Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 11, 2009 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, May 11 at noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. Just got back from an event on Brentwood Road NE where Mayor Fenty announced completion of the District's safety plan for pedestrians. We've got plenty of questions in the mailbag on safety, traffic and transit, Keep them coming.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, perhaps you can help me understand this situation at the Judiciary Square station. It appears that the overwhelming majority of people using this station in the morning are exiting the Metro, and in the evening the overwhelming majority of people using the station are entering the Metro. Lately, about once a week, one of the escalators is turned off. The one that is running is running in the opposite direction of the majority of the people using the station. Why would the escalator not be running in the direction the vast majority of the people using the station are going?

Robert Thomson: Is this the F Street exit? The one by the National Building Museum? The exits at Judiciary Square are pretty far apart, so I can understand the frustration about not finding a working one going in your direction. Generally, if one of them is working, it should be going in the up direction, since it's somewhat easier to walk down than to walk up. I say "somewhat" because the escalators weren't really meant for walking in either direction.


Washington, D.C.: Now that we have passed the latest Metro budget crisis, will there be any sort of outside (of Metro) review of the budget and budgeting decisions? Obviously, the Metro Board cannot handle this function because they seem responsible for some of the bad decisions (e.g., for years voting to keep the expensive, dangerous station tiles instead of moving towards cheaper, safer ones). The Post's coverage of transit issues is lacking, often seeming to just be a mouthpiece for Metro. Could the area municipalities appoint an inspector general for Metro?

Robert Thomson: Metro does have an inspector general, Helen Lew. You can review the inspector general's reports on this page.

The federal legislation that would give Metro more money also would require a federal presence on the board of directors.

Lena H. Sun covers Metro very aggressively for The Post and riders are well served by her work.


Alexandria, Va.: Will the HOV lanes on I-395 be affected by the 14th St. bridge paving project? Can't tell by the articles and diagrams.

Robert Thomson: No. The HOV lanes aren't affected by this project. Neither are the southbound lanes. That's why we've kept them out of the graphics. Those diagrams showing the various lane changes on the northbound bridge over the next year are complicated enough and I hope people can follow them. We put them on our Commuter Page in The Post on Sunday and you can see them online as well.


Alexandria, Va.: Continuing last week's discussion about eating on Metro. Do you think it would help for Metro to post the amount of the fines for getting caught eating? That might at least scare some tourists. I'm convinced the locals are a lost cause; I've seen several people take out a carry-out container and a fork and begin eating.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I think making the fines more visible is a good idea. When I was at the D.C. pedestrian safety event this morning, George Branyan, the city's pedestrian program coordinator was mentioning that the District is going to be adding signs that include the $250 fine for failing to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

Metro is doing a bit of this through announcements like this one: "You wouldn't pay $25 for a candy bar or $100 for a hamburger, would you? I wouldn't either, but if you get caught eating these on Metro, you just might. Eating and drinking anywhere in the Metro system is against the law. Follow the lead of the majority of our riders by not eating or drinking in our system."

Is that too friendly?


Centerville, Va.: I have noticed during my commute on I-66 more wonderful drivers traveling at the speed limit or just a little above in the HOV lane or in the left lane. They refuse to move over when signaled as required by Virginia law. Now they have the space to move over safely but refuse to do so and create problems for other drivers. Along with violating the law that says you must move over when signaled they can also be charged with Class 1 misdemeanors such as Reckless Driving and Aggressive Driving. Please just move over. I would hate to have to tap you rear quarter panel and force you over. And no I don't leave marks.

Robert Thomson: There's no law in Virginia that says a driver has to move out of the HOV lane for a speeder.


Arlington, Va.: The problem with non-working Metro escalators is that the individual steps are not clearly marked (although some are marked at the edges with yellow paint) and that the tunnels are so dark that you can't always see where a step ends.

Robert Thomson: And the steps vary in width as you walk.


Washington, D.C.: I have started taking the new Navy Yard-Union Station Circulator route for my commute. In the morning it is wonderful, very few complaints. In the afternoons, I on average wait 20 minutes for a bus. Do you have any insight on why this route is so unreliable in the southbound direction? I also find it odd that there is no southbound Columbus Circle stop; going into Union Station can be pretty inconvenient.

