Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, May 29, 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 Tuesday, May 29, 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: Travelers, I hope you had a wonderful long weekend, whether you journeyed out of town or just enjoyed the local scene. Plenty of questions about driving and riding today.

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Washington, D.C.: This question/thought may seem out in left field but I'm throwing it out there anywhere. First, I have to stipulate that I don't drive, I live in the city and walk to work, yeah!

I have noticed a new (well maybe not so new) driving language that has developed and has nothing to do with speech. And that is a language using motor vehicle horns. It seems like there is a whole culture that has developed where drivers use their horns to try to get other drivers to drive the way they think is appropriate.

This manifests itself at almost every intersection following a red light, where all the cars behind the lead car honk immediately upon the light turning green. It is as if the lead car driver can only go on the cue of the honking horns behind them. And don't even get me started on the cabbies who instead of waving to their friends honk at them.

Anyway, I was wondering if anyone has studied this new communications culture of honking. It seems that it would be an interesting study in the synthesis of sociology and communications in our cars.

Cheers for a great week.

Dr. Gridlock: In Mexico City, where the streets are much more congested and the traffic more chaotic than here, I heard far less car honking during a week I spent there this winter. Drivers seemed to be able to do their negotiations without much of that.

The questions about changes in behavior and the study of honking are very interesting. In fact, there appear to be many studies of this. I just did a quick Google search and came up with a batch.

On thing I also found in the search is the section in the California DMV handbook on honking and I thought I'd share that with you. It follows:

Don't Use Your Horn

-- If a driver is going slowly, don't honk just to make him or her hurry. The driver may be ill, lost, or may be having problems with the car.

-- Never honk if slowing or stopping your car will prevent an accident. It's safer to use the brakes than push the horn.

-- Don't honk simply to show other drivers that they have made a mistake. Your honking may upset them so much that they may make more mistakes.

¿ Never honk because you are angry or upset.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Okay, I will give them credit for confining it to Saturday, but major track work in Virginia on Memorial Day weekend? I think Metro is lucky there were not riots at Pentagon City.

Dr. Gridlock: I'd like to hear more about what you experienced at Pentagon City. Would you send an e-mail to me at drgridlock@washpost.com?

The weekend track work annoys many weekend travelers. Some people would rather drive than deal with the long waits.

A reader once asked me why California's BART train system could avoid single-tracking for maintenance. A BART spokesman confirmed that the San Francisco area system gets its work done overnight.

Steve Feil, Metro's chief of rail operations, says that he doesn't know how it's possible to do all the work he would consider essential during the few overnight hours available to Metro.

By the way, there's plenty of midday maintenance this week that will cause single-tracking during the non-rush periods. Later this afternoon, I'll post some details for you on my Get There blog.

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Arlington, Va.: I have recently started driving on the GW Memorial Parkway. It's beautiful and you can go high speeds on it. Why did they not build I-66 and some other highways similarly? What was so special about that land (besides the Potomac)? Surely the land on which I-66 was built was originally woodsy and scenic.

Don't get me wrong -- I-66 has looked pretty nice during the spring -- but it does not match the beauty of the parkway. I am surprised there is not more demand for pretty roads like that. I cannot imagine it's that much more expensive to make roads that woodsy (I-81 toward Roanoke is very pretty for example).

Dr. Gridlock: This is the first nice thing I've heard said about the GW Parkway in a while. Most of what I hear is about the jam on the northbound Parkway at the merge with the Beltway's inner loop. That's where the ramp has been shortened to create a work zone for the Legion Bridge painting project.

I certainly agree with you that our parkways are beautiful. Getting a look at Washington and the Potomac River is one of the region's best driving experiences. But I'm afraid that parkways are a quaint holdover from a bygone era in American transportation.

I doubt we'll see their like again, since highways have become more congested and traffic engineers have worked to improve the safety of road designs.

In fact, some travelers comment to me that they'd like to see the parkways expanded and turned into interstate-style designs to accommodate more traffic.

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

I took something really, really crazy to have me to make the effort to figure out how to write in.

I was driving home Thursday, I am lucky, I work in Gaithersburg and live near Foggy Bottom, so I go against traffic.

On the way home, on the GW Parkway, at 123, two police cars had blocked all lanes, during rush hour, northbound, so a tow truck could get a car off the road, in the grass.

I understand, the one guy with the car, is the one paying the tow truck operator, and the 600 people backed up down the parkway are not, but this seems insane.

Can they not say, tow trucks should block traffic, to get a car off the grass between, 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.?

