Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 27, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, April 27 at noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.


Robert Thomson: Welcome, travelers. So far in the mailbag, I see a lot of practical questions about getting around on the roads and rails, as well as questions about transportation issues. I'm going to post some of the practical ones early on, because you so often have good advice to share.


Silver Spring, Md.: We are going to a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in a couple of weeks. It is a weekday concert that begins at 7:30 p.m. We will be leaving from the Glenmont Metro station and driving up Georgia to 198 to 32. How long do you think the ride will take? Is there a better way to get there?

Robert Thomson: I'm posting this one early on, in case travelers have other advice to offer. I'm wondering if it might be shorter and faster from Glenmont to get on Randolph Road eastbound, to Fairland Road, to Route 29 and straight up 29 to Columbia. That's about 18 miles. Those are all crowded roads during the evening rush. If I had concert tickets, I think I'd give myself an hour for the trip. But what do others think?


HELP needed at entrance to Great Falls Park: Yikes! Traffic gets totally constipated at the traffic light at Old Dominion and Georgetown Pike because on every good-weather day, cars waiting to enter Great Falls Park (which has very limited parking) back up past the traffic light. This blocks all traffic on both roads from proceeding north on Georgetown Pike to Great Falls and on to Rt 7. How can the National Park Service be persuaded to control cars waiting to enter the park so they do not completely block traffic? There are no ways to detour around this traffic light at the entrance to the park. It going to be a miserable summer unless this problem is solved. Thanks!

Robert Thomson: That's a beautiful area. I've often found traffic backing up at that light, but have not personally experienced a problem caused by traffic backing up into the park. In fact, that's surprising to me, because it's a fairly long drive into the park before people reach the parking areas.

Park police have limited forces for that sort of traffic control, and of course, the park service is in the tree business, so it's traditionally reluctant to expand parking lots and widen roadways.

Is this a daily problem, or limited to weekends?


Anacostia: When each span of the Wilson Bridge opened for cars they held ceremonies and issued commemorative coins to the first 50 drivers. When the bike/ped lane opens in June are they planning anything similar? Also, do you know if the new Prince William ferry will designate a place for bikes?

Robert Thomson: I think there will be a ceremony for the bridge path, but I haven't heard details yet. That's certainly a long-awaited opening. Drivers write in and ask me why it's not open now. The project has used that side of the bridge for some work under the bridge.

That Prince William-Washington ferry is quite a ways away from being in operation. Maybe a couple of years. I believe that a catamaran is going to take some test drives during May, simply so Prince William County can see if such trips are feasible. I hope it works. Many ferry services have been revived in metro areas because of the road and transit congestion. And it certainly would make sense for whatever vessel is chosen to accommodate bikes.


Northwest D.C.: Why does the Metropolitan Police allow demonstrators and protesters DURING RUSH HOUR? This morning traffic was tied up because of wheelchair protesters from the Capitol to the White House at 8:30 a.m. along a major corridor. Traffic in this city is a nightmare, at best, but when this type of thing is allowed, it can be teeth-gnashingly frustrating. Then we have the brain surgeons who schedule the lighting of the White House Christmas tree at 5:00 p.m. during the work week, turning downtown into gridlock. Can't that be done on a weekend night? I always take a day off that day rather than sitting on K Street for hours at a time.

Robert Thomson: It was a very difficult commute this morning for drivers coming in from across the Potomac and along some routes in Northwest Washington. The main trouble point appears to have been the Greenpeace protest that involved climbing a crane near the State Department. Those folks have been arrested.

I don't have any information on the protest involving the wheelchairs.

The Christmas Tree lighting ceremony draws a burst of complaints from drivers every year, as well it should. I see no reason that ceremony has to be scheduled for 5 p.m. on a weekday. It's a long standing tradition that traditionally makes no sense at all.


Crystal City, Va.: 395 was a parking lot this morning (8:45-9:30ish)

Was that all due to the Greenpeace protest event downtown? I didn't hear about any traffic accidents on the radio.

