Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, October 1, 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, Oct. 1 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. Let's talk about what ails you on the roads and rails. Looking down into the mailbag, there appears to be plenty of distress out there.

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pedestrian near Ballston: Dr. Gridlock,

Can you please pass the word that when a pedestrian has the walk signal, even on a green light, that if the pedestrian is already halfway through the crosswalk that a driver HAS to wait for the pedestrian to finish crossing, no matter how much of a rush the driver's in to get somewhere?

Here's what happened a couple of weeks ago.

I was walking home from the Ballston Metro one afternoon, halfway through the Glebe Rd. crosswalk at Fairfax Dr. (crossing Glebe), when a driver took the right turn onto Glebe very fast, obviously saw me when he decided to do so, sped up (yes, sped up), and cursed me out when we were about face-to-face.

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: There's no variation across our region: Pedestrians in crosswalks with the "walk" signal have the right of way and drivers must stop. There are no extenuating circumstances like "When it's convenient to do so."

I'm sure many readers have shared your experience. I enjoy walking from The Post newsroom on 15th Street NW to Union Station after work. Drivers frequently make left turns into the crosswalks, cutting off pedestrians. And as you note, you'll spot the same behavior regionwide.

Police sometimes do stings in which they have plainclothes officers walk out into crosswalks while another officer pulls over drivers who have turned into pedestrians.

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Four Corners, Md.: I was wondering if, along with their statistics crowing about a decrease in overall speeds, Montgomery County was planning to release crash data for the areas with speed cameras?

I was traveling eastbound Randolph Road mid-morning last week. Traffic was progressing along nicely 40-45 (it's a 35 MPH zone) but as soon as we hit the stretch in front of Wheaton H.S. the lead cars slammed on their brakes to crawl by at 30.

I knew what they were doing and was prepared for the slowdown but I can foresee numerous rear-endings happening when traffic suddenly slows by 15 MPH and trailing folks are caught off guard.

Dr. Gridlock: This is one of a couple of comments on Montgomery County's speed camera program, now half a year old. The cameras take photographs of vehicles exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph in residential areas and school zones where the speed limit is 35 mph or less.

There's nothing secret about this program. On the Montgomery County Web site, http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/, drivers can find the roads on which they may encounter the speed cameras.

They can also, if they wish, find online lists of where Montgomery County's schools are located. They don't move around. And for the convenience of motorists, officials post signs that say "School Zone" when drivers enter areas in which children may be present.

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washingtonpost.com: Speed Cameras Get Results, Gradually (Post, Sept. 27)

Dr. Gridlock: That's a link to a Post story from last week with the latest about Montgomery's speed cameras.

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Arlington, Va.: Has anyone else been having trouble getting Verizon reception in the Metro lately?

Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: Verizon service is the one that's supposed to work reliably in the tunnels.

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Silver Spring, Md.: With the addition of speed cameras to Montgomery County roadways, I have noticed an explosion in license plate covers on the back of cars. What do the laws or regulations say is allowed?

Dr. Gridlock: There are laws in all our local jurisdictions that make it illegal to cover up license plates. People could save some money by just slowing down.

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Silver Spring, Md.: It seems that Metrorail is approaching a crisis point, if it isn't all the way there. Metro was unable to keep the system up and running without breakdowns on the Red and/or Orange lines any day last week, and problems that they think are fixed keep popping up again, within days or hours. I have just about lost all confidence in Metrorail getting me where I have to go when I have to be there.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro acknowledges it has problems with aging equipment. That's one of the reasons that the transit authority staff is asking the board of directors to approve a fare increase starting early next year.

Do you folks think a fare increase is justified? I know some will certainly argue that Metro ought to fix its service before getting a fare increase.

I've said that Metro can justify a fare increase. My question had to do with how large a fare increase was necessary, but Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. scaled back the size of the proposed increase last week.

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Adams Morgan: Hi, there! Thanks for taking my question! I commute everyday from Columbia Heights/Adams Morgan to Farragut Square on the 42 bus. The trip takes about 25-30 minutes if I get on at 8:30, nearly half of which is going through Dupont Circle. The same goes for the way home, when going through Dupont is just plain painful. I know that a lot of people get on and off at Dupont, but could they make every other bus an express, which could go under Dupont? I'd save so much time! Is there a "suggestion box" I could send this to, and if so, would it ever be considered? Thanks so much! (today was awful, too, by the way, thanks to the condo fire. It took me an hour to get to work! In WMATA's defense, they were definitely doing their best, though buses were terribly crowded)

Dr. Gridlock: That's not a bad idea at all. I know that Metro and local transportation departments are interested in providing more limited-stop service along certain very popular routes. One of the most prominent examples of that is the Metro EXTRA bus, running up and down Georgia Avenue. It follows the same route as the regular service along the avenue but skips a bunch of stops. It's distinctively marked, so there's not too much chance you'd board the wrong bus.

