Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 11, 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, June 11, 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: Hello, travelers. Is it summer yet, or are you among those who still find the roads and rails crowded? I see people have plenty of concerns to share about a variety of topics.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Dr. Gridlock: Gridlock is common in the part of the city I have to spend time in -- downtown -- because people don't stay out of intersections unless it's clear they can get through them. Sometimes I miss a couple green lights because of it, which tempts me to do the same thing to the other traffic. There was a big deal made a while ago about the city's cracking down on this; what happened?

Dr. Gridlock: This is a constant problem downtown. You've probably seen those Don't Block the Box signs at intersections, but clearly, not everyone pays attention to them.

It's encouraging that the District's traffic control officers will be put under the district of the District Department of Transportation and given some ticketing powers. I find them to be very effective -- there just aren't enough of them.

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Washington, D.C.: Recent scenes from the metro:

On multiple occasions, men yelling over and over on the platform.

A guy peeing under the stairs at Metro Center.

A bunch of tourists SITTING on the Rosslyn escalator while EATING fast food as they travel down. (At least they were on the right.)

What recourse does one have other than to roll one's eyes and glare?

Dr. Gridlock: That sort of thing, I'd either tell the station manager, or call the Metro transit police at 202-962-2121. We live in an urban environment. Our subway is open to all kinds of characters. People take more than 700,000 trips a day on Metrorail. They're pretty well behaved.

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Laurel, Md.: I was driving around town a few months ago and a monstrosity came upon me that I almost did not recognize. It was a Metro Bus painted black as an advertisement for the HBO show, "The Wire." Is this safe?

Dr. Gridlock: I think the transit systems refer to that type of advertising as "a wrap." You see it on some Metrorail cars as well. Raising more money through advertising is one of the things we've been encouraging Metro to do so it can hold down the fares.

I don't believe that's a safety problem, since the only person who has to see the traffic is the bus driver. And while it's not the goal of the advertising program, it might actually make the buses more visible to other drivers and add some margin of safety.

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Northern Virginia: Metro is putting in the red lights at some stations, they've washed some of their train cars, and are upgrading escalators and elevators, but what are they really doing for the customer? The stations are dimly lit -- brighter lights or a good cleaning to the concrete to bring the white back out of the gray -- the station managers are rude and the bus drivers like to run red lights blocking traffic, and Metro charges you when you don't receive the service for which you'd intended -- commuting. Apparently it's an admission charge to wait on the platform while the ride is free. What good is in changing the lights in the floor and getting people to the stations safely if they're just going to treat you badly anyway?

Dr. Gridlock: Many people are frustrated with Metro service. I hear complaints about the maintenance program and the seemingly never ending single-tracking (which I experienced this morning on the Red Line), about the lighting in stations and the length of time it takes to rehab the elevators and escalators.

Still, it does seem to me that cleaning the cars -- inside and out -- putting in the red lights to save money and improve visibility and upgrading the escalators and elevators does represent customer service.

I think the new GM, John Catoe, takes customer service very seriously and is responding to the complaints and suggestions he gets. I think he's trying to instill that sense in all Metro employees.

When something goes wrong for you, don't just stew. Put them to the test: Call in your complaint to Metro's customer assistance line, at 202-637-1328.

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Laurel: On the Eastern Shore, there are signs along Route 50 that say "Bridge Bound? Fifty is Swiftest."

What's the point of these? Obviously, you'd take 50 to the Bay Bridge.

Dr. Gridlock: I think beachgoers, especially the weekenders, are often frustrated by the slow traffic on Route 50, and just have to test the notion that it's the swiftest path. Many would like to find the secret shortcut, but there truly aren't many options on the Eastern Shore, aside from building more bypasses around the towns, to limit the mingling of beach traffic and local traffic.

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Chevy Chase, D.C.: I'm going to Wolf Trap for the first time next Monday night, and I wilt a little at the thought of how horrible the drive must be at rush-hour.

How early should I leave the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area if I want to be there by 6:30 p.m. (to picnic before an 8 p.m. show)?

Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm posting this in the hope of getting some advice from you folks. Under ideal conditions that trip should take about a half hour. But it's such a heavily traveled route, probably taking you along the narrow part of the Beltway's outer loop before the Legion Bridge and then into the jammed up Tysons area, that -- well, if it were me -- I'd leave about 5:15.

