Dr. Gridlock

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Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 21, 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, April 21 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.


Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers. In the two weeks since our last discussion, we've had many visitors in town -- including the pope -- and plenty of congestion on the roads and trains. Do you have experiences to share?

Let's get to your questions and comments, starting with an account of a serious incident on a Metro train this morning.


Virginia: I was in the last car of an 8 car train this morning. As the train pulled into Rosslyn, the last car did not make it into the station and was still inside the tunnel. Nonetheless, the doors were opened to offload passengers at Rosslyn. We were left staring at the tunnel walls. Luckily, no one was hurt. The train operator either did not know that this had happened or did not acknowledge it as he proceeded to Foggy Bottom where a number of people had to get off and take the next train back. After last week's article regarding manual operation of doors, how does a train operator know that all of the cars are aligned with the platform? Seems like this may be a (very basic) training issue -- not to mention a pretty serious safety concern.

Dr. Gridlock: This is frightening. Anyone who has been aboard a crowded train at rush hour can picture the potentially deadly consequences of doors opening in a tunnel.

Metro says it's aware of the incident, which happened at 8:26 a.m., and is investigating.

We'd like to hear more details, from anyone who was on board that train or who has had a similar experience. Share your knowledge here, but you also can e-mail me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Eight car trains fit the platform exactly. As Metro introduces more eight-car trains -- something we've all been looking forward to -- it has been working to ensure that trains don't overshoot or undershoot the platforms. Clearly it has not solved this challenge.

Last week, Post reporter Lena Sun wrote that the transit authority now has the train operators manually opening the doors to address a rare problem with the doors opening by themselves under automated control. That clearly did not help in this morning's incident. If the doors are controlled by the operator, the operator needs to be absolutely sure that all eight cars are in the station before they open.

We'll see what Metro's investigation shows, but something was very much wrong here.


Washington, D.C.: who paid for the additional Metro service during the Pope's visit? During Nationals games? For the Caps and Wizards playoff games?

Dr. Gridlock: I haven't checked for final figures on this, but last week, Metro was estimating that the cost of extra service during the pope's visit would be $250,000, paid for mostly through fares from the thousands of extra riders.

For many special events, like marathons or sports events, the private sponsor or venue pays for the extra service.


Upper Marlboro to Springfield: Doc, I have a job opportunity in Springfield, VA. I have horrendous experience in the past with commutes to Reston, McLean and Springfield. I hated it. If I go through town and around 395 at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, will my life be easier? Unfortunately, they are not near Metro. Mapquest claims it's 48 minutes. On the rare occassion that I drive, I do UpMo to Arlington in less than 1/2 hour. I am guessing at 40 minutes or so. Any input from the typers? Thx.

Dr. Gridlock: Let's ask. I'll tell you that your timing estimates sound about right to me. Of course, the thing about any long commute in our region is that you can never be sure that tomorrow's trip will be the same as today's trip.

Traffic planners often note that many commuters are as bothered by the uncertainty of their trip times as by the length of the trips.


20009: I've become a Metro commuter in the past year and am amazed at the lack of signage about the "No Eating or Drinking" rule. There is one tiny circle/slash image -- no bigger than a quarter -- at the bottom of the route maps, but almost nothing esle inside the cars.

Almost every day I see someone eating or drinking on a platform or in a train; I usually ask them whether they know about the rule and the possiblity of a fine (though not when it is a swarm of local teenagers laughing and snacking). Usually it comes as news to them, they close the beverage container and thank me for the warning.

A large circle/slash symbol over the center windows of every car would go a long way toward making the policy known. PA announcements, the lovely rat poster, and the tiny synbols are too easy to miss.

Also, a large sign over a trash can at the station entrance would catch offenders before they reach the platform -- but it needs to be on the same side as the entry escalator so folks don't have to cross a stream of exiting passengers to get to it.

What is Metro's reason for the lack of easy-to-see and understand signs?

Dr. Gridlock: I like the idea of associating the message with the trash can.

The existing signs are pretty small -- though I do think that new ad featuring the rat is potentially effective.

