Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, January 14, 2008; 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, Jan. 14 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: Happy New Year, travelers. Let's start today with one traffic and one transit comment that you'll probably have something to say about.

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McPherson Square, D.C.: Dr. G.,

It seems to me that a lot of pedestrians don't understand that you aren't supposed to start crossing an intersection if the "walk" light is showing the red flashing hand, no matter what the "timer" says. Do you think signs would help or is this just an attitude thing?

Dr. Gridlock: Since we've already got a sign (the big red hand) that couldn't be much plainer, I'd have to say there's no point in adding another sign.

We know pedestrian safety is a problem in our region. Governments and safety groups talk about that all the time. They say they're trying to address it through engineering, education and enforcement.

The red hand is engineering. Your question focuses on education, but the intersection itself may not be the best classroom. Mistakes there are too costly.

Enforcement -- as you all know -- is problematic, because we don't have enough enforcers. Local police departments particiate in the "Street Smart" enforcement campaigns, which themselves are partly about education, but there's only so many people these things can reach.

What's your solution?

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D.C.: Metro ups their prices and the service has gotten WORSE! Delays. Being in a train while in the middle of a tunnel for 15 minutes because there's a train ahead of you having problems. Metro should have fixed the service first, and then determined to see if they should increase the fare. Ridiculous.

Dr. Gridlock: At last week's Metro board meetings, many board members made the link between service and fares. So did some senior managers, including GM John Catoe.

That may be one ray of sunshine out of the hearing testimony, e-mails and letters that accompanied approval of the increases.

These board members and managers know that service reliability was declining even as they pondered the fare and fee increases. The board members asked the managers to come up with additional ways of measuring the problems and progress in solving them.

What should their priorities be?

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Baltimore: Possible AMTRAK strike: There is a contract deadline for some AMTRAK employees coming up Jan. 31. I asked the Maryland MTA about this and they said a strike would "severely disrupt" MARC commuting. Have you heard anything about this? If so, do you know of any contingency plans? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: The Amtrak employees union can strike as of Jan. 30. A strike would have a severe impact on MARC, VRE and other local transportation services along the Northeast corridor.

I have not yet seen any contingency plans. A strike is not inevitable.

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Pet peeve about malfunctioning subway doors: As a rider of 30 years, I am well familiar with door problems on subway cars. I have never understood why the conductors will often verbally bash the entire train of riders when claiming someone is blocking the door. How can they be sure it's not a mechanical problem and not a person standing in the door? If I noticed a person blocking the door, I would try and get the person out of the way. If they would not cooperate, I would page the conductor. If someone is blocking the door, it's probably one person out of several hundred riding the entire train, yet we are all scolded as if we were misbehaving schoolchildren. One female operator increased the decibel level at every stop, finally screaming at us - literally - that if the door malfunctioned at the next stop, everyone would be ordered off.

And if a passenger is actually blocking the door on a train and we can't even see it happening, why are the conductors verbally nasty to everyone? Next time this happens, I am going to note my car number, time, etc., and report the conductor's behavior. I'm sick of it. Conductors act like they are the only one inconvenienced; how do they think WE feel with multiple door openings and closings at every station? I just want to get to/from my destination as fast as possible.

Dr. Gridlock: Problems with the train doors frustrate everyone, whether they work for Metro or ride the trains. Mechanical breakdowns are a frequent source of commuter delays and crowding.

When the train is in a station, the operator is looking out the cab's window and often can spot the point where a passenger is creating a problem by interfering with a closing door.

There's no other way of communicating from the cab besides using the trains loudspeaker system. (You don't want the operator to walk back through the train to talk to the passenger, right? What we all want is to get the train moving.)

Some operators are over the top in their scolding, at station after station. Sort of takes you back to elementary school.

So what's the solution on this one? Is this another case of engineering, education and enforcement? (I'm hoping for better designed doors on future cars.)

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New Metro cars: Dr. Gridlock,

I dont' care if we have fancy new rail cars. I just want them to show up on time and frequently.