Robert Thomson: The protest near the State Department did have a very widespread impact on traffic. Here's a link to The Post story about it.


Ashburn, Va.: I read your comments on the new roundabout near Gilbert's Corner with interest, after having spent 30 minutes on Friday trying to get through it. Traffic was backed up on Route 50 westbound from the traffic circle all the way back to beyond Lenah, where the road goes from four lanes to two. The problem, as I see it, isn't so much that people don't know how to use a roundabout as that this one is too small in circumference and is only one lane -- the roundabouts I've dealt with in England and in the Chicago area are all much larger and two lane, so that the traffic going round gets in the inside lane and allows the incoming traffic a lane to merge into. If all the roundabouts for the 15/50 intersection are going to be this size, I may have to find another way to head out of town on the weekends.

washingtonpost.com: Round and Round They Go -- At Least, in Theory (The Washington Post, April 19, 2009)

Robert Thomson: I'd withhold judgment -- and withhold a route change -- pending two things: 1) Drivers are going to get more experience with the roundabout. I rarely see a traffic improvement that doesn't start off making traffic worse. It usually takes drivers a few weeks to figure them out.

2) That one is just the first of four roundabouts designed to work together as part of this traffic calming project. Almost all the work you see around there in eastern Loudoun has to do with building the others.

One last thought in the category of "be careful what you wish for": I'm not sure our drivers -- many of whom are unfamiliar with roundabouts -- would find it easier to deal with the rules regarding two-lane roundabouts. We might see more collisions when cars turn right from the left lane to reach their exit.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, are you aware of what precautions, if any, Metro is taking to lower the risk that swine flu can be spread among rail and bus riders? Nothing spreads a virus more than packing loads of people in a closed space like a bus or subway car or airplane. I know that Metro will be reluctant to acknowledge that using public transit could spread swine flu, but have you heard what steps it is taking? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Now, I'm not that kind of a doctor. But I know there are no reports of swine flu in our region. Still local medical officials are being prudent and preparing for the possibility. See this story in The Post.

I've not noticed any reluctance on the part of Metro officials to deal with health issues. One small example: Several times, Metro has helped distribute hand sanitizers to rail riders during health campaigns.

I think you're right to raise the issue about crowded environments and the spread of illness, so I will check with Metro on this, but at this time, I see no reason you should change your local travel habits.


To Merriweather from Glenmont: The route that Dr. Gridlock suggested, "from Glenmont to get on Randolph Road eastbound, to Fairland Road, to Route 29 and straight up 29 to Columbia" is the route that we took when my husband picked me up from Glenmont a few months ago. I do not remember how long it took us to get to Ellicott City.

From the Park and Ride on the east side of Glenmont station, you can turn right from the parking lot and go straight at the first light (where many want to turn left) on to Randolph Road. I have never tried the route you said.

Robert Thomson: I'll watch the incoming comments for any other suggestions on traveling to Merriweather Post.


Springfield, Va.: Have decreased fuel prices been the major culprit that has contributed to increased weekend traffic? The past few weekends have been like the middle of the summer in terms of traffic, especially on the I-95 corridor.

Robert Thomson: Fuel prices are rising somewhat, as they always do when we enter the warm weather driving season. I think the season is the dominant factor in what you're seeing along the I-95 corridor. This is a big time for north-south migrations along the East Coast's Main Street.


About Roundabouts: We have them in Maryland, though the ones in Montgomery County that I'm familiar with are on more neighborhood-type roads that Rt 50.

They also have them in Connecticut where I grew up, though there they are called rotaries and some of them are quite large -- like in England -- and some of them are smaller. I have always found them nice to deal with except when there gets to be too much traffic for the size.

Robert Thomson: The ones in Maryland have been pretty successful. We might see the same pattern with these new ones in Virginia: Drivers have little experience with them, since we've grown up using traditional red light-green light intersections. As the drivers get familiar with the roundabouts, many start to like them, because traffic is always flowing.