Metro does have a campaign of ads and announcements on the no eating and drinking rule. Do others think it's having any effect?


Vienna, VA: This morning I ran into a road closure on Browns Mill Rd. just west of Beulah Rd., heading toward Reston. Cost me 1/2 hour to detour back out to Rt. 7 because it took 5 light cycles to turn left there with all the diverted traffic. My question is, how can I find out whether it's still closed tomorrow morning? There was nothing on the radio or any traffic websites about this road. Is there no one who tracks local, temporary flooding closures online?

Dr. Gridlock: It's very difficult to get the latest on roads closed temporarily by weather conditions. The online traffic camera systems aren't extensive enough to really help with that.

Once source I use is the traffic map here on washingtonpost.com, but I'm not suggesting anyone rely on it completely for information about spot closures along a particular route. (You can see that map here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/metro/traffic/index.html )

On a morning with flood warnings, I'd proceed the old fashioned way: Leave early and be extra careful. But what advice do others have?


Having train operators manually opening and closing doors: I was sorry to read about this. Now we have to wait even longer for doors to open. And then sometimes the train ends up moving a few feet forward after it has arrived in the station, and we have to stand in a new spot and wait a second time. Any idea how long this will continue? Years ago they had some problem, and it went on for a year. And then we have the problem of the conductor announcing a stop, stopping completely, and THEN moving forward again with no advance warning, leaving standees grabbing for a pole.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro says it thinks the doors opening automatically problem may be associated with its efforts to upgrade the power supply.

As you say: The jerking of trains and the delays in opening doors can be very annoying. But that's nothing compared to the potential for disaster created by doors opening in a tunnel, as our first commenter described.


Mclean, Va.: Hi Robert,

Do you (or anyone out there) know what the rush hour commute is like from Ashburn to Tysons Corner via 267? I'm new to the area and thinking about buying a place in Ashburn. Is it has bad as I66? (what I currently deal with.)


Dr. Gridlock: I've seen inbound traffic on the Dulles Toll Road stopped out Herndon and Reston during the morning rush. I don't find it as bad as on I-66, generally, but the toll road is not the easy commute you might think you'd be getting because you're paying extra for it.

What do you readers think is the best alternative among I-66, Dulles Toll Road and Route 7? Or is it just a question of picking your poison?


Eating/drinking on Metro : I have been a Metro commuter since 1985. In my opinion, there is much more eating and drinking on the trains than ever before, including people just putting their garbage on the floor before they leave the trains! I wish I could say that the biggest offenders are tourists, but they're not, it's what appears to be local travelers, especially teenagers, who seem to take a huge delight in aggravating the sensibilities of other (older) riders.

Personally, I would ban the distribution of free newspapers outside of Metro stations, since the floor litter they create when discarded seems to invite riders to add to the pile of trash with their food and drink containers and bags.

Dr. Gridlock: As a Metro rider for 20 years, I also believe the cars contain more trash then they used to. My impression: In the morning, there are a lot of free papers -- Express and Examiner -- left on board when they could be carried off to the recycling bins.

In late afternoon and evening, I see more food wrappers and soda bottles.


No eating or drinking signs: I agree they are way, way too small.

Dr. Gridlock: Yeah, I do agree on this. But look, we're discussing the food thing today. Meanwhile, readers write to me all the time and say they think this sign or that warning should be bigger on Metro, or on the highway message boards. It just seems to depend on what offense people would like to make a priority.

How would you decide which warnings to emphasize and which other ones might just clutter up the Metro or cause a sign-reading bottleneck on the highway?


Silver Spring: I love your chats and columns. Do you have any idea what the plan is for Georgia Ave. from Veirs Mill Road north? This morning was a disaster trying to drive south between the torn up road, potholes and no lane markers and rain.

Dr. Gridlock: Earlier this morning, when I was looking through the mailbag, I saw this letter with a similar theme.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

In yesterday's paper [on the commuter page, page 2 of the Metro section], you mentioned that the resurfacing of Georgia Avenue between Viers Mill and Randolph is slated to be completed sometime this summer.