By the way, I hate when one of the new rail cars pull up in front of me. There's so much room, but there's nothing to hang on to! I always run to one of the older cars.

Dr. Gridlock: I find myself walking toward the new cars as the train pulls into the station. The new ones make the old ones look so dingy, so it's kind of a downer to get on one of the old ones.

But many riders say exactly what you do: They don't like the design of the 6000 Series, with the poles removed from the front and rear. I hear that most often from shorter riders -- including the Grid Spouse.

And from my observation, removing the poles didn't solve the problem of getting people to move toward the center so they won't block the exits. Now, I just see people leaning against the doors, adding to the problem the previous commenter was addressing.

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Germantown, Md.: Has Maryland considered converting a lane of I-270 to be reversible? In the morning, you could take one of the northbound (outbound) lanes of 270 and make that southbound (perhaps a toll lane) from where the local/express lanes begin and reverse the process in the evening commute. In the mornings and evenings the reverse commute doesn't seem to need all those lanes.

Dr. Gridlock: The Maryland State Highway Administration is studying ways of easing congestion on I-270 and the western side of the Beltway. There are proposals to widen the chokepoint where I-270 and the Beltway merge, but I don't recall a reversable lane proposal. Those things can be hard to manage, as VDOT officials will tell you.

Virginia will likely ease congestion on its side of the western Beltway before MD does. The high occupancy or toll lanes are likely to widen the western VA Beltway before MD settles on a congestion relief plan for its side of the river.

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Big Red Ha, ND: I don't care how long DOT thinks it takes me to cross the street. If I'm running and the timer says 3 seconds, I'm going to cross.

Timers are great because they provide more information to everyone. People can choose for themselves how long they need to cross without guessing how long the red hand has been up. And I'd also argue they help motorists by telling them how many seconds before the light turns yellow.

Oblivious, meandering pedestrians and aggressive, rude drivers are much bigger problems than pedestrians who cross against the wishes of the Big Red Hand.

Dr. Gridlock: If Americans responded to the big red hand by instantly halting at the curb, I'd worry about our future as a nation. But I don't believe there's any danger of that.

I remember being skeptical about the countdown signals when they first were introduced. Now, I'm annoyed when I encounter an intersection that does not yet have a countdown signal.

Pedestrians and motorists contribute about equally to the safety problem. Big hunk of steel always wins the motorist/pedestrian confrontation, though. Drivers should cut pedestrians some more slack.

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Four Corners, Md.: Metro's priority should be fast and reliable service. No exceptions. I don't care if I have to stand the whole way but I do want my train to come on time and arrive on time.

There are too many excuses, too many "sick" passengers, too many broken trains.

I commute from Forest Glen to Gallery Place. Factoring in the time it takes to get to the Metro station, pay the ridiculous parking fee, and get on an actual train, it's about equal to driving. While I would love to Metro, too often the schedule is iffy - taking anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. I don't have the free time to pad my schedule that much. Driving gives me multiple altnerate routes if the main path is blocked. What can Metro offer me?

Dr. Gridlock: Many people feel as you do. Train schedules are increasingly unreliable.

But ridership is increasing. Why?

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Do Not Walk: There is no solution. People will cross the street even if the big red hand is blinking. The only thing that could be done is shorten the allowance for crossing (or elongate the green light) to allow cars to turn when the do not walk sign is shown.

Dr. Gridlock: One thing other walkers probably notice, too: The light timing doesn't necessarily match the width of the street. You might have close to a minute to cross some narrow street like R Street in Dupont Circle and about 20 seconds to make it across Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Arlington, Va.: The flow of passengers on and off of metro cars is always hindered by rude passengers who insist on standing against the wind screen on either side of the door. Why doesn't Metro remove these wind screens from existing cars? There are already some doors on existing cars that do not have the wind screens and it is very clear that the flow of people is much smoother at those doors.

Dr. Gridlock: The newest cars, the 6000 Series, not only removed the front and rear poles but also redesigned the windscreens to discourage people from standing by them. The preliminary design for the 7000 Series -- still at least five years away -- is similar, I believe.