Robert Thomson: I've taken that NY-Union Station Circulator several times, but always in the northbound direction, from New Jersey Ave at M Street up to Union Station, or from Pennsylvania Ave to Union Station. I don't take the first one, because I want to see how long it takes for the second one to arrive. And so far, it's been about 10 minutes.

I don't like the fact that the northern terminus is inside Union Station. Northbound, that's not a problem, because almost everyone gets off at Columbus Circle and just walks across Mass. Ave. into Union Station. Southbound, as you note, there's no stop there, and it's a pain to have to go inside the station to find the Circulator.

Would it work for you to use the stop on the northeast side of the Capitol grounds, on First Street, or is that too far?


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Gridlock, could you please answer my question? I have been submitting for the past couple of weeks and still do not have an answer to my question in regards to MetroBus. Are they exempt from certain road regulations? Every morning I turn off the 3rd Street tunnel onto New York Avenue west bound. There is a light right there with a right turn only lane coming off New Jersey Avenue, I think. It is clearly marked as 2 right turn only lines and they feed into the left turn lanes on New York Avenue to turn back into the 3rd Street tunnel. Every morning, a Metro Bus turns left from those lanes into my lanes of traffic, cutting off people and blocking lanes. It is a hazard, as no one expects a bus to turn left from a right turn only lane. If buses are exempt from certain traffic regulations, I will conduct myself with extreme caution whenever driving near them. I am concerned that this may cause an accident in this area with the heavy traffic and aggressive driving that goes on there. Thank you.

Robert Thomson: If you think a bus driver is misbehaving, get the bus's number off the back and call Metro at 202-637-1328 to complain. That does sound like a bad maneuver. Is there a bus stop nearby on the right and the driver is pulling away from that? I've seen cases where the placement of a bus stop forces a driver to make a maneuver across traffic that really shouldn't be done.


Wait, really?: What is Centerville talking about? How do you signal a driver to move over for you? That was definitely lacking in my driver's ed class! I'd love to know how to get slow cars in the left lane to move over, but have always operated under the belief that if they're going the speed limit, I have no legitimate basis for complaint.

Robert Thomson: You're right. If they're going the speed limit you have no legitimate basis for complaint. I wasn't advocating that people sit in the left lane. There is a law in Virginia that says -- under certain circumstances -- a driver must yield to a following driver flashing headlights. The law also says that a driver who is speeding has no claim to the right of way.


Centerville, Va.: Reading comprehension problems, Mr. Thomson. I never said HOV for a speeder, although it does apply there, too. When signaled, Virginia state law states the other driver must move over! Signaling can consist of flash of the high beams or other signal. It can also be considered Aggressive Driving if they don't move over.

Robert Thomson: Yes it can, under certain circumstances. As I said in the previous response, Va. law says a driver should yield to a following driver flashing headlights under certain circumstances. The following driver loses any claim to that privilege if the driver is going above the speed limit.


NY-Union Station Circulator: First Street would be fine. It seems odd that, southbound, your closest choices are the parking garage and the Supreme Court. I love the route, but I think it would get more riders if it was more reliable southbound. A few of my neighbors take the bus to work and the Metro home to avoid the 20 minute wait.

Robert Thomson: I have a feeling the southbound thing is more about getting the buses out of Union Station than anything else. The Circulator stops were relocated inside the station pending reconstruction of Columbus Circle, but I'd much rather have the buses out on the street, where the riders are.


Washington, D.C.: Last I heard, D.C.'s pedestrian plan involved blaming pedestrians and making pedestrians responsible for improving pedestrian safety, but with little being done (not claimed but actually done) to hold drivers accountable and to improve walk light times, crosswalk markings, etc. to improve pedestrian safety. Has that changed? I still see the District acting with a philosophy that seems to value drivers (often commuters) more than pedestrians (usually residents).

Robert Thomson: I think D.C. is among the region's leaders in trying to improve pedestrian safety. That said, there's plenty more every government, including DC, could do.

D.C. recently raised the fine for failing to stop for a ped in a crosswalk from $50 to $250. That's good, but that $50 fine was ridiculously low.

Even though Mayor Fenty released the final plan for improving pedestrian safety today, it's going to take many years to upgrade the streets and sidewalks so they conform to the plan. (I hear some of the federal stimulus money will go toward some extensive improvements of sidewalks, though.)