Based on the current status of the roadway, I hope

that it will be sooner rather than later. While the removal of the top layers of old pavement were completed a few weeks ago, there has been no work done since that time, leaving the road in a sorry condition.


Derwood, MD: Metro doors: Wikipedia says that each metro car is 75 ft long. That means an eight car train is 600 ft long. Here's a question for WMATA: Can operators really see 600 ft down the platform to the rear of their platform? Even when the platform is full of people? Even when the tunnel/station is full of haze and mist?

Dr. Gridlock: I think the operator can tell where the end of the train is by where the front of the train is. No math required.

What I worry more about in that regard is whether the operator can see far enough down a crowded platform to know if he or she is about to trap people between doors. I get numerous letters from angry passengers who complain that the doors closed before people even had a chance to get off the train.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Doctor!

For those of us who haven't yet used Metro to the new stadium, how is it working out at the Navy Yard? Can you please give us an update? Thanks.

Dr. Gridlock: The most severe test of the Navy Yard Station that I've seen came on Thursday morning, when thousands of worshipers took Metrorail to the papal mass. I saw no problems on the platform, despite the extra passengers. The platform cleared in about five minutes, as people used both exits.

Here's the thing about Navy Yard Station: Metro can control the flow of passengers from the trains, by regulating the arrival of the trains at the station and then by keeping the doors closed a little longer of there's a crowd on the platform.

So I'm more concerned about crowding at the transfer stations, particularly L'Enfant Plaza.


Alexandria, Va.: There is a lot of anger about turning the HOV lanes on 395 from the 14th Street Bridge on south and vice versa - see the online petition http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?NOTsoHOT. What can we citizens do to stop it? Why can't buses operating on the shoulders there just open up all the congestion?

Dr. Gridlock: Many sluggers are angry and anxious about Virginia's plan to convert the I-95/395 HOV lanes into HOT lanes (high occupancy or toll). Carpoolers would still ride free in those lanes, but drivers who don't meet the HOV-3 rule could pay -- pay a lot -- to get into the lanes for a faster trip.

VDOT is completely into this, and I've supported the plan too, as long as it protects the carpoolers.

To oppose it, I think you'll have to go to your state senators and delegates.

On the shoulder issue: I'd rather add buses to those HOT lanes, which is part of the plan, then open up the breakdown lanes for their use.


Silver Spring, MD: It appears that there are markers on the platforms for the train operators to know where to stop the front of a 4, 6, or 8 car train. It shouldn't be that hard to get it right. Maybe the operator forgot that it was an 8 car train and stopped where a 6 car train should.

Dr. Gridlock: That's an interesting thought on the possible cause. The commenter who described the problem (back at the top of the chat) heard no announcement from the operator, suggesting the operator was unaware of what had happened. If a mechanical problem was the cause, the train should have been taken out of service immediately.


Alexandria, Va.: What are those weird things hanging off the power lines where they are doing the Telegraph Road interchange work (Telegraph and Huntington Ave)? There are orange "fins" hanging at the end of a bunch of lines, almost like boat anchors. At first I thought they were wind-directionals, but they aren't all turned in the same direction.

Dr. Gridlock: I'll ask the folks at the Wilson Bridge project -- or does anyone know this off the top of their heads?


Alexandria, Va.: Is it legal for cars to sit on the side of 395 at night, waiting for six o'clock to roll around so they can use the HOV lanes? I see them out there all the time, and I'm noticing that more and more are jumping the gun five or ten minutes early, since cops never seem to patrol that section of 395.

Dr. Gridlock: You're talking about cars jus sitting on the shoulders? Pretty sure it's illegal to use breakdown lanes for any purpose other than an emergency, anywhere.


Higher gas prices aren't slowing anyone down: Just a brief report from the field: I had the unfortunate experience of driving from DC to NY and back this holiday weekend, and traffic was terrible both ways. It felt more like a summer weekend than one in April. We endured bumper-to-bumper traffic because of accidents in all 5 states we traveled through. Did people forget how to drive over the winter? There were also lots of construction delays on 95 & the NJ Turnpike.

