Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 17, 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, Sept. 17 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. It's good to be back with you again for a chat about transportation issues. Looking through the mailbag, I see a bunch about Metro and a bunch about driving. Fare increases and HOT lanes look like hot topics. But we've also got some issues about road rules.

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Washington, D.C.: What does a sign reading "no right turn on red when pedestrians are present" mean, exactly? Does it only include pedestrians who are actually crossing the street, or does it include any person on foot within viewing distance?

For example, I encountered this sign the other day. The only person I saw was across the street standing at a bus stop, obviously not waiting to cross the street. I wasn't sure if he counted as a pedestrian being present.

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Across the region, we see various signs telling us what we're supposed to do at crosswalks and they leave many drivers confused about when to yield.

Of course, the basic idea is pretty simple: It's never open season on pedestrians. But the driver's manuals and the state and municipal codes and police officials are pretty consistent: Yield to pedestrians who are in the crosswalks. Close doesn't count. Some laws also note that the pedestrian has a responsibility not to dart out in front of a vehicles that are too close to stop in time.

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Bethesda, Md.: First of all, I am not interested in mowing down pedestrians with my car.

But doesn't the bit about drivers stopping for pedestrians in all crosswalks really just apply to pedestrians in uncontrolled (no traffic lights) intersections? Otherwise, what would be the point of those walk/don't walk signs?

Signed - someone who's tired of getting the finger after a polite beep has been sounded because someone is crossing the street against the light (I've got the green).

Dr. Gridlock: Pedestrians have no business crossing against the light. Walking is dangerous enough around here. The police do periodic campaigns about pedestrian safety, and they target both drivers and walkers. (I know when they're going on, because I get letters from pedestrians who got jaywalking tickets saying, "Don't the police have anything better to do?")

Accident statistics suggest that motorists and pedestrians are about equally responsible.

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Annandale Dude: Can you confirm this for me:

Did you once write that in Virginia, it is illegal to stay in a lane if the person behind you flashes their lights at you because you were driving too slow.

And my wife doesn't believe me that the metal lines at a traffic light are sensors to notify the lights that a car is present.

Thanks doc.

Dr. Gridlock: Feels like my old days on the night city desk, when I was often called to the telephone to settle a bar bet.

Yes, if you're driving on a multi-lane road in Virginia, you must move to the right to allow another driver to pass if the driver indicates the desire to do so by flashing lights. (There's no such law in Maryland.)

Those lines in the pavement at traffic signals generally work by creating an electro-magnetic field that is disrupted by the presence of a vehicle, starting a sequence that changes the light.

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Rockville, Md.: So, the traffic on GW Parkway North is finally done. However, now in the mornings I have traffic on GW Parkway South from 123 to past the Key Bridge. This traffic was nonexistent during the summer, and last spring it wasn't even this bad. Is this traffic just a short-term effect of people getting readjusted to going to work, or is this a doomed commute for me?

Dr. Gridlock: Several commuters have noted slow traffic in the GW Parkway, Key Bridge, Canal Road area. There didn't seem to be one obvious cause. But Erik Linden, spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, noted that work is continuing on that Canal Road widening project in front of Georgetown University. Also, the retaining wall at the Whitehurst Freeway intersection is being moved.

The Canal Road project will include a new left turn lane for inbound Canal Road traffic heading into the university and create an additional lane for inbound traffic onto M Street at the freeway intersection.

That will be going on through October.

So that's what I know, but does anyone have other ideas about what's going on with traffic in that area?

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Clifton, Va.: Are motorcyclists allowed to ride between lanes when traffic is backed up. Some young punk tried this on I66 the other day and got upset when myself and the car in the other lane narrowed the gap down so he couldn't pass. For some reason he had an attitude. We expressed our opinion that if he continued with his antics he would end up with a nice case of road rash and his CBR 1000 would be ready for the scrap heap. F350 and Chevy 3500 wouldn't even feel the bump.