Bethesda, Md.: Grid, what is the purpose of the Metro system where some trains end at Grosvenor and some at Shady Grove?

Robert Thomson: And on the other side of the Red Line, some end at Silver Spring and some end at Glenmont. The idea is to push more trains back into the most crowded portion of the line. Many riders heading for the outer stations find this very annoying, because they have to get off, wait, and get back on.


Alexandria, Va.: The far right hand lane on Route One north leading to the ramp to cross the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge (outer loop/I95/495 west) has been blocked for several months (across from the Hampton Inn). It causes backups that were mostly cleared after they finished the Route One bridge over the Beltway.

All those years of construction hassle had been rewarded with some fairly clear sailing, but now it's like the bad old days.

Please find out when this small patch of work will be finished.


Robert Thomson: Okay. I don't recognize that one offhand, but will check.


Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: I am looking for an alternate route from Baltimore to Richmond. I sit in traffic on 95 below Washington for hours on Friday afternoons, from noon on. I was told to try 301. What do you think?

Robert Thomson: Yes, I'd try it, but it's not like you won't find traffic that way either. As you pass through Southern Maryland communities heading toward the Nice Bridge, you'll find plenty of stop lights. But as you note, Friday afternoons on I95 south of Washington are really difficult. There's a widening project going on there to add a fourth lane.


Washington, D.C.: Re: friendliness of no eating or drinking message on Metro: First, the message is friendly. Second, there are steakhouses in D.C. that sell Kobe beef burgers that cost $100. So a revised message might be, "You wouldn't pay $25 for a candy bar or a $100 for a fast-food burger, right?..."

Also, during what time of day were the citations and warnings issued by Metro transit police that you referred to in the 5/10/09 blog? I'm asking because I hardly ever see the Transit Police aboard the trains unless they're riding the rails to collect station monies at the end of every month, and they're armed with weapons. Here's a suggestion for Mr. Catoe: Get every big person who works behind those doors marked "Employees only" at stations trained, deputized and armed with citation pads to patrol the trains during the times when the eating and drinking happens. Then issue the citation in full view of the other passengers to let people know what happens when riders disobey the rules against eating and drinking aboard trains. This might be a better way to demonstrate Metro's intent to control this behavior than signs and train announcements.

Robert Thomson: I'm a frequent rider, and rarely see police aboard the trains. Metro has more than 400 officers. I wish there were more of them. They have to cover a huge system of trains and buses and stations and parking areas day and night, seven days a week. It's no wonder we don't see many of them.

Enforcing the eating and drinking laws is difficult. Usually, you want enforcement to be visible. (You want to see police enforcing the HOV rules, for example.) But do we really want to see police aboard trains making a huge deal out of enforcing the no-eating rules? "Hey you, is that a pretzel?" We like our cars on the quiet side.


Silver Spring, Md.: Re: Centerville, HOV and speeding. Thanks for another example of why I'm glad to bike to work. I'm consistently amused by the selective reading of the law; you have to get out of my way, even though I'm exceeding the speed limit, am following too close and I suggest that I have actually bumped cars out of the lane. Just fire a couple warning shots next time.

I've lived in all three jurisdictions and believe driving habits are pretty uniform across D.C., Maryland and Virginia; but reader feedback leaves no doubt that Virginians are most convinced of their high speed driving skills and they love to complain about Maryland and D.C.

By the way, traffic on the bike trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda was very light this morning with only a couple cyclists, 3 walkers, 3 runners and a dog on a leash.

Robert Thomson: I get complaints from bikers about slow walkers, and from walkers about speeding bikers.

I agree with you that goodness and badness are well distributed across the region, and I don't find any one category of traveler to be the resident evil.


Rockville, Md.: Sorry Dr. G., but I don't think one ticket a week for eating and drinking on Metro is anything near what should be required to adequately deal with this problem. Doesn't Metro have several hundred thousand riders a week? I routinely see people eating and drinking on my trips to and from work, roughly 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., many schoolchildren but adults as well. No, I don't want to arrest the kids, but some kind of visual presence and admonishment would go a long way.

Robert Thomson: Now, I do agree with that. It's not that I want to see improvement reflected in a growing number of citations issued. I'm hoping that a combination of education and enforcement (mainly having officers give oral warnings) will result in a decline in the frequent complaints about this from riders.