Dr. Gridlock: I recently drove from Minnesota to Cape Cod to Washington to Fort Lauderdale. The warm weather means more road work. We had lots of delays in the Carolinas, for example.

But my main observation was the speeding in the right hand lanes; drivers traveling 20 mph above the speed limit (which was 65 or 70) and slipping to the right of cars in the middle lane so they could pass.


Metro food signs: The Bethesda metro has a large sign at the top of the platform escalator (which you see as you're heading to the down escalator), with no food or drink in English and Spanish (with visuals...)

Dr. Gridlock: As part of Metro's campaign against food and drink in the stations, you'll signs in the mezzanines of many stations. Might take a while to cath people's attention, though. And of course, a small percentage of people will just ignore signs of any size.


A Real Live Long Time Caps Fan: Mr. Thomson,

I've found the following problems in regards to Metro when going to Caps games. This season, I've ridden the orange, blue, yellow and red to games from various stations. Pending tonight's result, I may be taking the green line tomorrow.

I've noticed the following problems.

1. Metro seems to only cater to Red line riders. The easiest ride back to my vehicle was on the red line last Saturday.

2. Metro does not inform people that the front and rear cars are usually empty going to the game. I enjoy sitting in peace while seeing the car in front of me packed like sardines.

3. Metro does not "station" trains ready to pick passengers up at Metro Center or on the yellow/green line at Gallery Place. I realize there aren't side tracks that could be used, but I'm also tired of waiting for 15-20 minutes after games to catch trains on those lines. What's even more infuriating is when empty trains roll through the station while the platform has too many people on it.

Since I'm on a Metro rider and don't actually work for Metro, are they going to discount my complaints because I'm only a rider and not some high-paid executive? I'm only taking Metro now because of timing issues surround rush hour, but I really don't like it since the rates went up.

Dr. Gridlock: I've gotten a bunch of complaints from riders about their experiences trying to leave Verizon Center via Metrorail after games. The complaints involve crowding and the length of time between trains on all the lines involved.


Metro eating: Well, the problem with all Metro "announcements" is that no one can understand what the person speaking into the sound system is saying. When is Metro going to fix their station speakers?? It is pointless to tell people about delays when what we hear sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher.

Dr. Gridlock: I've had mixed experiences lately. On my Green Line train to the papal mass Thursday morning, the operator's announcements were clearly spoken and the audio equipment functioned well.

Joining the crowd at a downtown station heading toward a Nationals game, I heard an announcement that had to do with the game. I could tell because I heard the word "baseball." I'm sure there were other important words, too, but I couldn't tell you what they were.


Rockville, Md.: What are the rules in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland regarding crossing a solid white line? Every day I see people merging into lanes by crossing solid white lines either to merge early (entering the Beltway for example) or late (I'm thinking inner loop of the beltway right before 270). Is this against any laws?

Dr. Gridlock: Drivers shouldn't be crossing solid white lines unless they're pulling onto the shoulder in an emergency. The solid lines at merge points are there to lessen the chaos of the merge.


Alexandria, Va.: I have at to admit that as a regular commuter and weekend user if Metro, seeing how Metro has pulled out the royal treatment for the Nats fans and Pope fans is leaving me feeling bitter. It's great to see the success Metro had/has getting people to and from special events, but how about getting people around on a day to day basis? There should always be that level of commitment to riders.

Dr. Gridlock: Metro did real well during the pope's visit and it's so-far-so-good in getting people to the Nats games.

Generally, I think, Metro does a very good job -- but there are enough exceptions to keep me fully employed. You folks have pointed out some of those exceptions today, from the garbled announcements to the doors opening in the tunnel.

It's possible to recognize that the transit system is one of the region's greatest assets while acknowledging the need for vigilance about its need to improve day to day performance for its hundreds of thousands of riders.


Dr. Gridlock: Travelers, I've got to break away now. Thanks for joining me today, and I'll look forward to another conversation here in two weeks.

Meanwhile, write to me with your questions or comments at drgridlock@washpost.com.


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