Dr. Gridlock: I know how you feel, and they're not supposed to do that, but I think it's usually fruitless and often potentially dangerous for any of us to deputize ourselves to enforce traffic laws.

A better choice, I believe, is to call #77 to reach the state police and report the behavior.

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University Park, MD: Metro touted its introduction of those message boards outside the faregates of some (all?) stations as an improvement of service, but I have noticed lately (at more than one station) that the arrival times for the next trains bear absolutely no resemblance to the times shown on the platform message boards. Why don't all the boards show the same times until the next trains? Will $0.45 more per trip fix this along with the myriad other problems Metro has?

Dr. Gridlock: Has anyone else had that experience? I haven't noticed this particular problem. I do know that at some stations, the outside message boards will not indicate the arrival time of the next train if Metro thinks it's too close and passengers would have to run to make it.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi and thanks for doing this chat.

Do you have any data on how many people move out of the DC area because of traffic/congestion? I am at my wit's end driving on I-66, and am just about ready to move anywhere as long as I don't have to sit in 66 traffic every day, or pay ridiculous amounts of money to Metro in order to get to work.

Perhaps The Post should do a story on how many people leave D.C. due to low quality of life due to our horrid commutes.

Dr. Gridlock: In the 19 years, I've been at The Post, I've been involved in many stories in which commuters tell us they've really had it and are planning to move out of the area. Business owners tell us a version of the same thing: That their employees can't get to work, or their service vehicles can't make appointments, and they're thinking of relocating.

But I've seen no statistical or anecdotal evidence that a lot of this actually happens. The reason, I think, is that when most of us look to relocate from an area where we can make a lot of money, be near good schools and enjoy first class cultural and entertainment options, we look for other places that have the same qualities. Most of them have similar traffic.

The variation on that is moving someplace else within our region that's closer to work, or at least closer to Metro. I hear from some people who do that, but not a lot. I'm just as likely to talk to people who have moved farther from work or Metro because they like a particular house or environment.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi, Dr. Gridlock. Several weeks ago my daughter e-mailed you a question regarding the new hurricane barriers on I64. She said that you told her you planned on publishing her question in your column, and she was very excited about that. Do you still think you might publish her question?

Thanks, and thanks for the chats and info.

Dr. Gridlock: Hi, Vienna, I certainly wouldn't want to disappoint her on that. It sounds like a letter that ran in my Sept. 13 column, but write back and tell me if it's not. We had this exchange in the column:

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I just traveled to Virginia Beach and am curious as to why there are lift arm gates, like the ones on the Dulles Toll Road, at all of the exits coming on and off Interstate 64 East but not on I-64 West.

They all were in a raised position; we never saw any of them down.

Christy Reniere

Vienna

"Those would be our hurricane gates, which are used in the evacuation of Hampton Roads in the event of a major disaster," said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

No wonder the barriers work only one way. During a hurricane, the governor can order a lane reversal on the interstate so that all traffic could be directed west from Hampton Roads. The gates would prevent vehicles from trying to head east on the interstate during such an emergency. Let's hope they don't need to budge between now and Nov. 30, the end of hurricane season.

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DC: Do you know Metro's AC policy? I know it was cooler this morning but my Metro car was pretty warm this morning. I hope they haven't turned them off yet.

(Yes, I took down the car number and contacted WMATA.)

Dr. Gridlock: DC, I double checked with Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel by e-mail just now, and he told me this:

"We have not cut the AC to our rail cars. If someone is inside a car they believe to be warm, they should get the car number, the rail line, the station, date and time and call us at 202-637-1328. We can pull the car and check.

"The AC inside our rail cars is on until October 15. Then we modify the air control systems to the rail cars. Our standard AC air temperature inside a rail car is somewhere between 70-75 degrees. In the fall and winter, we look at a 68-72 degree temperature."

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Doc,

In the light of the upcoming fare increases -- which we all detest -- has the Metro ever done a published cost-benefit analysis of switching to a flat-fare (a la NYC) and possibly increasing ridership, versus the current sliding system -- which we all detest?

