Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues

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Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009; 12:00 PM

Lena Sun covers transportation and transit issues for The Washington Post. She was online Monday, May 18 at noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.

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Lena Sun: Hello folks. Sorry we're a little late getting started. There was also some internal confusion about whether we would have a chat today. The esteemed doctor is NOT in today, so you will have to settle for me as a substitute. And let me say up front that I'm not much of an expert on all those road-related questions. Save those for Gridlock when he gets back.

But if you want to talk about whether Metro should allow retail outlets to sell food and drink (to go), something they're going to discuss again, feel free to express your opinions.

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D.C. to Gaithersburg: I know this is early and will be considered "politically incorrect" but I had a terrible commute yesterday on MARC. United and several other airlines have recently started charging obese passengers for two seats. Yesterday at Silver Spring an obese woman sat not next to me, but ON me on the MARC train. I tried shifting away, but on the inside in a two seat bench, I was crushed. She was, in all honesty, sitting on my leg. No "excuse me". No apologies.

We have a quiet car, can we get a "fat" car? The conductor looked at me pitifully but didn't say anything, and I didn't want to get up and move one seat forward. What does one do in that situation? Can MARC at least charge her for two seats?

Lena Sun: Sometimes this happens to me and the other person is not necessarily obese, but sits in a very inconsiderate way.

So let's take this to the next step. How would you have the transit agency define who was obese and who was not? Measure them to see if they fit within the confines of the seat, like luggage?

You said there was a seat in front of you. Wouldn't that have been the easier, short-term solution?

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Washington, D.C.: Lena, I was on a Red Line train last week that over-shot the platform at Van Ness. I was in the first car, and we were not able to exit the train because our car was in the tunnel. The driver made no announcement of any sort, except to apologize for any delays when we got to Tenleytown-AU. Here's what was written in Metro's disruption report for that day:

"5:32 p.m. A Red Line train at Van Ness-UDC in the direction of Shady Grove overran the platform but was able to service the station."

This does not indicate that those of us in the first car who wanted to get off at Van Ness (which includes me) had to exit at Tenleytown and then ride back. Some sugarcoating, eh? Anyway, does Metro penalize the drivers who off-shoot the platforms in any way? I have to assume that the driver is being inattentive when stopping. Do you know what happens? Thank you.

Lena Sun: The information they include in the service disruptions has been vastly reduced from what they used to do. That being said, they hardly ever include information about what happens to passengers unless you have to be "off-loaded" from the train.

And yes, there are major penalties for train operators who overrun the platforms. Typically, it's the last car that gets stuck in the tunnel because the operator has forgotten that they are operating an 8-car train rather than a 6-car train.

I am asking for information about this one and will post it if I get answers in the next 30 minutes.

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Washington, D.C.: As an Arlington, Virginia resident (Virginia Square) who takes the metro every day I just have one thing to say: who is Metro and the general public kidding to think that they will be able to handle the Silver Line? Hardly a week goes by without at least two delays during rush hour now. And we are going to add more lines?

Why not fix what we have first?

Who in their right mind is going to take Metro from Metro Center to Dulles when that will take at least an hour? Sure, once for the novelty, but after that?

Also, and this is the dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about: Blue Line trains are going to re-routed to make room for the additional Silver Line trains going through the Rosslyn tunnel? But yet, we won't hear about this?

Lena Sun: You are one of the folks who rides the Orange Crush. My deepest sympathies. I had some interviews out that way during rush hour last week and all it took was one mechanical problem -- when too many people jammed into the train and messed up the doors, for hundreds of people to be left standing on the Courthouse platform.

Even though the problem train was removed fairly quickly, that compounded the crowding so another five trains rolled by before I was able to get on.

And yes, they will have to re-route the Blue Line to alleviate congestion at the Rosslyn tunnel. That discussion got put off earlier this year because the same guy at Metro who does that kind of planning was tied up with inauguration and then all the proposed Metrobus service cuts (which were subsequently pulled back).

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Obese passengers: This is one reason I always try to grab an aisle seat on Metro (next to someone), rather than taking the window seat in an empty row. As a very small woman, I find that the large people (including big and tall, if not overweight) tend to look for the smaller people to sit next to -- which makes sense from their perspective, of course, but isn't so much fun for me! This way, I get to choose my "seat companion."

Lena Sun: That's a strategy. We don't want to be mean-spirited here. Just looking for practical solutions.

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The conductor looked at me pitifully but didn't say anything, and I didn't want to get up and move one seat forward. What does one do in that situation?: Just move to another seat. If there's one available, I don't see the problem. Are you worried about offending her right there in person? Because you shouldn't be if you don't see any problem with charging obese people extra.

