Dr. Gridlock

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, September 15, 2008; 3:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Sept. 15 at 1 p.m. ET to address all your traffic and transit issues.

The transcript follows.

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.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. This is my first chat of the fall commuting season. What new indignities are you experiencing on our roads and rails now that vacation time is over? Let's look at your questions and comments.


Washington, D.C.: What, if anything, can be done about the people that beg for money on the Metro? I had the same guy last week ask me for 75 cents on three separate days. They go from car to car asking for change and I see people giving, which only encourages them more.

Last night, there was a man who yelled "change, change" over and over again for 10 minutes at my station. I saw at least two people give him money. When the train came, he got on to the same car as me and continued to yell for donations as he walked through the car and when he hit the end, he opened the door while the train was moving to move to the next car.

Robert Thomson: I'd go to the end of the car and use the speaker to contact the train operator and report that. Tell the train operator your car number, and the operator can contact transit police. Or you can contact the transit police directly at 202-962-2121.

People don't use those in-car intercoms much. Why? When people would tell me about the doors opening in the tunnel when they were in the last car of an eight-car train, I'd ask them if they saw anyone go to the intercom to report that. Almost never.


Alexandria, Va.: When will all ten lanes of the Woodrow Wilson bridge be opened? Over the weekend it I noticed that they started paving the middle lanes on the VA side of the bridge. The Maryland side appears to be complete and striped.

Robert Thomson: The 10 lanes should be open by the end of the year. You're traveling on the local lanes now. The new lanes will be the express lanes.


Washington, DC: Last week, a friend and I went out to lunch. As we drove down I-395, we almost got side-swiped by a car whose driver was text-messaging at the time, with his eyes on his phone and one hand on the wheel (I was in the front passenger seat, and he was to my right, so I could clearly see what he was doing). In retrospect, we should have called the police and reported him. However, without text-messaging being against the law, what exactly could the police have done (assuming they could actually find him on I-395)? More generally, is there any hope that texting will actually be outlawed anytime soon? Is there someone in Congress I can contact to advocate such a ban? Driving is dangerous enough without my having to deal with the stupid and oblivious who don't value their lives as much as I do mine. Thanks for your help.

Robert Thomson: Dangerous and distracted driving is against the law. Call the police. You can use #77 from a cell phone to reach the state police in Virginia or Maryland.


Rockville, Md.: Is there any track work planned on Metro this weekend? I have a conference down in Crystal City, and am wondering if I need to factor in an extra hour of travel time. I didn't see anything on the Metro Web site, but I've been burned on weekends before. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: There almost certainly will be some track work on Metrorail this weekend. The transit authority always posts the details on its Web site (www.wmata.com) on Thursdays.

The transit authority is working on a plan that could limit track work by clustering it into certain zones that will get attention, one by one. But I don't see how Metro would eliminate all weekend work. A switch replacement project, for example, takes days.


L'Enfant Plaza, DC: I can think of a very good reason why no one would use the intercoms on the train. You'd be setting yourself up to be assaulted by whoever you're trying to turn it. They're obviously going to notice someone getting up to use those things. Would someone begging for change hit you? Probably not, but I can think of a lot of people who would and there's no where to run.

Robert Thomson: I understand that fear completely. What I'd do is move to the next car and make the contact from there.

But I think that fear isn't always the reason for not using the intercom. That's what I meant in citing the case of the cars with doors opening in the tunnels. What would keep people from using the intercom in such situations?

By the way, Post reporter Lena Sun had an interesting story on Sunday about transit police considering a way for people to use text messages to contact them. Part of the reason is to deal with the fear issue.

Here's a link to Lena's story:



Union Station: Dear Dr. Gridlock, Re: your column Sunday on Union Station. I encourage you to go stand by Columbus Circle (aka First St NE)by the Thurgood Marshall building and watch all the cars that totally blow the stop signs there. I cannot count the number of close calls I've had from cars -not even slowing down- at those stop signs. I don't know whose jurisdiction it is, whether DC or Capitol police, but I wish someone would implement some traffic control.

washingtonpost.com: Union Station Safety a Job for City -- and Walkers

Robert Thomson: I walk around there a lot. It's amazing more pedestrians don't get clobbered. All the elements for trouble are there. I focused on engineering solutions in the Sunday column but I do think that police enforcement is another part of the solution. That's just one of many, many locations across the region that would benefit from a return to street enforcement of traffic laws.