Eating and drinking on Metro: I was riding the Blue Line one day and noticed a woman discreetly breast-feeding her baby. I couldn't help but wonder whether she was doing something wrong or whether the baby was doing something wrong.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure Metro's rule-makers had that circumstance in mind.


Union Station, D.C.: There is a southbound Circulator stop from Union Station. It's located at the corner of Mass Ave and North Capitol, just few yards past the Capital City Brewery. I take it all the time.

Robert Thomson: I think that one's for the line that runs along Mass Ave. and K Street into Georgetown, isn't it? I know many people who arrive by train at Union Station will complete their commute by using that bus.


Bethesda, Md.: Could you please enlighten us by describing the certain circumstances that Virginia law says that a driver should yield to a following driver flashing headlights? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: If it's a multi-lane road and the following driver can't use another lane.


Let them eat cake: Why not just let people eat on the Metro? Sell items in the stations and then let it be legal to eat. Charge vendors a fee to pay for station and car cleaning.

Robert Thomson: We seem to have three us against them themes today, involving Metro eaters, drivers who want to go faster and pedestrians who want to cross streets.

On your question: Metro doesn't want the cars to be messier than they already are, and doesn't want to create a friendly environment for vermin. Riders overwhelmingly agree with that policy.


Washington, D.C.: Archives Metro Station has only one escalator to get arriving riders out of the station, no stair case. When the escalator is out of order, or, like now under construction, there is often a crowd of a few hundred riders trying to get out of the station on a single side of the one escalator (if two trains arrive at the same time). Any chance Metro is considering building a stair case?

Robert Thomson: Archives is tough, with that one exit, but I've not heard of any plans to expand the exit or add another one. That's an expensive project, and Metro -- as we just saw during budget season -- isn't rolling in dough.

Another station that needs a separate exit: Foggy Bottom.


Gotta love it: So, Centreville is violating the law (speeding) and then accusing the law-abiding drivers of violating the law. Centreville is driving aggressively by harassing and intimidating these other drivers and then accusing them of driving aggressively by obeying the law. Centreville is accusing Dr. Gridlock of not reading, when clearly Centreville has not read the Virginia driver's manual which for reference can be found online here.

Clearly Centreville believes that a good defense is a good offense.

Robert Thomson: Driving isn't a contact sport. People should be less offensive on the roads.


Arlington, Va.: "Friday afternoons on I95 south of Washington are really difficult. There's a widening project going on there to add a fourth lane."

Really?!?! This isn't part of the HOT efforts, is it? I'd be interested about the widening, because I-95 S from D.C. to Fredericksburg is absolutely a mess from noon on Friday on. Sunday afternoon the opposite direction is just as bad. As a result, details on any widening project would be appreciated!! I do notice that after the current HOV lanes end, the slow downs tend to be focused on the exits from Stafford to Fredericksburg (e.g., Exits 140, 136, 133, 130). Wonder why that is?

Robert Thomson: That widening project will add a fourth lane in each direction of I-95 for six miles between Route 123 and Fairfax County Parkway. That will be done in 2011. But if you're heading down to Fredericksburg on 95, you've still got a world of pain to get through.


Alternate Baltimore-Richmond route: I've never tried this, but Google Earth seems to think this route takes the same amount of time as going down 301 and across the Nice bridge (which I often use, but then it's easy for me since I live in the eastern Maryland suburbs).

Take I-95 to the Capitol Beltway. Get off at I-66 and take that out to Gaineville, then get on US-15 South to US-17 South which will take you back to I-95 near Fredericksburg. By then, you will be outside the regular D.C. traffic for a Friday night.

I have recommended that one to drivers who start from farther west than our Baltimore commenters. The feedback I get on that one is mixed, though -- at least in terms of total travel time. Sometimes, it's good just to break up the monotony of a drive you do over and over and over again in heavy traffic.


Eeeeastern, SHO: Westbound 50 on Kent Island has signs "Bay Bridge? 50 is swiftiest" and "Bridge Bound, Use Route 50". What's the point of the signs? As far as I'm aware, Route 50 is the only access to the bridge.

Robert Thomson: I think some people take little scenic tours of Route 18 as they're approaching the bridge. I don't believe that really saves any time.


