Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 5, 2008; 1:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He will be online Monday, May 5 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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.


Dr. Gridlock: Hello, travelers, and happy Cinco de Mayo. Please celebrate safely. Let's talk traffic and transit.


Capitol Hill: Hi Dr. Gridlock:

Could you please remind our friends from Maryland and Virginia that it is NOT legal in the District to make a left turn on a red light from a one way street onto the cross one way street?


Dr. Gridlock: Our region's traffic laws are pretty consistent. This is one point on which they diverge. In MD and VA, it's legal to make a left turn on red from a one way street to a one way street, as long as there's no sign telling you not to do so.

The District is different. I sometimes hear from DC readers who get honked by drivers who state tags, who may not understand the DC law.


Bowie, Md.: Do you know when the when the 2nd half of the Wilson Bridge will open?

Dr. Gridlock: I believe the second span will open to traffic on the last weekend of this month.

You won't want to be part of that fun. I remember the weekend the first span opened and all the quick paving and lane switching that backed up traffic for many miles.

Actually, there will be a ceremony in the middle of the month to mark the completion of the span, but that's not the opening to traffic.

Even sooner -- this coming weekend, in fact -- there's going to be a re-alignment of the Beltway's outer loop in Virginia. That's likely to create some serious traffic problems Friday night into Monday morning

I'll keep you updated on the traffic plan and the recommended detours on my Get There blog, at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/getthere.


Falls Church, VA: Does anyone have any idea what has happened on Route 29 North towards I-66 and the East Falls Church? That section used to run very smoothly but ever since last Monday has grinded to a halt. A 1 mile drive to the metro station that usually takes 5-10 minutes is now taking at least a half hour everyday.

Dr. Gridlock: I thought I'd throw out this question early to see if readers recognized the problem. I've just scanned the VDOT road work schedule and didn't spot anything that looked like it would cause this problem.


Silver Spring, MD: Any update on when the new Silver Spring transit center or whatever will be completed? The buses were supposed to be moved last summer, is that still happening?

Dr. Gridlock: There was all that prep work last spring, and then nothing happened, because the project got delayed. Now, the bus stops at Silver Spring Station and supposed to be moved out to the nearby streets this summer, before work gets started on the transit center. There will be a new entryway to the MARC station, too.


Arlington, Va.: Is there an online mapping program that directs people to use I-66 inside the beltway? It seems all the programs avoid 66 because of the HOV restrictions during the week.

Dr. Gridlock: I have not researched this, but have had the same experience. I've noticed that the map programs I use -- Google, Mapquest, Yahoo! -- will not set a course along highways such as I-66 inside the Beltway that have lane restrictions.


Northern Virginia: Whatever happened to HOT lanes on 495 in VA? I thought they were supposed to start construction this year near Tyson's and I haven't heard anything about it.

Dr. Gridlock: You'll see more and more evidence of the Virginia HOT lanes project on the western side of the Beltway this spring.

There's some test boring and other prep work going on right now. The construction will create four new lanes on the outside of the Beltway. Once they're done, the inside lanes will be converted to the HOT (high occupancy or toll) lanes and the outer lanes will be the regular traffic lanes.

That plan is supposed to keep traffic flowing throughout the construction.


DC Driver: Thanks so much for mentioning that about the one way/one way turns! That was legal where I moved from, and I've been doing it all the time since I got here. Dumb luck that I haven't been ticketed, I guess.

Tell your boss that a reader learned something useful from this chat!

Dr. Gridlock: Thanks. It is my fondest hope that many, many readers will learn something useful from these chats.

The nation's capital draws visitors and new residents from across the United States. This is a good reminder to old timers that we must be patient and alert on the roads, because many people don't have local knowledge.


Arlington, Va.: Can you leave a Metro parking lot after the Metro system closes for the night? For example, if I park at the Vienna station on Sunday afternoon and need to leave at 1 am that night, will I be able to? Will the car be towed?

Dr. Gridlock: Parking at the Metro lots and garages is free on weekends. You would not have to pay if you park at Vienna on a Sunday and exit at 1 a.m. Monday.

Metro has only a couple of places in its system designated for multiple-day parking. I think that's more of a security issue for parkers than anything else.