It's not like you can wait out the traffic for a Wolf Trap performance. And the most difficult part can be getting in and out of the immediate area around the venue. The upside is that as we get deeper into the Wolf Trap summer season, the commuter traffic tends to lighten.

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American Legion Bridge: My already long commute has been extended by the work on the right lane on the AL Bridge. Its a gridlock every morning on the inner loop from the toll road to the bridge. When is that work going to end and why is it causing such a gridlock when before we cut drive without stoppage in the very stretch?

Dr. Gridlock: This is the worst construction-related daytime jam that I've seen in our region this year.

The bridge needs to be painted. It's safety and longevity, not cosmetics. But what a mess for commuters northbound on the George Washington Parkway and on the Beltway's inner loop.

The problem is the staging area for the work that was created on the south side of the bridge. Maryland State Highway Administration says it was necessary to put it there, but what it did was shorten up the merge from the parkway to the inner loop.

When Maryland and Virginia saw the traffic problems this was creating, they took some steps, warning Beltway drivers to move left before the merge and lengthening the merge zone somewhat. But it's still a problem.

The need for the shortened merge will continue until the fall, SHA says.

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Doc,

Though you focus more on roads, I was hoping you could clue me in on this question: why is eating and drinking on Metro so tolerated anymore? I'm not calling for a return to the days of tackling pregnant women, but there are entirely too many people using trains as a dining facility. Worst of all, Metro employees are simply letting this happen. Recently, a Metro employee and I both watched a family make a pizza Lunchable (complete with shredded mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce) on a train; after a couple of minutes of waiting, I was the one who asked them to stop.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro transit police tell me they continue to enforce the rules. Plus, there are those announcements in the stations reminding people not to eat or drink in the transit system.

We all see those rules violated. Police took a lot of heat for some of those high profile incidents in recent years, like French Fry Girl, but there are good reasons for having the rules and they should be enforced.

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Alexandria, Va.: On the Beltway east of Van Dorn, there have been 50 mph speed limit signs for a couple of years now due to construction. But there is no construction happening until much closer to the Wilson Bridge. As one who tries very hard to obey the speed limit, any chance VDOT would consider going back to 55 on that stretch until the work zones move farther west? I'd like not to have to break the speed limit just to get onto the beltway - which seems the only way to survive out there.

Dr. Gridlock: This is just me talking, because I haven't had time to check your question with any bridge project people, but I've been in heavy traffic around there that was created by the work zones farther along, at Telegraph Road and Route 1. I'm not sure I'd want to encourage people to go even faster than I see them traveling through that area. Staying alert and controlling speed when approaching a work zone always seem like good ideas.

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"Don't Block the Box": One of the things that amuses me about these signs, as used in the DC area, is that there is no box painted on the roads. The first place I recall seeing those signs was in New York, probably 20 years ago, and the intersections there are painted with a cross-hatching to indicate the prohibited area. (I've since seen a similar system in England.) I don't doubt that most DC-area drivers are familiar with "Don't Block the Box" from trips to New York, but given how many tourists from other parts of the country come here, I wonder if they really know what it means.

Dr. Gridlock: Manhattan was the first place I saw those signs, too. That was about the time the term "gridlock" came into play. My recollection is that it wasn't so much that people were obeying signs as it was that traffic cops were enforcing the rules. It's that human touch that always triumphs.

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Alexandria: Who's the French Fry girl?

Dr. Gridlock: How long ago was it now, maybe about a decade? A transit police officer confronted a student who was eating French fries inside the transit system and wound up taking her into custody. Many people thought the officer's action was out of proportion to the offense. Others didn't.

Many suspect that transit police now are reluctant to confront food-eating riders because they don't want to become famous. But like I said earlier, police tell me they still enforce the rules.

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Wolf Trap - take Metro: Take Metro to Wolf Trap. I've done it several times and it's great. You take the train to the West Falls Church station and the bus from there. It's quick and easy and you don't have to deal with traffic. The bus also lets you off right outside the venue so you don't have walk very far.

Dr. Gridlock: Red Line to the Orange Line to the bus. How long does that take? Is the Orange Crush really better than the Beltway jam?

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Anonymous: Wouldn't cameras at critical intersections taking pictures of block boxers and assessing fines make a difference?

Dr. Gridlock: Even though I believe in the use of cameras as part of red light and speed enforcement, I wouldn't use them to ticket people for blocking the box.