Dr. Gridlock: That's a good question. I don't recall any such study. (I also mentioned that to Steven Taubenkibel. He didn't remember a study off the top of his head, but said he would double check.)

How would you commuters feel about a flat fare? I'm not so sure this would be popular. It would definitely stoke a city-suburb rivalry. Longer distance commuters would get a break at the expense of shorter distance travelers.

Zone fares are pretty common, especially since electronic fare systems have taken at least some of the daily guess work out of it for riders.

Also, as a frequent Metro rider, I don't detest the idea of a fare increase. I figure they'll come along periodically in any transit system, just like we'll periodically see toll increases on our highways. I would like to know -- as I said in the Sunday column -- that Metro really needs all the $173 million for its FY 2009 budget.

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Germantown, Md., working in D.C.: Though Metro shelved Catoe's fare hike proposal for the time being, I am preparing for one coming in the near future. But word to the wise for Metro: do your math. If you want people to ride Metro, don't price yourself out. Right now it's roughly even for me to commute on both Metro and MARC, but I would gladly trade the (relative) convenience of Metro with trains running every few minutes for MARC's fewer stops and free parking but more rigid/fewer schedule of trains.

Then again, if some of its promises (like a SmarTrip card that can act as a Weekly Pass) came to fruition, then I wouldn't have to mull changing my routine...

Dr. Gridlock: Even with a fare increase at the rates Metro GM John Catoe proposed last week, it would still be cheaper for most of us to use transit than to drive.

Metro does make calculations about the "elasticity" of rider demand when it proposes a fare increase. It's no good to Metro's revenue picture if thousands of people give up the trains and buses rather than pay the higher fare.

By the way, my readers haven't had a lot of good things to say about MARC service this summer. It's been a combination of the heat restrictions that slow trains, the aging equipment that frequently breaks down and problems created by CSX, the freight operator that owns the tracks.

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I had a dream: I had a dream, never again to sit in traffic. Here's how I made it come true. I got rid of most of my stuff. I rented a small apartment next to a Metro station and gave up my car. My new life involves a lot of healthful walking and bike riding. I save tons of money and stress. I buy less stuff because I have no way to get it home or any place to put it. While you're sitting in traffic waiting to get on the beltway, you may see me walking home from the metro station or riding my bike. Life is good.

Dr. Gridlock: I know what many of you are thinking: Yes, it's nice and we're glad some people can do that, but we can't. Housing near the stations is too expensive, there's no Metro near where I work or the rest of my family needs to go in different directions.

Recently, I got a letter from a reader in California who's moving with her husband to the Washington area. She's liking a house in Annapolis for them, but he would have to commute into Washington. I didn't suggest she abandon the house she really likes, just that they fully review the travel options and commuting problems involved.

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Capitol Hill, DC:"Pedestrians have no business crossing against the light."

Here's an interesting idea for an article: how do traffic signals encourage/discourage jaywalking? I know of at least three intersections in my neighborhood where the light does not actually give a pedestrian to cross the street before oncoming traffic is given the green. There are other areas of DC where a walk sign puts a pedestrian on a six-inch strip of concrete between four lanes of traffic. And there are stretches of Penn Ave out in PG County where housing developments are separated from retail by six lanes of traffic with no crossing for 1/4 mile in either direction. Scary.

Dr. Gridlock: George Branyan, the District's pedestrian safety coordinator, used an interesting phrase in a conversation: He told me that planners shouldn't deviate too far from "the desire line" when setting up walkways and signals.

If you don't have a pedestrian system that recognizes where people are going to walk anyway, what's the point? You haven't really improved safety.

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Washington, DC: Yes! Bring the flat fare to DC... As a native of NYC the flat fare system is so much easier to understand, and cheaper in the end. I've grown sick of trying to explain the current system to visitors, I usually tell them to put 10 bucks on until it runs out... and I do the same with more money...sure there will be a city vs. burbs thing at first, but in the end it would benefit all.

Dr. Gridlock: I see what you mean about simplicity, and that was a huge argument against the fare increase Metro proposed late last year and that Catoe withdrew when he took over.