Crystal City, Va.: Just yesterday Google Maps told me to take I-66 from Tyson's to Crystal City. Google might just give you I-66 if you search for directions on weekends.

Dr. Gridlock: I just asked Google Maps to get me from Tysons, or Dunn Loring, or Falls Church to DC, and it wouldn't send me on 66. Could it really be smart enough to factor in the rules based on when we're asking for the directions?


Kingstowne, Va.: The first question you took, the one about left on red, made me laugh because my experience is that 95 percent of the people on the road have no idea that this is permitted anywhere. I regularly go through two lights in Virginia at the interchange between I-395 and Seminary Road where left on red is permitted, but since there's no sign advising that this is okay, most people don't do it (and beeping the horn doesn't help, since they don't know it's allowed).

On the other hand, I find that a lot of people seem not to know that right on red is generally allowed in the District of Columbia. Perhaps people have experienced New York City's law that it's illegal unless a sign allows it, but in any event, I'm never surprised when people just don't budge in DC.

Dr. Gridlock: This isn't to disagree with anything you said, but just an extra thought: There's no law that says a driver MUST turn right on red, or left on red, even where it's legal.

Sometimes the driver honking from behind can't see something the driver at the light sees and doesn't understand why that driver is waiting.


Alexandria, VA: The thing about online mapping services not using I-66 is not unique to those services. My car's sat-nav will not route me onto any HOV lanes or onto any roads that change direction (examples: Canal Road; 17th Street NW north of K Street). I think part of this is because they know some dingbat will blindly follow the directions, get in a wreck or get a ticket, and then sue them.

It's also why sat-navs have that annoying nag screen when you start them up.

Google Maps will not even let you drag the route onto I-66 (usually it lets you drag the route to a different road if you wish).

Dr. Gridlock: My GPS won't put me onto Rock Creek Parkway. (But based on what I've heard from readers who go through the construction, maybe that's not just the reversing lanes. Maybe the GPS has a sense of pity.)


Tourist question: So how is a tourist supposed to know that what is legal at home, or even in the states of Virginia and Maryland that he has to drive through to get here, is not allowed in D.C.? Are there signs? Or does D.C. just view this as an opportunity to raise even more revenue from tourists?

Dr. Gridlock: Cities sometimes have tighter traffic rules, because they have more motorists and more pedestrians. The previous commenter noted the restrictions in NYC.


Flirting with Disaster: Being a pedestrian in the District, I've come to the unscientific conclusion that the most aggressive drivers for those of us who walk are our friends from the Commonwealth of Virginia. To go along with this unscientific conclusion, I have a theory as to why that's the case: so many people drive in Virginia because there aren't any sidewalks there. Because there are no sidewalks, Virginia drivers never encounter pedestrians until they come into the District, and then they just don't know what to do with us. When I came up with this theory I stopped getting angry at all the near-misses I have with Virginia drivers....I'm just something they don't normally see in their regular suburban lives.

Dr. Gridlock: The Coalition for Smarter Growth recently released a study showing that pedestrians in our suburbs, as well as in the District, are vulnerable.

I have heard pedestrian safety advocates discuss the idea that you can't really appreciate the dangers of walking -- and sympathize with the pedestrians -- unless you go out and walk.


Woodley Park, DC: I noticed I have a hard time getting google maps to route me onto Rock Creek Parkway...which reverses during rush hour to provide 4 lanes in the peak direction.

But my GPS device tells me, during non rush-hours, to keep left of the median when heading north, since that is the PM rush hour route to Calvert Street. Hope people have a little common sense before following those directions blindly. I guess they do since I haven't heard of any head-on's on the parkway.

Dr. Gridlock: I get lost a lot. So the Gridspouse gave me a GPS two years ago. One of the first things I had to get used to was ignoring it. There are just times when you have to be looking at the road and not a map screen. (My sister argues with the voice.)


Silver Spring, MD: Yesterday afternoon while driving on University Blvd. I was cut off by a car that was weaving in and out of traffic at a fairly high speed and cutting it very close each time. Even if I had gotten his license number, I don't know who I would have reported it to in order for the police to be alerted. Do you know how to report such agressive behavior at the time it is observed? (with cell phones, it is easy if one only knew who to call)

Dr. Gridlock: Very dangerous for pedestrians, that University Boulevard. I think you're giving us an illustration of why that is.