The type under construction in Virginia is what engineers refer to as "modern roundabouts." Maybe that's a bit of PR. They're trying to distinguish the design from the examples that some of us are used to. Last week in the chat, we got into a discussion of these new things vs. Dupont Circle. These roundabouts are very far from the concept of the big traffic circles. They're also not quite what we see within neighborhoods, though there are similarities. The idea there is more about slowing drivers down than about moving traffic most efficiently.


washingtonpost.com: Swine Flu Has D.C. Region Preparing (The Washington Post, April 27, 2009)

Robert Thomson: Here's the story from today's Post about local preparations in light of the swine flu outbreaks elsewhere. My Dad, who's long retired, used to be in charge of our quarantine services along the Mexican border. (We lived in El Paso.) So I'm very tuned in to the health issues raised in the earlier comment and will share with you anything I learn regarding local transportation concerns, should they arise.


Olney, Md.: Why aren't all left turn signals on-demand only? I take Seven Locks Road in Rockville/Potomac/Bethesda to avoid I-270 and at intersections with Democracy and with Tuckerman, the left turn arrow comes on whether or not there are cars waiting to make the turn. It's a waste of time. Why must this happen?

Robert Thomson: That's a good question. I think signal systems generally are still pretty primitive, compared to what they could be if we decided to spend the money on them. Signal technology improvements are one of the cheapest ways to make major advances in traffic flow -- though once you install the upgraded technology, you have to maintain it.

Here's a guess on what you're seeing -- or not seeing: Left turn arrows are usually coordinated with the other signals in the intersection. Engineers may not have the money for the complete upgrade that would be required, or they may not consider it worthwhile at that particular location.


Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon,

I read Sunday's paper where someone asked about the slowdown on the Red Line near Takoma. I had written in to the chat a week or so ago asking about it as well, and you posted it last week. The problem here is with communication. Metro has the guts to not think that a slowdown that doubles or triples our commute is worth mentioning to riders. That is infuriating. I, like the person who wrote in to the paper this weekend, have experienced what should be a 15 minute ride from Union Station to Silver Spring turn into a 40 minute crawl. This is unacceptable communication by Metro and it must be addressed.

Robert Thomson: Hi, Washington. There were many problems along the eastern side of the Red Line last week, and I think those may have had more to do with the frustrating trips you experienced than the slowdown south of Takoma. That slowdown added to your unpleasant experience, but I don't believe that by itself it was responsible for tripling your travel time.

I went through that particular slowdown, too. If I'm going to or from The Post newsroom, that's my regular route. In my experience, it lasted a minute or two.

That said, I think if Metro officials are aware of a problem like that -- the slowdown was a precaution while Metro prepared a fix for the drainage problem underneath the tracks -- it should be announced to the public. This situation went on for weeks without an announcement.


Washington, D.C.: The new parking "group meter" system (or whatever it's called) makes sense in lots of ways. However, the new signs don't indicate when the "meter" has to be fed. The sign just says that you have to pay to park. Sometimes, even the "meter" doesn't say. For example, I was at a Super Bowl party in Georgetown and parked on M St at about 5 p.m. Even though it was a Sunday, for all I knew Georgetown meters still had to be fed. So, I went to the payment station, put in my credit card, and the machine said, "No parking. Rush hour." How might this situation be improved?

Robert Thomson: Better signs. Sometimes, I think if I can use those green machines successfully, I'd also be qualified to operate the space shuttle. I find the directions really tiny and the sequence hard to follow.


Roundabouts: I hated roundabouts when I first moved here from the Midwest, because I didn't understand them in the least. I'm starting to fear them less, but the one on Connecticut Ave. in Chevy Chase is horrible. When you're coming south, there's a light right after the roundabout. I've seen traffic backed up into the circle! What a poor decision.

Robert Thomson: I think that's why engineers installing roundabouts today are so careful to refer to them as "modern roundabouts." The one on Conn Ave is a monster. Traffic is going way too fast for safe navigation and drivers aren't following the rules.