Metro hopes to extend that idea to some other routes as well.

For that or any other suggestion you have, you can pass it along by calling Metro's customer service line, which is 202-637-1328. If you look on Metro's Web site at www.wmata.com, you can also find an e-mail form for customer comments.

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Alexandria, Va.: Can I add my many MetroChecks with $1.25 on them to a SmarTrip card?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, I know of no obstacle to that. I recall doing it when I first got my SmarTrip card, which is very convenient. Metro is moving toward a system called SmartBenefits in which the MetroChek benefits you get at work will be added electronically onto your SmarTrip card each month. Eventually, there won't be any more paper fare cards to deal with as part of the benefits program.

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Washington, D.C.: On the other side of the pedestrian issue...I drive up and down M Street SE in front of the Navy Yard and Transportation buildings everyday, several times a day. Pedestrians are constantly running across the street against the lights or just ignoring the Walk/ Don't Walk lights altogether. I'll gladly follow the traffic laws in my car, but please don't run against the lights. There's so much construction, etc, its hard to see people darting out in the middle of blocks etc.

Dr. Gridlock: Absolutely correct. It's true at that spot on M Street and at too many other places around here. Many pedestrian accidents are the fault of the pedestrian, or both the pedestrian and the driver.

That said, please remember that it's never open season on pedestrians, even if they're at fault.

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Washington, D.C.: What can be done to make city officials aware of the tremendous disruption that closing the Mall and Rock Creek Parkway areas for various race events causes to residents of the city who live south of Pennsylvania Ave.? Metro is not always an alternative. The Triathlon Saturday made travel within or through the central area of the District almost impossible, and even to a regular Post reader, there was too little prior warning of major road closures.

Dr. Gridlock: I think officials are very, very aware of how angry many travelers were with Saturday's traffic jams. Plus, there were disruptions on Metro.

It's hard to get the word out to enough people. This summer, I thought our paper and Web site and local TV and radio stations had done plenty to publicize the shutdown of the Douglass Bridge. But on the first day, I saw plenty of drivers making maneuvers that clearly indicated they had no idea at all what was going on.

Saturdays, meanwhile, aren't the best days to hold triathlons or other lengthy events. Governments should have enough experience with weekend traffic conditions by now to know that they can't possibly reach enough people to prevent a big problem with traffic.

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washingtonpost.com: Conflux of Events Paralyzes Roads Into City (Post, Sept. 30)

Dr. Gridlock: Here's a link to the story in Sunday's Post by Lena Sun about the widespread traffic disruptions.

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Washington, D.C.: "Eventually, there won't be any more paper fare cards to deal with as part of the benefits program."

What about for those of us that use them for MARC? I'm guessing we'd be exempt?

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, you are. Metro says it's not going to cut anybody off from the paper fare cards if their transit agency isn't using an electronic fare card system.

MARC has been working on such a system for quite a while, but still doesn't have a date for implementing it.

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Verizon - Trouble!`: Yes, Verizon is noticeably worse in the tunnels lately. I used to be able to ride all the way from College Park to King Street without dropping a call. Now it drops three or four times and there are parts of the tunnel where I can't get a signal. It's really frustrating - I picked Verizon so I could use that Metro time productively!

Dr. Gridlock: Several responses like this have come in following the early comment. I'll test it, too, on the way home today. But I'll tell you, I'm not aware of anything about the Metro cell phone arrangement that has changed recently.

Travelers have long complained about the arrangement that had the effect of limiting phone service in the tunnels to Verizon, but I hadn't heard before today that Verizon customers were having any difficulties.

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Beautiful Silver Spring, Md.: So when else would you suggest that triathlons be held? When is a good time? If you have an event early in the day during the week and close Rock Creek Parkway, that's not exactly helping matters, is it?

Dr. Gridlock: Sunday morning.

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Canal Road: Doc, yesterday I had the "pleasure" of driving Canal Rd into Georgetown and this is what I experienced:

1. It took about 10 cycles of the light to get from Canal to M St averaging one car per cycle;

2. Only one lane allows for going to M St while the right and middle lane are marked as right turn only to Key Bridge. Of course there were those who tried to merge into the thru lane at the last minute;

3. Cars from Key Bridge turning right onto M did so in such numbers that the intersection was not clear to allow the thru traffic to go from Canal to M; and

4. Lets add a joker who was trying to make a left from M, which of course backed up everything.

Just horrible.