If you think a driver's behavior is putting you or other people at serious and immediate risk, call 911. Also available for reporting risky behavior is #77, a call that will put you in touch with state police.


Undershooting the Platform: Re: The 8 car trains stopping short because the drivers are used to 6-car trains: Seems obvious, but the solution would be to have ALL trains stop at the far end of the platform rather than have the 6's stop on one (earlier) mark, and the 8's on another.

Dr. Gridlock: In Sunday's Dr. Gridlock column, I ran letters from two of the four people who wrote in to tell me about Metro trains opening the doors on their car while the car was still in the tunnel outside the Rosslyn Station.

While Metro still is investigating these two incidents, it's possible that some train operators are forgetting that they're at the helm of eight car trains, rather than the standard sixes.

Actually, that's not a bad idea about having one stopping point for all trains. But I wonder whether some people waiting on platforms would consider that an inconvenience, since the lead car would be up at the very end of the platform.

First, I'd like to see if it would work to have a placard in the operator's cab saying "This is an eight-car train" and requiring the operator to announce it at each station (partly to remind the operator).


Pedestrian safety: I have to disagree (politely) with "Flirting with Disaster" about why Virginian drivers supposedly are the most dangerous for walkers. If you're ever been in Los Angeles, you'll know that drivers there ALWAYS yield to walkers. It has nothing to do with their own walking experience. It has to do with POLICE ENFORCEMENT of laws requiring cars to always yield to walkers. The police in LA enforce these laws with tickets, the police in DC do not.

Dr. Gridlock: That's a good point. We don't have enough enforcement of pedestrian safety laws, and that applies to the pedestrians as well as the motorists.

Safet experts often talk about successful programs involving three E's: Education, Engineering and Enforcement. We need them all.


washingtonpost.com: Some Near Misses For Those in Rear Of Eight-Car Trains (Post, May 4)

Dr. Gridlock: That's the Sunday Dr. Gridlock column, with the letters about the eight car trains opening doors in the tunnel outside Rosslyn.


Washington, DC: Hey Dr. Gridlock - you know the intersection of K and 17th in the morning where it becomes a one-way? I see drivers ALL THE TIME attempt to turn right, going north on 17th. Some even make it halfway before they realize their mistake. Usually a pedestrian or a driver will alert them, but shouldn't the signage be more clear? It could be dangerous.

Dr. Gridlock: I'm not a big fan of any of the reversible lanes. The easier it is for motorists to goof up, the less I like them. And that's particularly true on city streets, as opposed to the highways.

Yes, I do wish the warning signs were more prominent. Sixteenth Street NW is another spot where I see some near hits.


Kensington: Construction is being done at the 495/270 interchange at Rockville Pike, but do you know if there is ever any plan to add a sidewalk to the Pike there. I live about a mile north of that interchange and like to bike to points south, but it would require getting on the road there at a pretty dangerous place. Instead, I have to detour. Thanks!

Dr. Gridlock: That's the bridge reconstruction project, right? I think what you see now is what you're going to get there.

It is a good spot for a sidewalk, though.


Washington DC: What's with Metro skipping stops? On a couple of occasions during the evening rush, I've been on the Green line heading toward Greenbelt. Once we were told if we wanted to get off at West Hyattsville, we had to get off at Fort Totten and take the next train because our train wasn't going to stop there. Another time, the train was going to skip Prince Georges Plaza. Both times, the train was packed because it had been a long wait between Green line trains. Really an annoyance!

Dr. Gridlock: Metro trains do occasionally skip stops. It can happen if too big a gap has developed between trains and the operations managers need to restore balance to the line.

They can't skip a lot of stops, of course, because there are only two tracks on each line, and eventually the train will catch up with the one ahead.

Yes, it's annoying -- especially if you're trying to make an appointment, or just don't like to back track after a long day.