Cameras in red-light running are clear cut. You have to blow through a red light cleanly to get your picture taken and a fine issued. (If you think you were in the intersection before the light turned red, fight the ticket.)

With blocking the box enforcement, there are circumstances the camera can't account for. Maybe you waited till some tardy pedestrians were safely across, for example.

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Lex Pk: Why do people complain about the lighting in Metro? Are they planning to perform surgery in the stations? It certainly is bright enough. There is certainly no real crime problem on the platforms. Increasing the light levels will only waste energy and make the stations harder to cool.

Dr. Gridlock: The quality of station lighting varies a lot. Metro recognizes that it must brighten up some areas. Despite the low crime rate, it's unpleasant to be looking through the train window as it pulls into the station and not be able to see out onto the platform.

Metro is trying to improve the lighting using lower energy bulbs, which can save money too.

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Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Dr G,

What will happen to traffic in the DC area if we get too many code red days of bad air quality?

Does the Clean Air Act force cities to reduce car travel?

Dr. Gridlock: What happens around here on Code Red days is that people can ride the suburban buses for free, encouraging them to leave the cars at home rather than forcing them to do so. This year, the bus services in Virginia have extended the free days to Code Orange days as well.

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Sterling, Va.: A practical question/comment concerning rail to Dulles. I currently commute to the West Falls Church Metro via the Fairfax Connector bus out of the Herndon-Monroe Park and Ride. The Herndon-Monroe location is slated to become a Metro station in Phase II of the Dulles Rail project. Currently, parking is free and a round trip on the bus (with transfer) is $1.35. The bus takes the airport lanes most of the way to WFC and therefore largely avoids traffic snarls.

Once this site becomes Metrorail, I assume one will have to pay to park as at other Metro stations; in addition to the added train fare. Plus, the train will wind its way through the Reston stops and four Tysons Corner stations. In short, via rail the commute from Herndon-Monroe to WFC will likely be much more costly and a good deal slower than the existing bus. I recognize the big picture benefits of Metrorail, but I have to wonder if this is really progress?

Dr. Gridlock: Commuters won't have to worry about that scenario until 2015, at the earliest, but yes, I see your point. My hope is that by the time we get that deep into the next decade, we will have figured out better ways to get travelers to the Metrorail stations. There should be a way you can leave your car at home if you want to and not have to hassle with the parking at a station -- and the extra cost. There's been talk about setting up systems of vans to bring people from the neighborhoods to the stations.

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Lighting in Metro Stations: In most stations the lighting is too dim to read.

Dr. Gridlock: Lots of comments coming in about the previous exchanges regarding light and food and conditions on Metro. I'd like to pop a few more up here quickly so you can see.

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Metro eating: This becomes a much bigger problem in the summer, primarily because tourists and summer interns don't always know the rules or see the signs. I don't recommend handing out tickets willy-nilly, but warnings and better signs would be nice. Also, the biggest source of litter on the trains these days is the darned Washington Post Express!! (not sure if you'll post this)

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, people should take their stuff with them when they get off the trains. It's not that hard to find a recycling bin for the papers when leaving the trains.

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Food on Metro: Isn't it about time we asked ourselves why this rule is still in place? Instead of complaining about the lack of enforcement, why not scrap the restriction altogether? Clearly, many people find it desirable and convenient to eat or drink on the trains and in the stations. And what's wrong with that? Many other transit systems allow this. Why not ours? Banning things is so unfriendly.

Dr. Gridlock: It's true that many other systems allow this and people survive in that environment. It's not necessarily pleasant and it adds to the debris on the trains.

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20011:"Metro transit police tell me they continue to enforce the rules."

The only conclusion I can draw from this statement is that Metro transit police lie. I have seen them ignore eating and drinking on busses and trains so many times. I have NEVER seen them enforce the rules (or the rules about not playing music without earphones, for that matter).

Dr. Gridlock: I've never witnessed a confrontation. Police say they try to avoid confrontations over these things.

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Wolf Trap: It's usually not too bad once you get to Route 7. I highly recommend taking 7 over the Toll Road. It's free and it's faster. Straight through Tysons, over the Toll Road and you'll see a sign right after the big church pointing toward the venue. It works great. Give it about 40 minutes from Chevy Chase.

Dr. Gridlock: That was advice for our traveler going from Bethesda to Wolf Trap next week.