Dr. Gridlock: The top traffic complaint I've been getting for the past few weeks has to do with traffic congestion on the GW Parkway, in Rosslyn, on the Key Bridge and along Canal Road.

I spent a couple of mornings walking around during the rush and a little afterward. The only construction issue I spotted was the work on Canal Road in front of Georgetown University, where the road is being widened.

There's a buffer area on the right southbound side where crews still are working. That certainly could be part of the problem. But the volume of traffic flowing in from all directions is very heavy, and there could be an issue with light timing as well, especially that light for southbound Canal to proceed to M Street.

That construction work is scheduled to be done this month, widening out Canal and creating a left turn lane into Georgetown U.

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Washington, D.C.: When we were at JFK Airport, we got out of the parking lot using our EZ-Pass. Seems like a great idea. Has this ever been suggested or tried at airports here in the DC area. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not aware of any plans to do this at our local airports, but think it's a great idea. Other readers have suggested that Metro use E-ZPass, as well as SmarTrip, to allow customers to escape the garages.

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D.C.: Doc

What happened with the South Capitol Street bridge this weekend? I don't remember any signage or printing in the paper that it was supposed to be closed. 11th Street was a mess trying to get into downtown. Additionally, there were tons of streets closed for a variety of things so commuting through D.C. was horrible this weekend at best.

Dr. Gridlock: The District Department of Transportation did publicize the weekend work on the Douglass Bridge during last week. Many drivers may remember what it was like last winter and spring when the rehab job on the South Capitol Street bridge was in its early stages and required similar lane closings on weekends.

The big shutdown over the summer to fix the bridge and lower its northside wasn't the end of the work. Watch for more lane closures at off-peak hours and on weekends.

I'll try to post advisories about this and other road projects on Fridays on my Get There blog here on the Web site.

Anytime those lanes are shut, it's going to cause backups on the primary detour route, which is the 11th Street Bridge.

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Springfield: Y'all write like the problem with Verizon phone signals is a bad thing...

signed,

loving the quiet

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, I figured I'd hear from folks who don't like to share the intimate details of other people's lives as they ride the rails. Our Metro cars are unusually quiet, compared to some subways I've ridden. Conversations really stand out.

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Dupont Circle: What should one do if a cab driver just wants to give up and refuses to drop you off where you asked to go? I had one tell me to walk about five blocks because he was probably tired of all the road closures Saturday morning.

Dr. Gridlock: One thing you can do is get the information off his license and file a complaint with the DC taxi commission. (I guess if we had meters instead of zoned fares, more passengers would be demanding to get let out early in heavy traffic.)

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Green Line Express Train?: So last Monday evening (between 5:30 and 6), a Green line train bound for Branch Avenue announced at Anacostia that it would "express through" Southern Avenue. Didn't bother me, as I was going all the way to Branch Avenue. But lots of folks were pretty unhappy (tons of people get off and on at Southern Avenue). Was this a trial? Or something else? It was just pretty unusual!

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know about that particular incident, but do know that stop skipping isn't done on the train operator's whim. Usually, it's the result of an earlier problem on a line that has backed up trains during the rush period, and the operations center needs to correct the balance of trains on the line.

Many people like the idea of stop skipping on the trains -- just as the commenter above endorsed the idea of buses skipping stops. But there are limited opportunities in the Metrorail system, which has only two tracks. You have to build up a big enough gap between two trains to allow that to be done safely.

Metro has experimented with this. Nats opening day on the Blue and Orange lines was an example.

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Clifton, Va.: Local jurisdictions and the Federal government need to cut funding for Metro and spend it on the roads. More tax payers use the roads then buses and the subway and we should get are fair share. We demand our fair share. Cut funding of Metro to zero!

Dr. Gridlock: Vastly more people use the roads. But I've never found this as a good argument against spending on bus and rail transit.

Car travel is hugely subsidized. Drivers wouldn't want to pay the full cost of their daily trips any more than Metro riders would.

There are plenty of improvements that should be made to our roads. But in a congested urban area like ours, it's unrealistic to think we can widen the roads or build new roads sufficient to meet the demand that exists already, let alone in the future.

We've got to think of something else, some way to provide a balanced transportation system -- one with plenty of options -- to get people where they're going.

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D.C.: Hey Doc,

I really love the new transportation feature in the Sunday Post (although I do miss the whatever happened to...story they used to run there). My question is about Mass Ave. The lights are timed absolutely horribly. As soon as one turns green, the next turns red. As you can imagine, it makes for a pretty frustrating commute. I take it from the Convention Center all the way to Wisconsin Ave, and even late at night I got caught up with the lights. Any chance these lights will be synced up better in the near (or far) future??