Lena Sun: That's what I thought as well. If there is a seat available and you are uncomfortable, moving would be the solution.

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Priority seats: Thanks for explaining why I heard multiple priority seat reminders on Metro this morning! But one thing they don't make clear is that you need to relinquish the seat for elderly/handicapped/others who need it, but that doesn't mean you can't sit in the seat when the car is half-empty -- I've always assumed this is the case. Is that right? There were a few people who looked sort of uncomfortable, sitting in priority seats this morning, when the announcement was made -- but again, there were plenty of empty seats.

Lena Sun: I heard the announcement too. I think the point of the priority seating is to alert people who choose to sit there and who don't NEED the seats that they need to be aware of others who do. And when they see them, they should offer the seats to them.

Obviously, if the car is half-empty, then it's okay to sit there. But folks who sit there need to be aware of who might need the seats.

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Dupont Circle: Last Thursday evening about 4:20 p.m., Metro was running back to back trains on the Red Line going to Grosvenor. The next Shady Grove was 10 minutes after the second Grosvenor. The result was a number of us had to run for the MARC train. Isn't Metro supposedly alternating those Grosvenor and Shady Grove trains?

Lena Sun: During morning and evening rush hour, every other outbound Red Line train is supposed to go to Grosvenor and then turn around to head back downtown. It's possible there was some kind of delay or problem in the downtown direction and they needed to get extra trains down there. That's often what happens.

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Not so slim, D.C.: I think you are being cavalier about the writer who only got half a seat. I have all the sympathy in the world for the heavy people -- I struggle with my weight myself, and no one would say I'm slim (but I do easily fit within one seat). I just flew home yesterday with the woman next to me taking half of my seat. What got me was that while I spent the whole trip trying to cling to the window so that our bodies were not pressed together, she did not make any effort to lean toward the aisle, cross her legs, etc.

So yes, those who are "smaller" should show empathy and move if they can. But those who are "larger" should as well -- why didn't the woman sitting next to our poster move to the empty seat??

Lena Sun: I agree with you.

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Recent D.C. Visitor...: I recently visited D.C. and as I am a big transit advocate, I was pleased to learn that it is now possible to take various transit connections from D.C. all the way to Lancaster, Pa. and even New York as well! This involves never getting on Greyhound but different mass transit connections. Both take very long times but it is interesting and fun if you have time.

If anyone is interested, here's how:

Lancaster: Take MARC to BWI. Then take the light rail to Hunt Valley. Take Rabbit Transit to the York Transit Center to connect with another bus to York Mall where you connect with another bus (Red Rose Transit) to Lancaster.

New York: Take MARC to Perryville. Take Cecil Transit to Elkton where you connect with another bus to People's Plaza in Delaware. Take Delaware Transit to Wilmington where you connect with SEPTA to the Market East station in Philadelphia. Walk a block down to Greyhound where you can catch the NJ Transit bus #317 to Lakewood where you connect with the NJ Transit bus #139 to New York.

Both fares would be no more than about $20.

Lena Sun: Wow. I have to say that I've never done that, but in case any of our chatters are interested, I'm posting here.

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Priority Seating: It's tough to know when to offer your seat. I have offered my seat to a pregnant woman but only when I'm 100% certain she is pregnant. I have offended an elderly gentleman by offering my seat -- maybe because he's old school and I'm a lady. I guess awareness is key. Like many riders, I usually keep my head down without looking at other passengers. The other day, people around me turned red with embarrassment when they failed to notice a pregnant woman standing and offer their seats.

Lena Sun: You hit on it. Awareness. I've noticed that people seldom look up once they get a seat and get busy with their Blackberries or their music or their reading material, especially during rush hour.

I think people who need seats should be less shy about asking for them because disabilities aren't always obvious. And at the same time, I think people should go ahead and offer seats, as a gesture of courtesy.

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But those who are "larger" should as well -- why didn't the woman sitting next to our poster move to the empty seat??: Of course the obese person could have moved, I have little sympathy for someone who will suffer through a ride and then complain about it, when they could just move themselves.

Lena Sun: Lots of people weighing in to say that the person should have moved to the empty seat.

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Courthouse: About 2 weeks ago I was off-loaded 3 times in a 10-day period. On one occasion the train was not that full yet the operator insisted that he/she could not get the doors closed. Other times the train got packed because the Orange Line was running more than 6 minutes apart at rush hour. What gives? Did they cut trains? Is that door-open pinpointing technology coming soon?