I have seen this happen several times, a tow truck blocking all traffic during rush hour. My pet peeve, I feel better, I ranted.

Dr. Gridlock: I thought I'd show you this reader's description as a follow-up on the question about parkways.

I'm not familiar with this particular incident, but how's this for a guess? The police thought the volume of traffic on a relatively narrow road made the situation so dangerous that they need to shut all traffic, rather than keep one lane open and create a lane merge while the vehicle was removed from the roadway.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dr. G. - Has MDSHA decided to leave US29 through Four Corners after paving only one layer of asphalt? Another coat of pavement is needed to cover the various utility caps and sewer drain covers, but there is no sign that additional work will ever happen here.

Dr. Gridlock: David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, has this update for you:

SHA will begin final paving Wednesday night, starting on the southbound side along US 29, then moving to the northbound side.

Work will occur between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. each weeknight (no Friday or Saturday night work) and should be completed in the next two to two and a half weeks, weather permitting. There will be double-lane closures along US 29 to help facilitate the process of putting down the final layer of asphalt and placing final line striping.

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Washington, D.C.: Any word yet on Metro's evaluation of its new rail car design? I am 5 feet 2 and ride the Green Line during rush hour; I've found that my chances of being able to grab a handhold in the new cars are slim to none. It's impossible to push through the people surrounding the doors so that I can reach the rails on the back of the seats.

Dr. Gridlock: Metrorail has several rolling experiments, plus a new car design that removes the poles at the front and rear of the cars. The latter -- the 6000 Series cars that I think our reader is commenting on -- is a permanent addition to the fleet.

I think those cars are becoming familiar to Green Line riders, but probably aren't too well known to other riders yet, because so many of the cars ordered have yet to be put in service.

The idea in removing the poles was to encourage people to move away from the doors and stand in the center of the cars, keeping the doorways free for entrance and exit. (I get so many letters complaining about passengers clustering around the doorways.)

But ever since last summer, when the cars first were introduced to the public, shorter riders have expressed concerns about the new design. The note, quite rightly, that trains rarely make a smooth entrance to a station, and if you're trying to make your way from the center of the car to the doorways before the train stops, you can get tossed.

The couple of experimental cars that I'm familiar with are testing bench seating and new extendable handholds, not the removal of the poles.

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Honking: Maybe not so new is right...I remember when I was first learning to drive back in the sixties that people would joke about New Yorkers who honked at you just as the light was turning green. And honking at someone you know in another car is as old as the hills too.

If there's more honking now it's because there's a lot more bad driving.

And yes I honk (and apply my brakes) when someone drifts into my lane (or worse blatantly and dangerously cuts me off).

And if someone ahead of you isn't moving when the light turns green(and I'm NOT talking about instantly), are you supposed to get out of your car and check their vitals ?

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't had the same experience as our first writer on this topic. Honking seems about the same to me now as ever -- and I grew up in New York, before moving to Washington in 1988.

I rarely use the horn. It seems an ineffective way of communicating in most situations. When you do hit the horn, you probably want to do it when the other driver is most likely to know why you did it, right? If the effect is no more than to startle the other driver, make him or her start looking around to find a problem, or slam on the brake, you haven't really done yourself or that other driver a favor.

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Red Line Snob: Who in their right mind would ever live on the Orange and Blue lines in Virginia? Not because the cities/towns are bad, Old Town, Arlington, etc., are very nice and have fun entertainment. Rather, the Metro service is absolutely awful... this weekend during track service it took me over an hour to go from Chinatown to Crystal City. Over an hour!!! That is ridiculous. And it was not just this weekend, there always seems to be track service going on on all of the lines, but especially out there. What is the deal?

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't noticed that any particular line is victimized by track work. Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel sends out an alert for each weekend and it's posted on Metro's Web site, at www.wmata.com.

That's not meant to counter this rider's statement: An hour long transit journey from Chinatown to Crystal City would indeed be outrageous. And I think the extent of the track work is a real problem for Metro service.

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WDC: Following up on the question about the GW Parkway and why they don't make beautiful roads anymore, I think there are better uses of scenic locations than freeways.

On that note, Robert Caro's "The Powerbrokers" (a fabulous read!) has great background on how some highway planners failed to recognize just how universal car ownership in America would ultimately become, and saw parkways as providing a beautiful commuting experience that would mostly be used by upper- and middle-class car owners.

Dr. Gridlock: I join WDC in endorsing Caro's book about Robert Moses and the fall of New York to all you folks trying to understand why our urban areas are in this traffic mess today.