Georgetown, DC: I work in a building that fronts K/Water Street in Georgetown, which is a popular road for cyclists to get to the trail. Why don't cyclists stop at stop signs? I thought they had to. I've so many near misses and though cyclists would like to heap all ills on the heads of motorists, it's usually because a cyclist rolls right through an intersection without stopping or checking to see who has the right of way.

Robert Thomson: We could fill this entire chat with drivers vs. bikers, but let's focus on the stop sign issue. (Let me first say that I don't see this as a matter of taking sides. I don't view drivers or bikers as a class. I see individual behaviors, good and bad.)

Cyclists either stop at stop signs, come to a rolling stop, or blow through them completely. The rolling stop I can pretty much understand, if they're looking in all directions and yielding to other vehicles, as required.

I've seen this from the biking side, too. I've had drivers come to a stop, look right at my approaching bike and then drive into the intersection in front of me.


hands free in DC?: So, are the local police actually enforcing the hands-free device requirement in the district? I've driven in the district a few times in the last couple of months and I still see people holding cell phones to their ear. Can the police pull someone over for driving without a hands-free device, or do they have to have another reason to stop the driver first?

Robert Thomson: In DC, police can and do stop drivers for using cell phones. To state the obvious, plenty of people get away with violations. (We have laws against stealing cars, too, but I've noticed some vehicles go missing.)


Washington DC (Metro Intercoms): I think people also don't use them because they don't know what proper use is. We've often had the message "In Case of Emergency" (use intercom, pull cord, push button, etc) so people think the Intercom is for an emergency. But what's an emergency?

Side note for Metro- how late can you go to Metro Center during the day to get a SmartTrip card fixed/replaced?

Robert Thomson: The Sales Office at Metro Center is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and on Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m.

One of the tough things about traveling on the roads or transit is figuring out when the responsibility of contacting authorities kicks in. We don't want to make trivial calls. So what's a real emergency? They don't write this stuff down for us.


Capitol Hill, DC: I though your column yesterday on Union Station was a bit unfair to pedestrians. The design of Columbus Circle vaguely resembles a race track and is very unfriendly to pedestrians. It is not possible to cross Mass Ave in front of the circle in one cycle of the light, there aren't crosswalks from the metro station side of the station to the inner circle, and there is no sidewalk on the outer circle. I agree that pedestrians often needlessly risk their lives to cross, but vehicles also frequently speed through in hopes of making it through another light. Are there plans for a new arrangement of Columbus Circle and are they available for comment?

Robert Thomson: As a person who frequently walks and drivers around Columbus Circle, I think there's enough responsibility to go around. Engineering fixes are on the way, but people are very inventive in finding ways to do the wrong thing on our streets.


Mass Transit Administration

District Department of Transportation

2217 14th Street NW

Washington, DC 20009

Tel: (202) 673-1740

And I find that Ward 6 Council Member Tommy Wells is very interested in traffic safety issues.


Washington, D.C.: RE: Intercoms.

"Robert Thomson: People don't use those in-car intercoms much. Why?"

Because if you're reporting that a passenger is breaking the law, you run the very real risk of their assaulting you verbally and/or physically. And the chances anyone will come to your aid are remote. That's why I fervently hope Metro follows through with the option of letting cell phone users send a text message to report crimes in progress.

Robert Thomson: Very understandable comment. If I felt that passengers -- including me -- were in danger, I'd get off the train at the next stop and call 911, or get to the station manager, whatever was fastest.


VA: Fairfax connector bus strike - what is going on with that?

Robert Thomson: No updates on the bus strike from earlier today. Situation still the same: The bus operator and the employees union did not reach agreement by the time the contract expired last night and the union authorized the strike today. It affects buses in the south county but not the north.

This is the schedule in the southern county:

-- Hourly service on Routes 101, 151, 152, 171, 310, 321, 322 and 401.

-- No service on Routes 161, 162, 231, 232, 301, 303, 304, 305, 306, 307, 331, 332, 380 and on VRE EzBus North and South.


Alexandria, Va.:"I've seen this from the biking side, too. I've had drivers come to a stop, look right at my approaching bike and then drive into the intersection in front of me."