Alexandria, Va.: You just mentioned that the second span of the Wilson Bridge is likely to open sometime near the end of the month. However, what good will it do if traffic just comes up on the bottleneck for the Telegraph Road interchange construction? Why didn't VDOT just have all of the construction along this stretch of the beltway going at the same time instead of staggering it like they have? What looked like a light at the end of the tunnel when the first span opened, now looks like a never-ending construction zone!

Dr. Gridlock: I think the project -- the two bridge spans and the four interchanges -- couldn't get done all at once for financial reasons. It had to be stretched out, with the Telegraph Road interchange reconstruction at the end of the line.


Chatham, Va.: Down here in the southern part of Virginia, we have a different reaction to articles like the one on the front page of Washington Post today. The article I'm referring to describes how a shortage of tax dollars for roads in Northern Virginia will cancel several road projects. Many of us down here judge our state senators and delegates by how much money they can siphon from Northern Virginia for our own purposes. When we hear northerners in Virginia complaining about traffic, we know our locally elected officials are doing their job. We're sorry that you're choking on your own smog (well, not that sorry), but were happy that the money keeps flowing south.

Dr. Gridlock: The entire state suffers from a lack of money for transportation improvement projects. Certainly, it's easiest to see in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, Virginia's golden geese. Do think about the consequences of killing them.


Silver Spring, Md.: On the dangerous crossings issue:

The intersection of East-West Highway and 16th street is a disaster waiting to happen. Motorists trying to squeeze by on a left-hand turn off of East-West often zoom across the 16th Street crosswalk right in front of pedestrians. And the chute that takes cars from southbound 16th street to westbound East-West is a blind turn that hides a cross walk until the motorist is on top of it.

On the other side of the coin, pedestrians trying to get across the roadway really push it on the walk/don't walk light.

Dr. Gridlock: Big, wide commuter routes passing through areas with lots of shops, offices, apartments, bus stops and a Metro station. Bad chemistry for safety.


Washington DC: Any chance the city will post "no cellphone use" signs? I constantly see drivers on their phones - cruising around circles like Dupont. And nobody blinks when these people are not using a hands free device.

Dr. Gridlock: I there are some signs -- not a lot-- but I'll bet most people you see are aware of the law. I see lots of drivers at 17th and L streets NW making left turns into pedestrian-filled crosswalks. They spin the wheel with one hand while using the other to hold their phones.


Logan Unit, NW: Dr. G.,

I thought MPD was supposed to be cracking down on idiot jaywalkers and crazy drivers chasing peds in the xwalks. Beyond the few cops handling traffic in some problem intersections during rush hour (I think they're doing a great job. We need more of them), I never see any police handing out tickets or even stopping people who are doing stupid stuff. And if they are, it doesn't seem they have given out enough to show they are serious. What gives? Was this just a publicity stunt or what?

Dr. Gridlock: The periodic Street Smart pedestrian safety campaigns are a good thing, but they shouldn't be the only thing. There's always a press conference, and police go out and ticket and we watch. That's fine. It takes a while to re-educate people. But in the meantime, we need regular enforcement.


Silver Spring, MD: Good afternoon,

I am going to add the the previous questions about Georgia Ave. Someone asked last week about the milling and paving - part of that has been done. The newest problem is water - it runs out of the manhole covers and the new pavement around University Blvd and has been for quite a while, creating quite the mess. Have you any idea what the heck is going on? It was a nightmare this am.

Dr. Gridlock: The State Highway Administration is working with local utilities this week on some utility adjustments along Georgia Avenue between Veirs Mill and Randolph roads. Perhaps that's responsible for the unfortunate flow of water. Other news: The final paving work is supposed to proceed next week.


Silver Spring, Md.: We are off to Cape Cod for Memorial Day Weekend. Can you provide us with the best way to get there avoiding 95 as much as possible?


Dr. Gridlock: This is my reminder that I need to do a Get There blog entry with some recommended routes for the summer travel season. Please watch this week. I'll do a couple of suggestions on a Cape Cod route. (But keep in mind that many experienced travelers tell me that the time you leave counts a lot more than the route you take. There are no undiscovered short cuts in this busy corridor.)


Dr. Gridlock: Thanks all for a very interesting chat, with such a diversity of questions and comments. Let's do it again in two weeks. In the meantime, stay safe out there.


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