today. If there was an issue that you'd like to discuss further, you can always reach me through the e-mail bag, drgridlock@washpost.com.

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