- That's because you, the biker, are supposed to stop too!

Robert Thomson: Certainly, if I have a stop sign. Not all intersections are four way stops. What I was describing is a situation in which the driver had a stop sign but I didn't.


Alexandria, VA: Dr. G.

First off, welcome back. Every appreciates having the doctor in the house.

Second, is the Yellow Line ever going to be usable on the weekend again? The last two weekends it hasn't been (with the complete shutdown at Braddock Road and then the bridge inspection). Right now I don't consider Metro a viable transportation alternative on the weekends which is a real shame, since I live a mile from the Huntington Station.

Also, speaking of the Huntington station and the new garage, it's a bit confusingly laid out. Could WMATA please make it a little more clear where one gets out of the garage to go to the metro station... in the mornings I'm seeing people drive in all sorts of directions because nobody is quite sure how one leaves the garage to go to the station. A big arrow would be useful...

Again, welcome back!

Robert Thomson: Thanks, I'll go take a look at the Huntington garage, so I can see what you're describing.

Weekend travel on Metro can be annoying on all the lines. This past weekend, the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac was shut for its annual inspection and some routine maintenance. That bridge doesn't allow track workers much room. I think the system wasn't designed by people who anticipated 21st century maintenance requirements on an aging railroad.


Silver Spring: If all I have is half the license plate number and the description of a car that just about killed me through reckless driving on the Beltway, is there any point in going #77? My word against his...

Robert Thomson: It's a free call.


Cell Phones and Driving: Hi there - I'm a DC resident and have not stopped using my phone while driving when necessary. I don't have conversations - but I will call and say I'm at point x, how do I get to Y. The fact is DC Police have bigger problems and likely aren't going to bother getting out of their car for such a minor infraction. In fact, on several occasions I've been pulled up right next to an officer while on my phone and they haven't done a thing.

Robert Thomson: In a great new book called "Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt he points out some of the studies about what happens to drivers when they use cell phones. They tend to stare straight ahead. They no longer see many of the dozens of things people need to see when performing a task as complex as driving.


By the intercom: I think part of the issue is the "For Emergency Use Only" signs and feelings about what constitutes an "emergency." Things like emergency brakes and emergency exits are for one kind of (dire) emergency, but seems harder to say an annoying (or even unsafe) panhandler is in the same category.

Robert Thomson: Perhaps we should be applying the "Broken Windows" theory of law enforcement to transit use. If people see they can get away with some low level offense (like breaking windows in a building), then some of them will move on to bigger targets and most people will just get scared to go out in public.

I think quality of life transgressions on transit should be reported to Metro employees or the transit police. And predicting you won't get a satisfactory response -- while understandable -- is self-defeating.


"I'm a DC resident and have not stopped using my phone while driving when necessary.": What's so hard about buying a $#%&- earpiece for use whilst driving? It's not a cure-all to the problem of distracted driving, but it's not a huge expense, either. I think use of a hand-held cell phone should be considered prima facie evidence of reckless driving.

Robert Thomson: Not an unusual sentiment.


Arlington, VA: I've noticed some bad pot holes that will only get worse over winter. Does Virginia have a pot hole hotline to report these? thanks

Robert Thomson: VDOT says call 511 to report unsafe road conditions.


Baltimore: From today's WP: "Higgins said she believed the crash could have been prevented with technology that stops a train on the track when a signal is disobeyed. The technology, known as Positive Train Control, is not in place where the collision occurred."

Does "Positive Train Control" (or a comparable system) exist on AMTRAK, MARC, and VRE lines serving the greater Baltimore-Washington area?

Robert Thomson: I think Amtrak uses that. Not sure about the others. The systems I'm familiar with cut power to electric trains if they move into a zone already occupied by another train.

That crash in California involving a freight train and a commuter train was horrible. Many of you will remember that in the 1990s we had a tragic crash at Silver Spring involving an Amtrak train and a MARC commuter train.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I wish Metro could at least get the sign right at Shady Grove announcing which side of the platform the next train will leave from. Twice last week and again this morning despite what the sign indicated the operator announced that the train on the opposite side of the platform will leave first, after many people had already settled in.

Robert Thomson: Not sure why that has to happen. Will ask.


I-66 West and Beyond: Dr. G,

Do you know when the construction on I66 (near Gainesville) is going to be complete?