Dr. Gridlock: I don't know specifically about the Mass Ave pattern, but can give a general answer on light timing, since many readers ask.

Sometimes, you're absolutely right, and the light has gotten out of sync or the traffic pattern has changed and the light needs to be retimed.

There are other instances in which the solution is more difficult. Traffic engineers often point out to me that if you add seconds to someone's green, you've got to take those seconds away from someone else.

In the congested parts of our region, there are plenty of intersections with heavy traffic coming from all directions. Also, anytime a pedestrian hits the button to cross and gets a green, that throws the traffic out of whack.

Also, lights along a D.C. avenue -- or along a stretch like Route 7 in Virginia -- may be timed for the best traffic flow, but an accident, or a rubber necking delay can disrupt the pattern. In many jurisdictions, you actually can hit a button to change the light timing. But it's not always the smart thing to do, say engineers who are looking at the impact on an entire route.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: "Speed Cameras Get Results, Gradually" --- "We are seeing a significant change in driver behavior," said council member Phil Andrews"

My question is are we really seeing a change in behavior/speed? I live in MoCo -- where most of the driver slow down near the photo enforcement and resume their regular speed after they have safely passed the photo enforcement zone. Your take on this?

Dr. Gridlock: Montgomery police officials tell me the program is not about "gotcha" moments when they can give out a lot of tickets. Even with this electronic monitoring system, they can't catch a huge portion of the people speeding.

More realistically, they hope that the program and the associated publicity will make drivers think about what they're doing and internalize good driving behavior.

As you note, not everybody. But maybe some.

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Response to Clifton: I don't normally use the Metro. But if I am out of the office on a weekday and I pass a suburban Metro station, one look at all the parked cars makes me think, "What if there were no mass transport system here and all those cars were on the road?"

It's not hard to see the benefit we all draw, even given Metro's MANY problems and design flaws.

Dr. Gridlock: Good illustration.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Aside from a generic start and end date, I haven't seen any kind of schedule for the actual construction of the HOT lanes on the Beltway. Will they chunk it up or will it be a continuous 14 mile construction zone? Will they be starting at the north end or the south? Will they phase in sections as they are completed or open it all at once? It's probably not as pressing as the mechanics of metering and enforcement for tolls, but I'm still curious.

Dr. Gridlock: I think the key thing in terms of the disruption caused by the construction is that they plan to build new lanes on the outer edges of the Beltway loops. That's bound to be somewhat disruptive, but it should limit the effect.

Once those new lanes are completed -- two new ones on each side -- then they'll shut the four inner lanes and reconfigure them as the HOT lanes. So you'll always have the same number of regular lanes to drive on that you do now.

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Woodley Park: Can you give me the scope of the entire Rock Creek Parkway project? They are re-doing the curbs, clearly, but are they planning on repaving the entire road, too? Will the road be any wider when complete? Will there be anything done (ever...) to deal with the mess that is the intersection of the Rock Creek, Virginia Ave., the freeway to Route 50W, etc.

Dr. Gridlock: Yes, they are supposed to repave that stretch between P Street and Virginia Avenue by the time they're done with the project next spring. But it's a rehab project. It doesn't include rebuilding or reconfiguring that intersection.

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Washington, D.C.: Please please tell Metro to make ongoing regular track work shut downs permanent fixtures on their Web site (just like they announce weekend closures ahead of time).

Metro has been single tracking daily between Vienna and West Falls Church to do track work.

However there is no information about this as far as I can tell on their Web site. It's listed at the top that it's a delay but I want them to put it somewhere as a regular project, expect delays.

I was helping a neighbor plan a trip from Dunn Loring to National Airport and she almost missed her flight because we didn't factor in single tracking. I used the Metro planner and checked for track work. I thought I did my due diligence but obviously not. The station manager told her its daily starting at noon and will be going on for a while.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro's Trip Planner on its Web site (www.wmata.com) has worked better and better and is a really useful tool for local travel. But it doesn't take into account the service disruptions and single tracking.

For that, you've got to look at the ticker across the top of the Metro home page, or click on the button to the right that says "All Advisories." Between the two of them, they cover a lot of the routine weekday disruptions for maintenance. And as you note, Metro always posts an advisory on Thursday about the upcoming weekend work and its impact.

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Dr. Gridlock: Folks, I have to break away now after a most enjoyable chat. You've given me some ideas for further research, and I'll try to get you some more answers on the Get There blog and in my Dr. Gridlock column.

Stay safe out there, and I hope to chat with you again in two weeks.

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