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DC:"Call in your complaint to Metro's customer assistance line, at 202-637-1328."

Why bother? I just get told, repeatedly, that my lines (either Blue or Yellow) don't have enough customers to justify them providing us with even the most basic levels of customer service. The attitude I receive from Metro's customer service line is either flat-out lies ("Oh, yes, we're getting rid of all four-car trains at rush hour Very Soon Now" - which I've heard for over a year) or a lecture on how stupid I am to believe that "paying rush-hour fares" ought to have any relationship whatsoever to "receiving rush-hour service."

Dr. Gridlock: Don't give up. Come to the monthly Metro board meetings and talk about how Metro could do better. Write to GM John Catoe. Write to your Metro board members.

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Eating on trains: I invite anyone who thinks the rule on eating on Metro is silly to take a ride on Melbourne, Australia's commuter trains. When we were there we watched brand new trains get trashed in less than a month through a combination of graffiti and food garbage. It wasn't uncommon to see a KFC box full of the remnants of someone's chicken dinner lying on the floor or a seat and rendering the entire car redolent with grease and rotting chicken.

Dr. Gridlock: In Washington, it really stands out to us when riders break the rules, but every day, hundreds of thousands are doing the right thing.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I have to agree with Northern Virginia on the lack of customer service and the lighting. Having the escalators and elevators is more along the lines of clearing a path to your storefront in a snow storm. Not really customer service, but more of a business necessity.

I'm curious though why Metro is trying to instill a new attitude on their people instead of cleaning house. I've seen Metro employees ignore people who need assistance, yelling across the tracks and not care when a drunk person stumbled into a tunnel. You can't teach an old dog new tricks so many Metro should get rid of all of their old dogs and start over.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro is losing a lot of experienced people as it is. Good management and better equipment can help a lot.

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Washington, D.C.: I am submitting early as I will not be able to do this during the discussion.

I have wondered why the city has never painted white lines on Mass Ave. from Sheridan Circle to Thomas Circle. There is room for two lanes of traffic even with parking but with no lines people just drive down the middle of each side. You could move a lot more traffic if the City just painted lines.

Dr. Gridlock: Sorry, I didn't see this one till now. I'll see if I can check out the Mass Ave situation and report back.

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Arlington, Va.: In seven years of riding Metro, I had my first really unpleasant Metro experience last week (yes, I know it's hard to believe I went this long with a good Metro experience, but I did!).

The bad experience I point to was TWICE having to wait up to 40 minutes for a Yellow Line train, neither time with any communication from Metro officials about why everyone on the platform was being made to wait.

The first 40-minute wait was after a Nationals game last Wednesday--40 minutes wherein two Green Line trains serviced L'Enfant Plaza, as well as one out-of-service train, but a Yellow train conspicuously absent. And I have never EVER had to wait more than 15-20 minutes for a train, even during off-peak hours.

The second wait was this past Saturday (though in all fairness, it was a half hour before ANY train went through Pentagon City, be it Yellow or Blue).

What bothers me is the COMBINATION of long train delays with the lack of communication from Metro officials. If there is going to be a delay on the Metro, for any reason, it would be greatly helpful to the customers on the platform to know why they're being made to wait. For me, at least, knowing why makes it a little more bearable.

Dr. Gridlock: That shouldn't have happened to you. I can't imagine any excuse for it. I'm wondering what the station's electronic message boards said during those times.

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Rules are enforced: My first week in DC I was drinking some bottled water on the platform at L'Enfant Plaza. Two plainclothes cops approached me and gave me a written warning. I saved the dumb ticket as my first true DC souvenir.

Dr. Gridlock: How about that?

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Washington, D.C.: Hello. My question is in regard to the Circulator. It is supposed to run every 10 minutes, but the last two times I've attempted to take it from Foggy Bottom towards Union Station, I have waited significantly more than 10 minutes. 30-45 minutes is more accurate. This happens during the week, between 5:30 and 6 p.m. What is the deal?

Dr. Gridlock: A Circulator rider wrote to me a few weeks back with a similar question, so I staked out a Circulator stop on K Street, at 16th NW, between 5 and 6 p.m. On some evenings, there were significant gaps and the arrival times could be erratic, but I never saw a gap as big as you did.

The Circulators need to live up to their billing of arriving about every 10 minutes. The District Department of Transportation says it's very aware of the importance of maintaining the schedule, which was complicated when the east-west route expanded to include the lower portion of Wisconsin Ave this year. The buses are getting stuck in the same traffic as everyone else.