Lena Sun: No, they haven't cut the number of trains. And many of the problematic doors on the series of rail car that have the most problems have been replaced. As you know, all it takes is for one service disruption to back things up very quickly, and that may have been the case when you were off-loaded recently.

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Kudos: I just want to thank the train driver I had yesterday. I was coming back from Eastern Market to Pentagon on the Blue Line (around 11:45) and the driver was wonderful. He made frequent announcements, in a humorous but not mean way, about not crowding the doors and the upcoming stations. At one point he gave a quick math lesson to all the graduates getting on the train (# of cars x # of doors = there are plenty of ways to get on the train).

So, thank you to the Blue train driver who made an otherwise forgettable trip enjoyable. I don't get see that happen very often.

Lena Sun: Thanks for that. I think there are a number of operators who really do try, and when you get a good one, people notice.

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re: Awareness: It's not difficult to be aware. If I'm sitting in one of those seats, I look up every time the train stops to see if anyone getting on needs a seat. Same as on the bus if I'm sitting in one of the first seats. Sometimes I'm wearing my iPod, and sometimes I'm reading. Either way, you can make a point to look around at each stop.

Lena Sun: I've heard that people on the bus are better about giving up their seats to folks who need it. True?

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Passive aggressive: When did we all lose the ability to speak? A lot of the problems we're hearing about regarding seating could probably be handled with a quick, polite, "Excuse me, do you mind moving over a little?" It's not that hard.

Lena Sun: I totally agree. I think passengers are very good about cutting through the anonymity and making eye contact when an emergency occurs. But not so much during other times.

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Washington, D.C.: I ride the Red Line from toward Glenmont in the morning, opposite in the evening. This morning my train had some type of tile or linoleum on the floors. Is this a trial run or is Metro changing over? My only comment: it was dry this morning and I slid a bit, only reason I noticed the change from carpet. I ride in Boston all the time, so I know non-carpet can work, but a warning would have been nice.

Lena Sun: Metro has been talking about taking out the carpet and replacing it with nonskid flooring for at least two years now. And we've written about it on a fairly regular basis. The chief guy in charge of rail is trying to decide what is the best type of flooring and what is the best price he can get.

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MARC Again: Because I was on the inside and didn't want to move to the seat directly in front of her implying something rude. I just tried to make myself as small as possible and bear it. And why SHE didn't move, is beyond me. Uncomfortable bordering on intentional.

Lena Sun: Okay.

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Transit Travel: You can go further than New York...last year there was a group that apparently did it from Fredericksburg to Portland, Maine.

Lena Sun: Thanks for that info.

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Maryland Outerburbs: Why are Metro buses sent downtown to clog up traffic? Why not use them to feed the non-downtown subway stations instead?

Lena Sun: Not sure what you mean by this question. There are lots of Metrobus routes that take people from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs into downtown D.C. That's the route.

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My offloading pet peeve: Every time they offload a train I'm on, they tell me to go to the opposite platform to catch my train, as we are now single tracking. Then as soon as I get over there, they tell me to go back to my original platform as the problem has been fixed. Next time, I'm staying put.

Lena Sun: That might not be such a wise choice. It all depends on how quickly they can get the problem resolved.

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Arlington, Va.: Why oh why wasn't Metro running 8 car trains on Orange line this weekend? With Nats double headers, chili cook off, and 10K runs, it was crush level all weekend long! I understand they had track maintenance at West Falls Church but when you run less trains they need to be bigger. Booo Metro!

Lena Sun: I just checked with Metro. They had 8 extra 8-car trains on hand for the Nationals games and one extra 6-car train on hand for the chili cook off. Not clear whether they ran all the trains, but good bet that they ran at least some of them.

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RE: When did we all lose the ability to speak?: I agree, although the number of times I've been yelled at or spoken to snidely makes me not want to unless I feel it's really necessary. Most of the time if someone is annoying me, or making my ride unpleasant, I'll just get up and move even if it means standing.

One time a woman on the bus yelled at me because I looked down as I was positioning myself standing on the bus. All I was doing was trying not to step on the feet of those seated. I wasn't making some passive aggressive statement by looking down. She yelled " I can't move my feet anywhere else!" Why would I have expected her to move her feet elsewhere? I just didn't want to step on her, so I looked down as I was getting into a comfy standing position.

Lena Sun: I think I agree with one of the earlier posters that if possible, to offer a simple and direct but POLITE comment or request.