As I recall, the parkways were meant to be fun rides, even to the point of designing bumps and curbs for the entertainment of drivers. Those long-gone traffic engineers were part of their times. They had no idea about 21st century congestion.

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Germantown, Md.: I think I read somewhere, maybe here, that the Legion Bridge repainting project was no longer going to be finished by November, but now sometime in Spring 2008. Is this delay in completion because of the work area reconfiguration? If we have to deal with this for another 3-6 months, I'd rather have things back the original way and get this project over with. The conditions have not improved that much with the reconfiguration.

Dr. Gridlock: I've spent a lot of time on the Get There blog and in the Dr. Gridlock column on the Legion Bridge problem, because I know many of you are suffering along with this project.

The bridge painting job -- which I'm convinced is truly necessary to prevent really serious structural problems in years to come -- will last well into 2008. But that shortened merge on the south side of the bridge, which was created to provide a staging area for workers, won't be needed after this November.

Transportation officials in Maryland and Virginia are aware that this is creating a big problem for parkway and Beltway traffic and they've been tinkering with that merge area. My impression -- based on driving and on reading your mail -- is that things are a bit better but not a lot better.

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Waldorf, Md.: Do you think Maryland and Virginia will be smart enough to build something between the Bay Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel after what happened a few weeks ago? Meaning, maybe something at Indian Head and Prince William County (just a suggested place).

Dr. Gridlock: Earlier this year, I asked Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari about this, and he held out little hope that there would be a new bay crossing in our future.

I don't like the current situation, in which there's two way traffic on one span during rush periods. That's just too dangerous, without some sort of barrier to separate oncoming traffic.

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Springfield, Va.: Dr. G, I'm curious if you (or other readers) have any thoughts on the safety of commuting to downtown D.C. on a motorcycle. The idea of the added fuel economy and HOV access intrigues me, but I wonder how safe it is given the way people drive around here.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll just get this started by saying that I really worry about the safety of a motorcycle trip downtown. I can't believe that many folks by cycles with that sort of an experience in mind.

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Falls Church, Va.: The problem with horn use is that on today's cars, it's never clear where on the steering wheel you're supposed to press in order to sound the horn. This confusion can make it impossible to effectively coordinate horn use with obscene hand gestures, sharply limiting one's ability to educate other drivers.

Dr. Gridlock: During our chat, I've been trying to recall the last time I used the car horn and still haven't come up with an example to offer.

And I'm just not into behavior modification on the road. I give myself enough to worry about with my own driving.

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Re: Red Line Snob: Hi,

That person is right. I live on the Blue Line, and since I have to transfer to the Red Line to get to work at Dupont Circle, I have two options: live with my significant other who lives on the Red Line, or transfer to the Yellow, get off at the Pentagon or King Street and take a bus home. Believe me, I only use the Blue Line when I want to take a nap on the way home, or if I feel the need to sit and look at the scenery during the extended commute. However, at least the Blue Line doesn't smell bad in the morning like the Red Line does.

Dr. Gridlock: A lot of riders I talk to would love a chance to sit or nap on a Blue Line train at rush hour. Bad as crowding can be on all the lines, there's nothing like trying to board or travel on a four-car train at rush hour.

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Horn-honking on green: To me, the horn-honking when the light turns green confirms that our traffic lights are designed improperly. If you ever drive in the UK, you'll quickly see that they have a combined red-yellow cycle at the end of the red cycle. That is, you're at a red light waiting, and then right before you get the green, BOTH the red and yellow lights come on at the same time to tell you the light's about to turn. It works, too: people go immediately.

Here, unless the lead driver is watching the light for the other street to see it turn yellow or the pedestrian countdown timer to see it reach zero, people don't know when the light is about to go green, and there's an inevitable delay in moving off.

Dr. Gridlock: It's interesting how waiting at a light vexes us. For drivers, the seconds spent at a light are likely to be the longest part of the trip. For a Metro rider, it's the time between arrival on the platform and stepping aboard the train.

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using the horn: There IS a difference between leaning on the horn obnoxiously and giving it a gentle tap to get wake up a day dreamer at the red light.

Dr. Gridlock: I agree. I also think it's one of those situations where the lead driver is most likely to immediately understand why he or she is hearing a horn, and respond accordingly.

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Falls Church, Va: Please ask other drivers to stop tailgating me in the early morning (6:30 a.m.) as I drive the backroads (Kirby Rd.) from Falls Church/McLean to GW Parkway:

There are a lot of deer out on the roads early in the morning!!