I posted some of Metro's pictures of the proposed design on my Get There blog: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/getthere/2008/01/metro_looking_at_new_cars.html

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Washington, D.C.: I, too, experience delays on the Metro, but am not up in arms over the recent fare increase. What other prices in the economy have not changed for the last however many years? Not the prices I pay at the gas pump, and at the grocery store. But of more concern to me is capital investment in the system -- who will pay for that, because it doesn't appear the fare increase was intended to pay for anything but day-to-day operating expenses.

Dr. Gridlock: Good point about the future. The fare increases -- the steepest ever in Metro history, which is one reason people are so angry -- were designed to balance the operating budget.

Metro is unsure about how it will sustain a capital budget to buy new equipment after 2010. It's very interested in the Tom Davis plan for the federal and local governments to establish dedicated funding source, meaning that Metro could count on a consistent stream of revenue for equipment purchases.

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timer on walk signals: At least at the intersections I use (like 12th St. and Constitution Ave, NW), when it counts down to zero, you better be OUT of the intersection. The light changes within about one second.

If it's a fight between a pedestrian and a car, the car is a lot bigger weapon and can do a lot more damage.

It's not worth trying to save a few seconds.

Dr. Gridlock: Definitely not worth it. The countdown signals are intended to help walkers. With pedestrian safety such a concern, why not take advantage of this new tool?

People hate to break their momentum, though, don't they? Whether they're walking or driving.

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Alexandria, Va.: At our corner, when pedestrians try to cross against the Red Hand, we honk and drive anyway. The people get it and are now well trained.

Dr. Gridlock: I understand the frustrations on all sides, but don't believe any traveler should self-deputize to enforce our traffic laws. It's way enough work just to get ourselves safely from one place to another.

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Arlington, Va.: I just got back from a trip to Hong Kong. Their subway system is amazing. 12+ car trains showing up every 3-4 minutes (or less) in the middle of the day. And many many more riders. No 15 minute delays that I'm aware of. Granted, their system is much younger that Metro. But still, why is it that they can run trains so often in the middle of the day without delay and Metro can barely run 6-car trains every 10 minutes during rush hour?

Dr. Gridlock: It's good to learn from other cities, but do be wary of comparisons. Age of the transit system, political history, geography, population density -- there are plenty of factors that limit comparisons from city to city.

I don't say that to diminish your basic point: People are paying a lot to ride Metro trains. They have a right to expect the trains to show up on a regular basis.

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Metro is cheap: Thought I'd add some perspective to the continuing litany of complaints about Metro's fare hikes. I just got back from London, where a single (one way) Underground ticket within zone 1 cost 4 pounds. I went 3 stops, so that means I spent $8 for 3 stops. And many stations don't have escalators, so you have to carry your suitcase up and down many stairs (not sure what the disabled do). Also, the Victoria Line did not stop at Victoria Station (a major train and Underground station) for 2 weeks between Christmas and New Year for repairs -- imagine the Red line not stopping at Metro Center for one day, let alone 2 weeks! I will say, though, that they were offering a "replacement bus" service from a nearby station and it was waiting for us when we got out to take us to Victoria. Yes, the Underground is much more extensive than Metro, but I will take Metro's cleanliness, general availability of escalators or elevators, and low low prices any day!

Dr. Gridlock: Even though this comment puts Metro on the plus side in the city to city comparison, I'd still urge caution in doing such comparisons. Think of how old the London system is, compared to ours.

Metro officials often complain about the age of our system, and the service problems caused by equipment breakdowns. Imagine if our system were a century old.

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Crossing against the hand.....:...is how I almost hit a pedestrian the other day. If you want to cross when there are no cars around, go nuts. But that red hand is there to make sure traffic keeps flowing. Just so you know, if you get hit crossing against the hand, you will get a ticket (if you live) instead of the driver.

Dr. Gridlock: Understood. But please: It's not just a question of who's legally right. Pedestrians are never in season.