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Washington, D.C.: Submitting my question early:

On the weekends, I often drive on the Clara Barton Parkway from the District to Potomac to avoid the cyclists on McArthur Blvd, since they frequently like to ride in the middle of the lane, rather than the bike path, and it's hard to get around them (which I suspect is why they do it). Yesterday, I encountered two cyclists in the right lane of the Clara Barton. I should add that they were cycling in the WRONG direction, cycling against traffic in the right lane. If I had alerted the Park Police to their presence on the road (there was a patrol car parked in a close-by lot for one of the locks), could he/she have ticketed them? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Cyclists are subject to traffic laws, just like drivers.

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Centreville, Va.: VDOT gets a lot of criticism, but I would like to hand out a compliment. The recent changes to the Route28/Walney Road/I-66 interchange have vastly improved traffic on Route 28. I know that there was much opposition from people in neighborhoods off of Walney & Braddock Roads who wanted to continue making left turns onto Route 28. However, in this case, a greater good was served in unclogging a road that frequently backed up a mile or more. Now, if we could just get a ramp built so that the left turn stop light for south bound 28 traffic (turning onto east bound 66) could be eliminated

Dr. Gridlock: That VDOT safety improvement at the interchange came at a relatively low cost.

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Bowie, Md.: I live in Bowie and travel frequently to Fairfax but, as to his question will show, I'm not familiar with the eastern portion of the Beltway.

The Sunday before last, June 3, a very rainy day, I had to travel to Alexandria. WTOP advised that there were numerous traffic delays on the MD portion of the beltway, including one of the inner loop "before 295."

I thought 295 was the Baltimore Washington Parkway, so I should be fine. Wrong! Of course, it was the 295 just before the Woodrow Wilson bridge. Not only was I stuck in traffic for over two hours, but the car behind rammed me into the car in front. No harm done, but this further slowed down everyone's trip.

Needless to say, I will not make this mistake again. But my question is, how can they have two roads with the same number so close together? Am I the only one confused by this? And of course you just have to sit there as there is no alternative that I'm aware of to get you into Virginia faster. It was a very long day.

Dr. Gridlock: "295" is a continuous roadway from around the Wilson Bridge to Baltimore, but it can be confusing because of the various jurisdictions it passes through, plus its two junctions with the Beltway. It can be especially confusing in traffic reports.

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Water?: I understand that you can't eat or drink on metro, but can you really not have water? I can't see why water would be a problem. Plus, with Washington's summer weather, it could be a health hazard not to allow consuming water in any public place, including metro.

Dr. Gridlock: I have not heard of an exemption for water. My thought is that a plastic bottle of water rolling around people's feet is about the same as any other beverage container.

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Bethesda, Md.: Dr. Gridlock-

I'm not sure if the Metro paper distributors are Metro employees or not, but on the off chance that they are, I wanted to send a special thank you to Metro paper distributor Barry who was working outside the Ballston metro stop at the end of February. On a particularly windy day when I was 7 1/2 months pregnant I fell on my stomach right outside the metro stop; Barry was the first one (and one of three people) to make sure I was all right, and though I had to spend the day in the hospital, everything was just fine. I now have a beautiful 2-month-old baby, and though it's been a little while, I wanted to make sure to thank Barry as best as I could for his compassion.

Best wishes.

Dr. Gridlock: Glad to hear you and the baby are all right. If the "paper distributors" you're referring to are the people who hand out the free Express and Examiner papers at the station entrances, they're private employees.

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For frustrated with Metro Service: Dr. Gridlock wrote: Don't give up. Come to the monthly Metro board meetings and talk about how Metro could do better. Write to GM John Catoe. Write to your Metro board members.

Excuse me, Dr. Gridlock, but why should getting acceptable service amount to getting a PhD in running the Metro?

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not saying you have to fix it for them. But I have seen the value of riders behaving as educated consumers of a service. Don't tolerate poor transportation services -- rails or roads -- any more than you would put up with a defect in your car or any other product or service you've paid for.

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Dr. Gridlock: Travelers, I've got to break away now. Thanks as always for a very lively discussion. Lots of good comments and suggestions, plus some questions I still have in here that I'll save and try to answer on the Get There blog or in the Dr. Gridlock newspaper column.

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