Dr. Gridlock: I hit a deer once on an interstate in the New York suburbs. Still remember every detail of that experience and wouldn't want to repeat it.

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Re: I-66: The land where I-66 is built was once neighborhoods of houses. The state of Virginia tore down the neighborhoods to build I-66.

Dr. Gridlock: Many highway advocates complain about the slow pace of road construction and long for the days when, or the jurisdictions where, a political czar like Robert Moses could bulldoze through community or environmental concerns.

There are plenty of good reasons for putting more thought and study into the location of 21st century roadways.

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Germantown: Future-looking question: What will the traffic patterns be like on the beltway when the full WW bridge opens? Since the bottleneck will no longer be the WW, my guess is that it will shift to other portions of the beltway, possibly drastically altering current patterns. But the $64,000 question is where? Will current bottlenecks just get worse, or will new ones form?

Dr. Gridlock: I think in the early going, at least, Beltway drivers will benefit from the opening of the second new span and the completion of the four interchanges near the bridge. So far, I don't see a downside to this.

Gradually, though, local and long distance traffic will increase, and local development will increase. Maybe the next bottleneck that requires reconstruction will be the junction of the Beltway and I-95 around Silver Spring?

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Washington, D.C.: I am looking for updates regarding two projects: streetcars in D.C. and third-track construction on VRE (L'Enfant and Manassas line).

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Haven't had a chance during the chat to refresh my memory on this good question, so I think I'll try to get you a better answer on the Get There blog or in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column.

My memory: The Anacostia demonstration street car project is going to be the first we'll see in D.C. Later on, the hope is for a line that would run along H Street NE. Engineers -- who have plans for just about every congestion solution we can think of but no money -- have ideas about recreating lines throughout D.C. Down 16th Street NW, for example.

A new track on VRE: I thought that was also pretty far off in the future, but will double check.

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South Riding, Va.: I was one of the drivers who was forced to wait on I-66 for Rolling Thunder to make its way onto the road. First, let me say that I respect their cause. However, I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

Traffic came to a complete stop around Nutley. I made it just past the exit ramps. After a while, the exit ramp finally started moving. After about five minutes, cars started to pull into the right shoulder land and drove backwards to get to the exit ramp. Motorcycles from behind were using the left shoulder to drive forward and catch up with the other riders. It was pure chaos.

Some of this could have been avoided if they did not completely close I-66 to traffic for Rolling Thunder. Why couldn't they share the road with everyone else?

Second, I really wish there were police present to ticket everyone who decided to use the sides of the road, both motorcycles and cars. This was plain stupid and dangerous.

I am glad that this only happens once or twice a year.

Dr. Gridlock: Many people enjoy the Rolling Thunder visit, but the travels of hundreds of motorcycles does get to many local drivers.

Having been on highways as convoys of motorcycles passed with police escorts, I'm ambivalent about the sharing the road idea. I felt it was dangerous in certain situations.

Also, there's no excuse for people inventing their own traffic rules in the absence of an emergency.

But more generally, many of us do find ourselves in situations where the only thing to do is remember that we live in the nation's capital and we're going to face some situations that drivers in other regions don't encounter.

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Manassas, Va.: Every time I go to Dulles airport I see many cars parked along the side of the loop in front of the terminal. There are several No Parking or Standing signs along this area, as well as signs directing cars to the cell phone waiting area. I have never seen any of these illegally parked cars ticketed or even asked to move. At National Airport this is not the case. I see cars ticketed there all the time.

Why should I continue to obey the rules at Dulles when it is obvious the authorities have no intention of enforcing them?

Dr. Gridlock: I agree that's annoying and dangerous. I've seen the same situation at BWI Marshall, despite the existence of a cell phone lot. Some people don't know about it. Some ignore it. They should be ticketed. (At BWI, I have seen some enforcement. Like in so many other situations, we spend just a couple of minutes seeing the problem and can easily miss seeing the enforcement.)

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks so much to you all for a lively chat today, on the tail end of the long weekend. I have to breakaway now, but please join me the rest of the week on the Get There blog and in the Dr. Gridlock column.

But first, here's a note from SHA's David Buck about the Legion Bridge situation:

"In reference to your reader asking about the lane closures for the American Legion Bridge painting, I confirmed with our Project Engineer for the job - the merge lane reduction will last NO LONGER than this November (and with any decent weather, we might be done a bit sooner).

"The work that will continue into 2008 will not involve any lane closures or lane reductions."

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