Also, what is it that police are looking for when they stand outside of their cars, practically ON the yellow line, and well beyond the end of the HOV regulation lane end?

They slow traffic down very badly when they are out there. It's already bad going from 4 lanes down to 2 but they make it much much worse with their insistence on being practically IN the road during rush hour.


Robert Thomson: Don't know what the police are up to, but can tell you something about the I-66 project.

What you're seeing now is the highway widening out to Gainesville. It's scheduled to be done in summer 2010. That won't be the end of roadwork in the Gainesville area. Next up is the reconstruction of the interchange, eliminating some traffic signals and that annoying grade-level railroad crossing. I think that's scheduled to be done in 2013.


Washington, D.C.: Have you ever looked into the daily delays on the Green line as a result of the Yellow line extension? Do you think that it is fair to delay one group of passengers for several minutes to save another group of passengers a few minutes?

Robert Thomson: Send me a note at drgridlock@washpost.com and describe your experiences. I frequently ride the line between Mt. Vernon Square and Fort Totten and have not had any trouble with delays. But regular riders and drivers are always telling me about problems I'm missing.

People who do talk to me about the Green/Yellow thing have been pretty supportive of the extension of Yellow Line service up to Fort Totten.


Anonymous: Dr. Gridlock,

I appreciate your efforts to improve traffic flow in this area and in particular your attention to the Arcola Avenue reconfiguration in Wheaton.

I, too, share your concern for pedestrian safety. I am a friend of the family that lost a son about two years ago crossing Arcola, so efforts to reduce speed and increase safety are important to me, even at the expense of delays. However, I think the work done on Arcola will not increase safety and, in fact, has already and will continue to increase accidents.

I drive the full length of Arcola Avenue between University Blvd and Georgia Avenue every day and as a Kemp Mill resident I am dependent on Arcola Avenue for getting out of the neighborhood. My experience is that the placement of mid-street islands, parking lane islands, and "bump-outs," as currently constructed, are counter-productive.

While the work done on parts of Arcola are improvements, the stretch between Lamburten and University is really unsafe. There are mid-road islands, side islands and bump-outs that turn the street into a tight slalom ride. The bump-out on the corner of Lamburten and Arcola, in front of the synagogue, is a place where many people wait to cross after religious services yet it is lined up with a lane of Arcola on the other side of Lamburten-an invitation for fatalities should someone not notice the lane ending. The mid-road islands at Kenbrook and Hoyt are so close to the intersection that it is hard for a car to turn into them without blocking the road and their placement makes it very difficult for cars to exit onto Arcola from those streets or the parking lot of the three large buildings across the street. Finally, there is a side island placed so close to the mid-islands at Kenbrook that very severe steering adjustments have to be made to avoid jumping a curb. I am afraid to think what it will be like when snow makes the roads a little more slippery and the edges of the islands are obscured by drifting. In fact, the lanes are so narrow in parts of this section of road that there is no room for the line at the side of the road.

The reconfiguring of Arcola Avenue is a great idea implemented for the right reasons, but it was done incorrectly and thus exacerbates some of the problems it is trying to resolve.

Robert Thomson: Column readers know I'm a fan of the "road diet" that has narrowed Arcola Avenue, a commuter shortcut through the Kemp Mill neighborhood in Montgomery County.

But that doesn't mean I think it's perfect. The main complaint I've heard is that it's tough to get out from the side streets, and that access to Arcola from Lamberton Drive is a particular problem.

Montgomery Department of Transportation officials have pledged to continue monitoring what happens with the redesign and can tweak it as needed. I do think they're going in the right direction on making the road safer.


Alexandria, Va.: Is there a place where I can see what the Telegraph Road interchange will look like once it is complete?

Robert Thomson: I've been trying to find the best Web map for you to look at on the project's site, at www.wilsonbridge.com.

Try this pdf page:



Manassas, Va.: I travel Rt.28 every day for work. Is Willard and Route 28 (in Virginia), going to be an exit? It looks like a ramp is being built.

When will it be finished?

Robert Thomson: Supposed to be done by the end of the year.

The Willard Road interchange will be a diamond design of ramps with a four-lane bridge carrying Willard Road over Route 28.


Robert Thomson: Thanks for a great variety of questions and smart comments today. Till we chat again, stay safe out there.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company