Speeding Drivers: Why can't a slower driver move right, though? I don't care if the person is speeding; it's not my duty to enforce the speed limit. It is my duty, however, to not encourage road rage and to simply move out of the way. I hate all these passive-aggressive types who think that just because they're legally right, they can't be polite.

Robert Thomson: I agree, and have never endorsed that self-deputizing instinct that some drivers display when they travel in the left lane.

What I'm trying to point out in responding to some questions today is that there's no right to speed in any lane.


Silver Spring, Md.: Me again. Oh boy, cyclists are the worst. On my bike commutes I have had some differences of opinion of cars but the only time I'm been hit was by a bad cyclist. They blow through stop signs, ignore one-way signs, go too fast around foot traffic and pretty much never signal. I'm an old guy, so I do my best to follow all the rules and set a good example.

Bike to work day is May 15.

Robert Thomson: Bike to Work Day, Friday, is an annual opportunity for everyone to practice patience.


Annapolis, Md.: As with so many other vigilantes, the problem with telling left lane sitters that they only have to move over in certain circumstances is that they often don't know, or care, if those circumstances pertain. If I am behind a truck with a shifting load, or a car with a mattress on the roof, I might like to pass, so that I can leave the hazard behind. The person blocking the left lane may not have noticed what I am trying to avoid, and can't read my mind, so sees no reason why he should move over.

It should simply be required that the left lane is for passing, not traveling. That way we all know what to do, and the traffic police can help by enforcing the rule (as they do in N.J.).

Robert Thomson: I think it would be difficult to use a passing-only rule in the immediate metro area, where we have many -- too many -- left-side entrances and exits. That's not a problem on the N.J. Turnpike, where such a rule is fine.


Bristow, Va.: The Rt 28 to Rt 17 to 95 route is less painful than getting on 95 at 234 as it moves up until you get to about 4 miles from 95 where it becomes stop and go the rest of the way with all of the strip centers and lights. Once on 95 it moves fairly smoothly as Fredericksburg is only 3 miles up. When heading South in the afternoon or weekend I always choose this route as 95 is terrible.

Robert Thomson: Thanks, Bristow. We start to talk more about such issues each year as the weather warms up and many people plan their vacation travels.


Washington, D.C.: I'm all for improving pedestrian safety, but when it's enforced through the use of entrapment, I can not support it. Too often I've seen officers attempting to enforce the updated pedestrian safety laws in ways that are unscrupulous, and just set up drivers to fail. I saw three cars in a row get pulled over because a plain-clothes officer took one step passed a parked car in a mid-block crosswalk, and the cars did not stop because the "pedestrian" was not completely visible because of the parked car.

There still needs to be some common sense in the laws that place some burden on the pedestrian to look both ways before crossing the street to make sure it's clear, and not allow peds to assume crosswalks are some special no-driving zone just because there are a pair of feet between a pair of white lines.

Robert Thomson: I think in all our local jurisdictions the rules put some responsibility on pedestrians not to step out into traffic that couldn't possibly stop in time for them.

Even pedestrian safety advocates point out to me the difference between a good ticket and a bad ticket for both drivers and walkers. There are plenty of really legitimate violations that officers can target. No need to write a ticket just because it's easy.


For Centreville: Okay, to debunk Centreville's arguments, these are direct quotes from the VA driver's manual:

Pg 26: When passing another vehicle...it is against the law to exceed the speed limit as you pass.

Pg 29: Aggressive Driving. This dangerous driving behavior is defined by Virginia law as the intent to harass, intimidate, injure or obstruct another person while committing one or more traffic offenses.

Pg 32: Rules of the Road. Speed limits -- A speed limit is the maximum legal speed you can travel on a road under ideal conditions. You may drive slower than the posted speed, but it is illegal to drive any faster.

There is no language in the entire manual about signaling to other vehicles to move out of the way.

Robert Thomson: Thanks for looking that up.

I know there is language in the Virginia Code about the flashing lights thing, but those who cite it are often not reading the other provisions.

Basically, I think the issue shouldn't come up as often as it does. Slower drivers should stay right. People shouldn't speed or otherwise drive unsafely.

How hard can this be?


Robert Thomson: Well, I've way exceeded my time limit and appreciate my producer's indulgence on this. And thanks to all of you for sticking with me. It's always a great pleasure to exchange views. I'll be off next Monday, but will be back with you again in two weeks. Stay safe.


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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