Fairfax: Left turn on demand: we have that at many Northern Virginia intersections. If no one is waiting to turn left (induction loop has not detected a car there), the left turn signal does not operate. It's annoying when you arrive late in the cycle to make a left turn and the electronics have already decided that no one is turning left. Otherwise it saves everyone time.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Fairfax, for that information related to the earlier question about on-demand left turn arrows.


Washington, D.C.: I grew up in NYC, and I've used subway systems all over the country (L.A., San Francisco, Atlanta, Philly, Boston, Chicago) and the world (London, Paris, Toronto). This is the ONLY place where train operators consistently have problems bringing trains to a smooth stop. What gives?

Robert Thomson: I grew up in NYC, too, and while I love the subway, I don't recall loving it for the smooth ride. That said, I do find our experience here really annoying. We should have an automatic train control system good enough to bring trains to a smooth stop.


Kids in the Station: I work near Union Station and I'd say at least once a week after work there are kids in the station asking people to give them money for some sports team. When you say no to them they curse you out and walk away. This is very dangerous and could easily escalate. Is this legal for them to do? If not, who can we contact (running up the escalator to the manager chatting with his/her friend is not a good option), as in what number should we call? Metro police? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Union Station jurisdiction is a bit complicated, but if you're saying you see this soliciting inside the Metro station, then yes, I think contacting Metro transit police would be a good idea: 202-962-2121


Silver Spring: We hear and read about daily delays on the Metro. Do other cities have the same problem?

Robert Thomson: Many do, but it's hard to compare cities on some of these things. We have the second biggest subway system. Only NYC is bigger. Ours was built early in the second great wave of subway construction. The equipment is aging. Also, one advantage in NYC is that there are three tracks, not two. Often, when a train breaks down in New York, following trains can be routed onto the express track.


Left turn signals: The left turn signals at Wisconsin Ave. and Bradley Blvd are on-demand as well.

Robert Thomson: Another reference to earlier comments about on-demand left-turn arrows.


Swine Flu on Metro: Just wash your hands, people, and cover your mouth when you cough. Been riding Metro for 20 years and never caught a cold from a fellow commuter.

Robert Thomson: I think this topic is very interesting, so I'm posting the comments about health issues on transit. It's not because we have a problem specifically related to the swine flu outbreaks elsewhere.

Post health reporter Ceci Connolly preaches the value of washing your hands -- she's got me doing a Lady Macbeth-type thing after transit trips. So I know it's a good idea.

Thinking back to a much earlier discussion: Rail riders were concerned about the handgrips being installed on the train cars. They wanted them all to be stainless steel -- as they are on the 6000 Series cars -- because they thought they'd be easier to clean than vinyl or cloth grips.

Cover your mouth when you cough, but not with your hand, which is about to grip a pole or railing.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thank goodness I can now commute by bike and am no longer subject to my old commutes (one job involved I-95, the other involved the Red Line). Unfortunately, I must occasionally "rely" on it for a meeting.

I realize that the WMATA board pretty much never rides Metrorail and may not be aware that Metrobus exists. This certainly contributes to WMATA's culture of withholding information. Since Congress is the big dog around here, should I work on my Congressman (mine even has a vote!) to insert a communications team into WMATA which has access to all information and can freely share it with those outside the Politburo, um, I mean the public?

WMATA: Not gettin' it since 1967! Grrr.

Robert Thomson: What I wish people would do is get more involved with the Riders' Advisory Council. That's one way to needle Metro on improving communications.

See this link for more information.


Chevy Chase: Dr. Gridlock,

You say WMATA should alert commuters to situations such as the one near Takoma the past few weeks. I've written in to John Catoe's chats asking for a service advisory page like the one for the NYC Subway that is easy to find and very comprehensive. It is better than WMATA's current system of just posting weekend work before the start of each month, since such a page can also include evening track work or even notices about things such as the recent Takoma slow zone. What do you think?

Robert Thomson: I admire the job Metro did in redesigning its Web site to make it more user friendly. So I think there has been progress. But like you, I think there's even more information that could be made available about travel conditions, including notices about slowdowns or weekday track work. The biggest breakthrough in communications will be restoration of the Next Bus system, that can alert people about when the bus is actually going to arrive at their stops.