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I've heard that people on the bus are better about giving up their seats to folks who need it. True?: In my many years of bus riding, I don't think it's better on the bus. I have seen an elderly man stand, a woman on crutches, and a woman with a cane. I was towards the back in a crowd, so I couldn't offer a seat. But I would watch and could see nobody was offering. The people in the seats were often twenty somethings wearing an iPod and chewing gum, totally oblivious to the person needing a seat. Perhaps I should have yelled something up to the front. But what I really think is that the bus driver should say something.

Lena Sun: So you think it's the driver's job to enforce good manners on the bus?

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re: overshoots: In a situation where a Metro train operator over- or under-shoots a platform, can passengers in the car that is in the tunnel exit via the door on the end of the car that leads to the attached car? I know these are reserved for emergencies but the alternative (going to the next stop, getting back on in the opposite direction) could take 45+ minutes if not during rush hour.

Lena Sun: Yes.

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People leaning near doors: What's with people who stake out that spot near the doors, leaning on the glass panel? First, they board the train and immediately stop to claim their leaning spot, which prevents those of us behind them from boarding smoothly. Then they don't move to let passengers out at subsequent stops. I know there's room to leave the train, but it's a lot faster when people can enter and exit two-at-a-time. This behavior isn't flagrantly rude -- so do you think it's out of place to say something? I hate confronting people and then riding next to them.

Lena Sun: I don't think it's out of place. When I see people trying to cram on to the train, and their stuff is keeping the doors from closing, I often tell them that they could cause the doors to jam, which means the train will be taken out of service and they will have to wait even longer.

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metro priority seats: Metro says these are for the use of senior citizens and disabled persons.

How old is their definition of senior citizen?

Lena Sun: it's probably the federal definition, but if someone needs a seat because of bad arthritis or because they're not feeling well, I think it's common courtesy to let them have the seat.

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So you think it's the driver's job to enforce good manners on the bus? : That's a very general statement. I think it's the driver's job to remind the people in the very front seats that they should let an elderly person sit. When an elderly person is clinging onto the pole right next to the driver, and the people in the seats are pretending not to notice, I don't see why the drivers don't say something. I've seen a bus driver do it once or twice and got the people's attention. I'm not going to say the elderly person can't speak for himself, but it was nice the driver did it for them.

Lena Sun: Agreed.

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Driver enforcing good manners: Couldn't the bus driver make the same type of priority seating reminders that were on the Metro this morning?? How is that any different?

And I agree, people can react VERY, VERY badly to even polite statements and requests, so be careful what you say to ANYONE.

Lena Sun: Yes, good point.

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Washington, D.C.: I work at the Old Post Office Pavilion at 12th and Pennsylvania NW -- EVERY day DOZENS of chartered tour buses park in front of, discharge, wait for and then pick up their passengers who go into the Pavilion's Food Court to eat. The exhaust fumes from these buses are overpowering -- especially on the hot and humid D.C. days. This goes on CONSTANTLY, from April to the end of the summer, without any respite.

The tour buses create a GREAT deal of exhaust pollution, which gets sucked into the ventilation system of the Old Post Office -- people WORK in that building all day! Why should they breathe that?! Then in the evening, the tour buses that are still parked and idling at the 12th Street side AND the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the Old Post Office Pavilion are still discharging their polluting stench into the (sometimes very hot and humid) air. What does this do for D.C.'s already polluted air, but make it WORSE!?

I believe there is a fine for doing this-- but I have never seen it enforced; I have NEVER seen any of these buses get a summons, and my emails to the D.C. City Council have never been answered.

Can't those tour buses park somewhere else?? (With their engines OFF!)

Lena Sun: This is the last question because I just realized what time it was. I was hoping someone from the city would get back to me, but they haven't. So I'm going to post and hope they read it.

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I think I agree with one of the earlier posters that if possible, to offer a simple and direct but POLITE comment or request.: The times I've been yelled at, I was being polite. Lena, there are some crazy people out there. People who are going to take offense no matter how you ask. If someone is doing something unintentionally and didn't know their briefcase was hitting your knee, for example, they will be polite in return. But it's amazing how many people will not. When I get a feeling that the person is totally aware they are being rude, I assume they will not respond to a polite request since they seem to have the attitude that the world is theirs.

Lena Sun: Yes, it's the attitude that the world is theirs that seems to drive everything. Can you email me offline at sunl@washpost.com?

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Lena Sun: Folks, that's all for today. I'm sorry I didn't get to the questions that involved intra-office wagers. I'm hoping the ever-knowledgeable Dr. Gridlock will be back next week. In the meantime, stay calm and cool on your commutes. Have a great week. At least the forecast is not calling for rain for the next few days.

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