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Takoma, D.C.: Look, it annoys me too when Metro is unreliable, but this kind of attitude, from an earlier poster, drives me nutty: "Metro should have fixed the service first, and then determined to see if they should increase the fares."

Do you think Metro can fix service problems for free? This stuff costs money!! If you want Metro to get its act together, lobby to come up with a real way to fund it. Metro's problems aren't because they're bad or lazy (or not solely because they're bad or lazy) -- the problems are because they don't have a dedicated funding source and they HAVE to come begging to us poor riders whenever the system needs more money.

Dr. Gridlock: I do believe Metro is underfunded. So is transit generally. Bu I don't believe that writing a blank check for Metro would necessarily get the trains running on time.

For example: Metrorail needs to better manage the operations control center, so that the rush hour trains are properly spaced out.

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DC: I take Metro on Columbia Heights. If you wait for a train for more than 4 minutes, the platform is full. Why doesn't Metro run the Yellow Line from Ft. Totten through Huntington and vice versa during the rush hour? It's ridiculous to have to wait so long for a train during rush hour, and then have to stand for about 15 minutes with 10-12 people surrounding you, barely enough space to move your foot. Same thing happens at L'Efant Plaza. Why run the train to Mt. Vernon Square? Run it through Ft. Totten, it makes it easier for everyone!

Dr. Gridlock: On this one, the main issue really is money. The DC government is subsidizing the extra service on the Yellow Line during off peak hours. That's still an experiment. DC will either have to continuing paying the extra cost or Metro's board will have to agree to absorb the cost into its general operating expenses.

There's no money -- and perhaps not yet enough new rail cars -- to operate the extra service during rush hours.

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Alexandria, Va.: Some time ago, Metro was planning to reconfigure the seat arrangement on Metro cars to increase capacity and ease passenger flow. They even set up a Web site where people could vote for their preferred seat configuration. Since then, it appears that nothing has been done. What ever happened to that plan? I have seen some slightly different configurations on the new cars Metro is adding, but nothing has changed on the existing cars.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro has tested a couple of different designs for the car interiors but none has been a knockout success. The removal of the poles in the 6000 Series -- while not a test -- has generated a lot of complaints from riders, as you can see from this chat.

The one test car launched late last year to test an extension of bench seating also has drawn many complaints, mostly about the difficulty of reaching the overhead rail so standees can hang on.

The preliminary design for the 7000 Series does not extend the bench seating (the type of seating where passengers face toward the middle aisle). Turned out that the key idea doesn't hold up: Bench seating doesn't actually increase the passenger capacity of the cars.

At this point, I wouldn't look for a retrofit of the old cars with some new seating pattern.

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Wheaton, Md.: How do you get Metro to answer complaint letters? I've tried twice, with documentation, to no avail.

Dr. Gridlock: Of course I've got an advantage over the average rider in that I do this for a living. I can devote full time to getting answers to travelers' questions.

I must say, though, that when I've used the regular customer service system for information or complaints about Metro, I've gotten prompt answers back.

By that, I mean either the 202-637-1328 customer service number or the e-mail comment form: http://www.wmata.com/riding/ridercomment.cfm

Another option is to contact the Riders Advisory Council. A contact number is 202-962-2891.

(Also, I tend to walk around with reader letters in my pockets. So when I encounter an official, I can ask about a complaint. You can always contact me at drgridlock@washpost.com. )

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Working in D.C.: What are your opinions on the plans for the Columbia Park streetcar in Northern Virginia? I like the idea of more mass transit, and especially parallel with major routes (potentially making it appear convenient for people) but getting it entangled with the same clogged roads sounds like a recipe for trouble.

Dr. Gridlock: This is one of the transit projects getting the backing of the new Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which I think is getting off to a good start.

I'm a fan of this project and of streetcars, light rail and bus rapid transit generally. My theory is that travelers should have a variety of options for getting around.

All these modes work best when they're separated from the lanes of regular traffic. Otherwise, they just get stuck along with everyone else.

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Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for joining me today. This has been fun. I've got to break away now, but hope you'll join me again in two weeks. Stay safe.

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