South Riding, Va.: Route 50 roundabout: Yesterday afternoon, traffic on Route 50 was backed up. Courteous drivers in the roundabout were yielding to those trying to enter. The diameter is much too small for the volume of traffic. A traffic light would be a much better solution. It will be gridlock when there are three in a row -- traffic will back up to South Riding.

What we have is a situation born of the moral cowardice of state government, executive and legislature, to make hard decisions, like widening Route 50. Why is that road sacrosanct?

Robert Thomson: The road may need to be widened someday, but I don't believe we're at that point. Road widenings are expensive and damaging to local communities. This roundabout thing is worth a try.

As I said earlier, it takes a while for drivers to adapt. You point out, for example, that drivers inside the roundabout are yielding. They shouldn't be doing that. It's the cars outside the circle that should be yielding for the traffic inside. The drivers inside who are yielding may be helping out one driver, but they're slowing things down for many other drivers.


Clifton, Va.: Obviously the decision for roundabouts was made by a bunch of fools from Richmond who don't have to navigate these monsters with folks who don't have a clue on straight, six-lane interstate.

Get rid of them. They won't work here.

Robert Thomson: I think this project on Route 50 is an example of VDOT working with the communities on a project designed to improve safety and improve traffic flow at the same time, without creating an unnecessarily broad footprint through a beautiful part of the state. Is that so wrong?


Re On-demand Left Turn Signals: The on-demand part requires a sensor placed in the roadway (under the pavement) in the left-turn only lane. This requires not only the cost of the sensor, but also labor, and inconvenience to drivers while the intersection is being worked on, not to mention the major hassle of having to dig up the pavement again if the sensor requires any work. All that, plus the inherent problems in upkeep of traffic surface that has been "opened up" (vice those that remain integral during their lifetimes), mean it shouldn't be surprising that "upgrading" existing intersections in this manner isn't (and probably shouldn't be) a high priority.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for pointing out the work involved. Isn't it interesting how much attention we pay to dividing up those precious seconds we spend stopped at intersections? This is one of the reasons that traffic engineers look more and more at installing those roundabouts. They keep traffic moving through the road junction all the time.


Washington, D.C.: Why does this region spend so much time and money updating/widening/upgrading existing roads, when it's clear what we need are more alternates?

The most obvious problem is driving east/west through Maryland. There are four major routes (three highways) that connect D.C. and Baltimore, but only one (soon to be two, with the ICC) highways that go east-west.

The same problem is clear in Virginia with only two primary north/south routes between D.C. and Richmond. You can only widen roads so much, so why do we insist on widening/improving over building alternates? L.A., Chicago and New York have dozens of alternate routes if one is clogged, but here if one of those major routes is backed up, you're stuck in the mess or going through neighborhoods to avoid the delays.

Robert Thomson: This is not a statement against road building; I'm just trying to expand on your point: What we did during the early and middle 20th century to build a transportation system probably isn't the way we want to approach it in the 21st. We've gained in technology and expertise to the point where we can create better ways of moving people. That involves new roads and new transit systems and better information sharing with travelers. We can be smarter about this than we were, but it's really time we had a new plan.


Potomac, Md.: I just received notification from EZ-Pass Maryland that starting this summer, there is going to be a $1.50 monthly service charge, whether or not I use the device.

Since I only use it a few times a year (one trip to the Eastern Shore, maybe one up to N.Y., and once in a great while to visit friends out near Dulles), I'm really thinking about handing it back over. $18/yr is a lot for infrequent usage.

A while back, you used to be able to buy a transponder from any of the participating states. Is this still the case, and do other states have a better deal?

Robert Thomson: There are other states where you can get an account for free. (At least for now.) You may find that advantageous, or you may want to give up the transponder altogether. I don't use mine very often, but one trip to N.Y. would make it worthwhile.

The Maryland fee is being imposed because the revenue from tolls isn't keeping up. People are driving less. One of the most likely alternatives was a general increase in the toll rates, which would not have been popular either.