Planners know that we're not going to like any fare increase. But they do need us to understand the fare system and accept that the pain of the increase is being distributed fairly.

The flat fare system is simple, but like the flat tax, it's not necessarily fair to all. (I hope I got all those fare's and fair's in the right places.)

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GW Parkway Question: Doc, a few weeks ago a poster implored drivers not to stop to allow pedestrians to cross the Parkway since it may cause a rear-end collision. I'm speaking of the crossings at LBJ park and near Arlington Cemetery. Does not the "yield to pedestrian" rule apply to those marked and signed crosswalks?

Dr. Gridlock: I remember that. I don't believe drivers need to hit the brakes when they see someone waiting to use a crosswalk. There's no requirement I've ever read to create an accident hazard on behalf of someone waiting to use a crosswalk.

On the other hand, if someone has entered the crosswalk -- even if the person is not yet in your lane -- you should slow or stop so the person can safely pass.

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Takoma, D.C.: Can roads be narrowed without a hearing in DC? I ask because there is a development proposed for the Takoma Metro that is going to narrow Eastern Avenue by 2 feet for about a block. This is among other transportation negatives like reduced parking, reduced bike racks, loss of bus bay expansion, off-street kiss&ride, further for handicapped access, etc. But this is a narrow street with resident parking permitted and bus traffic. There hasn't been anything in The Post on the problems with this but it is a disaster waiting to happen if that road is narrowed.

Dr. Gridlock: Takoma, I don't know the answer to your specific question about whether a hearing is required, but your question does remind me of this: Many traffic planners are proposing road narrowings as a way of slowing down traffic and making communities more pedestrian friendly.

One consultant recently proposed that for a stretch of New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park. Sometimes it's a good idea, and sometimes it's not.

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Bethesda, Md.: After living in this region for seven years, one traffic-related bit still puzzles me: why does the outer loop of the Beltway jam up at the exit for Georgia Avenue for miles on end? There are no lane-drops, merges, or awkward exit/entrance ramps that could potentially clog traffic, so it just seems like a totally arbitrary place for traffic to back up. Any thoughts?

Dr. Gridlock: My memory may be off on this, but I thought one lane for northbound traffic does disappear just beyond the Beltway. Also, that left-turning traffic -- the traffic heading from the outer loop to southbound Georgia -- can be flowing into some heavy traffic.

That Georgia Avenue junction with the Beltway is a very difficult one. When I first read over your question, Bethesda, I was thinking "inner loop" rather than "outer loop," because that's the backup that readers usually are complaining about. Maryland recently rebuilt the inner loop approach to southbound Georgia in the hope of easing that congestion and making the merge safer. But recently, readers have complained about the new traffic signal there.

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M Street NW, Washington, D.C.: Re: Pedestrian safety.

Please be aware that at many of the non-traditional intersections here in D.C. just because you "have the green" doesn't mean you also have carte blanche to barrel through crosswalks without heed. Many times, you still must yield to pedestrians who are crossing and have a WALK sign.

Be careful. Cars > people.

Dr. Gridlock: We do see the law ignored quite often by drivers turning right into a crosswalk with pedestrians who have a "walk" sign in their favor. (Not much of a favor.)

Also, we have some relatively new traffic signals across the region that go red for traffic only when activated by a pedestrian wanting to cross. I've noticed that those are tough for some drivers to get used to, putting the pedestrians at risk.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm all for toll lanes on the Beltway ... for trucks. It would separate them out from the cars and the toll cost would be spread out among everyone.

Dr. Gridlock: Not a bad idea, but it's not part of the plans in Virginia to create HOT (high occupancy or toll) lanes on the western side of the Beltway and along I-95/395. So far, readers have given very mixed reviews to those proposals. They are particularly unloved among the commuters who use the HOV, or carpool, lanes to slug their way up and down I-95/395.