Clifton, Va.: Right now that part of Rt 50 is major commuter route seven days a week. Not scenic route or parkway. All the users of the road, not just those whose community the road goes through, need to have input. It's a pain in the neck the last few weeks heading out to Berryville via Rt 50 and Rt 15 to Rt 7 to Berryville and returning over the weekends.

Widen the road.

Robert Thomson: How would you pay for that? Higher gas tax?


Greenpeace protest response: Hey Greenpeace -- maybe you should have thought through your global warming protest a wee bit more. By tying up 23rd street, you screwed up three to five bridges going into the District, lengthened the commute of many, many drivers, and caused a lot of extra exhaust to be spewed into in the air by autos idling in traffic. Great! Maybe wait until after rush hour next time.

Robert Thomson: Yes, that might have been counterproductive.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. G., Metro routinely claims that it keeps extra trains on hand for major events but, to be honest with you, I have yet to see these trains in action. For events at the Verizon Center, I routinely see 15-minute waits between trains and the platforms at Gallery Place and Metro Center become dangerously overcrowded. Have you ever looked into these claims to see if they are actually providing the level of service that they say they are providing?

Robert Thomson: Arlington, There's certainly been no announcement from Metro about any reduction in the number of trains available after events at Verizon. But I'm checking to see if there was any communication breakdown.


Bethesda, Md.: An important point was made in your reply to a person above, and I think it needs to be re-iterated:

The courteous thing to do is not always the right thing to do.

I commute down Georgetown Pike every morning, and it is a shining example of this. People try far too hard to be "courteous" and stop to let people in on the road. This act of being courteous to one person has now literally stopped hundreds of other people in their tracks. Multiply this over several intersections and thousands of drivers, and it's almost always a nightmare.

Robert Thomson: Yes, it's a tough call and you hate to discourage courtesy. It's more an issue of figuring out when you can give someone a break without doing any harm to other travelers. If you're stopped in traffic, it's certainly fair to wave in a driver entering from a side road or driveway, but halting the flow of traffic is another matter.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Doctor. I'd love to see a new Metro station built between Ballston and East Falls Church on the Orange Line. It seems like the stops between Rosslyn and Ballston on the Orange line are all about 0.5 to 0.75 miles apart. From Ballston to EFC is about 3 miles. A new station between the two seems like a no-brainer to me. How would I go about lobbying my county officials to think about such a Metro stop?

Robert Thomson: So far, New York Avenue Station is our only example of an in-fill station. It was built because the District wanted to encourage development north of Union Station. So I guess you'd have to sell Arlington on an argument that the expense of building the station and the delays -- extra delays -- that would result on the Orange Line would be justified because of a substantial benefit to the community.


Washington, D.C.: I have to say that I'm as surprised as I am excited that the 11th Street Bridge re-build project will include a FULL I-395/295 interchange. Why is this development not getting more publicity? In terms of driving through the region, the construction of this link is HUGE, maybe even more important than the ICC or HOT lanes.

Robert Thomson: I also think the D.C. plan to build three new bridges across the Anacostia to replace the two 11th Street Bridges is a huge development. Construction will start this summer. It's a benefit to long-distance commuters -- people trying to get between the Maryland suburbs and the Pentagon, for example -- and for very local travelers just trying to get from one D.C. neighborhood to another across the river. And it will take some of the commuter congestion out of local streets.

I'm planning to do a feature about it on an upcoming Commuter page (that's page 2 of the Sunday Metro section). Will try to show you more about what this is designed to do.

I did a Get There blog entry about the project.


Robert Thomson: There are so many good questions and comments in the mailbag that we've gone for an unusually long time today, but I must break away now. You've given me some ideas for questions I should address this week on my Get There blog. Also, if you've got thoughts or questions you'd like to see addressed in my Dr. Gridlock column in the newspaper, write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com. (And as always, feel free to post comments on the Get There blog.)

Till we can chat again next Monday, stay safe out there.


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.


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