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Not a motorcyclist...but: A guy on a motorcycle has the good fortune of being able to escape a traffic jam and there are jerks on the road who try to narrow the gap thus preventing him from doing so? Gee whiz, get a life and stop playing cop. Motorcyclists drive between two lanes in Cali all the time.

Dr. Gridlock: See, I think this is one of the problems with conducting personal traffic enforcement. People just get steamed up, and motorists risk creating an actual danger where only a potential danger existed before.

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Least Favorite Pedestrians: Parents on the Mall who are forcing their kids to cross

against the light, or in the middle of the street. The kids are

often overheard to say "But Mom, the don't walk sign is on."

Dr. Gridlock: You saw them, too?

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Bethesda to Reston commuter: Doc,

This 495 HOT lane proposal is seriously scary. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the most traveled section of the Beltway is between 66 and 270. How on God's green earth can Virginia even think of funneling more lanes that dead end at Old Georgetown, especially when we know from the Legion bridge painting project (which didn't even shut down a through lane) that this choke point is critical and will cause 16-hour rush hours? Yes, supposedly Maryland is looking at continuing the lanes. It took Maryland 50 years to get the ICC really going. I'm not holding my breath on adding lanes at American Legion bridge. Who on the Maryland side is in charge of this proposal and have you seen some sort of detailed plan how these lanes will work (will they be elevated, next to the roadway, underground, etc.)?

Dr. Gridlock: It's a very legitimate concern, about the lane squeeze that would follow the end of the HOT lanes. Same applies to the I-95/395 proposal when the HOT lanes approach the 14th Street Bridge heading into Washington.

I don't believe Maryland's plans for the Beltway are nearly as far along as Virginia's. Maryland highway officials talk about how they envy Virginia for the options the Commonwealth has to widen the Beltway.

The HOT lane plan could well create a problem near the Legion Bridge.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hey Doc! I'm about to commit a cardinal sin in the DC area and move farther away from my job. I work in Rockville and am moving into the city. At least it's a reverse commute, but is it going to be worse than I am anticipating? Any of the audience have any tips? Luckily, I start work at 6 a.m., but am worried about the drive back into the city. I'm thinking of Metroing 3 days a week, though...THANKS!

Dr. Gridlock: While I think the drive would be fine before 6 a.m., I do think Metro is the way to go (forward and back) if you have that option. There are plenty more drivers on the reverse commute than there used to be.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Fellow Boomers: Get out of your car and walk! If you "have to drive 10 to 15 minutes to the grocery store," then it is walkable (unless you are disabled) in 30 to 45 minutes. That's a great workout. If you go on foot every 2 or 3 days, instead of once a week with your car, you carry home 1 small bag of (fresh!) groceries. We can do a lot by ourselves, if we just do it -- no infrastructural improvements necessary.

Dr. Gridlock: Silver Spring is talking about the series in The Post on Sunday and today about the aging of our region. I talked on my "Get There" blog today about the transportation challenges this represents for us as individuals and as communities.

We need to plan for the surge in aging boomers.

Yes, I love the idea of walking -- and creating more walkable communities for everyone. But I also know that not everyone is going to be able to do this, so we'll need improvements in bus and van services in particular.

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Alexandria, Va.: What is going on with Metrorail between Braddock Road and National Airport? I remember for a while they were doing some sort of repairs that caused the trains to run super-slow but these were fixed for a while, and now it's happening again. It's not the additional commute time that bothers so much as the fact that I just wish they would FIX IT already.

Dr. Gridlock: Got several questions about this today and am not sure what's going on there. Will work on finding out and report back on the "Get There" blog.

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Dr. Gridlock: Folks, you've sent in lots of great questions and comments today -- and as usual, I've been too slow to get to all of them, even though we're way into overtime now on the chat.

I'll have to break away, but will make a copy of the remaining questions and try once again to deal with some of them on the Get There blog later in the week. (Including ones like the cost of parking at Grosvenor vs. Bethesda, the traffic congestion around Key Bridge and the HOT lane issues.)

Stay safe out there, everyone, and join me again in two weeks.

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