Dr. Gridlock: Metro snarls, traffic gridlock and holiday travel

Robert Thomson
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 16, 2009; 12:00 PM

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, Nov. 16 to discuss Metro's ongoing problems, take a look at upcoming holiday travel and diagnose all of 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 Local Living section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to drgridlock@washpost.com or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Dr. Gridlock also hosts his own discussion group, Taken for a Ride, where he tries to help ease your travel pains.


Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers. Thanks for joining me for our weekly chat. We discuss all issues regarding your local travelers, whether you're driving, taking transit, walking or biking. Send in a question, or just vent.


Silver Spring, Md.: What are the rules about baby strollers on the Metro? I thought they had to be folded. I almost missed getting off at Metro Center last week because someone was blocking the door with stroller. The door chimes were ringing before everybody could get off and of course people could not get on.

Robert Thomson: Strollers are okay on Metro. (Wouldn't it defeat the purpose if they were folded? At a minimum, that would be pretty painful for the kids.) But I absolutely understand your concern. Some of these things are the SUVs of the sidewalk. On a rush hour train, they can mow people down, cutting their legs out from under them.

I notice more and more complaints are coming in about travelers with either strollers or luggage. But this one seems hard to regulate. Are there any restrictions that would be reasonable and enforceable?


Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question last week about DC's plans for streetcars.

Your answer was that DC is planning a system to serve DC residents and presumably the same answer would apply about the purple line in Montgomery County.

But that just makes absolutely no sense - our household is, I suspect, like many households in this region in that we are in 2 jurisdictions almost every day.

Planning transit as if residents strictly stay within their own jurisdiction is not going to end up serving those residents very well.

But more importantly it is going to cost each system (and Metrorail) riders and thus make public transit less economically viable in this region.

Also you answered that Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues have metrorail now but that is only partly true. Lower Connecticut and Upper Wisconsin Avenues have metrorail service but Upper Connecticut and lower Wisconsin do not.

But both corridors are very densely developed from downtown DC into central Montgomery County and have the traffic and parking problems that go with that development - and we also know from current Red Line ridership numbers that people in these corridors will use good public transit.

Anyhow our transportation problems are regional not local and it is time for DC, MD and VA to work together on these solutions and I hope you will advocate for the same.

Robert Thomson: I appreciate your enthusiasm for the streetcars, and your point about people not ending their trips where some particular jurisdiction ends is completely valid. Our problems getting around are regional, as you note, and I do worry about the possibility that we'll end up with a bunch of local transit services that are less efficient than one big regional one.

Specifically about the DC plan, there may well be an opportunity to eventually link the DC streetcar line to the Silver Spring transit center. But do consider these issues:

The District, or any other jurisdiction considering a new transit line, needs to find the money. The source of financing is still an open question on the DC project. So the District Department of Transportation will have to choose its targets carefully. It will have to be quite sure that the new lines will be placed where lots of people will actually choose to ride them. They'll also have to be placed where DC gets the most bang for the buck. (In other words, where they'll encourage the most community development -- maybe even some private contributions to cover construction costs.)

I don't see how the District could justify spending a lot of money just to ease congestion on a Metro train or bus line. That could be one of the goals, but not the principal goal.

That's what they'll have to think of concerning Conn and Wisc. Will enough people in that corridor actually ride a streetcar? Will it simply draw riders from the Red Line and Metrobus? Would another solution, like new Circulator lines, do the job at a lower cost? Is there any economic development that needs to be encouraged in that part of DC?


Washington, D.C.: Last week wasn't a good week for Metro. Then again, it hasn't been a good month for Metro either. Or even a good year thanks to the dynamic investigative reporting by your colleagues at The Post. When do we get some personal accountability at the top? Isn't it about time for a thorough housecleaning and selection of a totally new leadership based on region-blind, patronage-blind, party-blind, politically-blind, and color-blind criteria?

Robert Thomson: That sounds swell, but I'm not sure we -- as a community -- are going to be able to meet your criteria, this side of Heaven.

For example, if you swept aside Metro's leadership, who would you get and how would you choose them?

"Accountability" doesn't equal "firing everybody every time we figure out that something's screwed up." It may produce a momentary satisfaction, but how is it going to help us get where we're going safely and on time?

Saying that is not the same as saying, everything's cool. Everything is not cool.

As you quite rightly noted, my colleagues Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens have done a service to the region with their stories exploring various transit safety issues in the wake of the Red Line crash.

They've got the attention of the federal government, which needs to step in to oversee safety issues on Metro and the nation's other urban transit systems. That Metro was refusing to allow the regional panel charged with monitoring safety to do its job is stunningly bad.


Washington, D.C.: Hi there Dr. Grid-- I was checking to see if there was any news on the 15th street change and sure enough there is and it's a mess. Please take a look at this--it is completely unsafe and someone is going to get hurt and sue the city.

First of all, 15th street was the only quick way to get though the city with convenient timed lights and a one way from K to U streets. Second, the new bike lane is already chock full of leaves making it difficult to pass through. Third, drivers now face a sidewalk, a bike lane, a standing row of cars and then traffic. It's a joke and is unsafe. Mind you, there are already bike lanes on 14th street (which I use). Thanks and please raise this up the flagpole. I'm calling DDOT now.

Robert Thomson: Hey, I'm all over this one. Walked the bike lane route on Friday -- in the rain. Check out the posting I did on Get There this morning, and also from my Sunday column.

It was a mess last week. One cyclist called it an acorn minefield. But this new protected bike lane, designed for southbound bikers on what is otherwise a one-way northbound street, is still a work in progress. All we know so far is that a bike lane doesn't look its best in a nor'easter.

I have plenty of reason to like a quick car trip on 15th. If I'm working at The Post newsroom at 15th and L, that's my homebound commuter route. But there's still plenty of capacity on 15th, with the three remaining through lanes. If traffic on 15th does slow down a little because of the new bike lane, that's not terrible. It might make the street safer for those who live in those neighborhoods. (And those neighborhoods, by the way, have the greatest concentration of bikers in the city, according to DDOT.)

That said, you can't just set up an experiment and leave it. The lane has to be cleaned and parking rules have to be enforced. Also, the use of the lane has to be monitored. This experiment could work elsewhere, or it could need to be tweaked to improve the execution.


Alexandria, Va.: I just wanted to send a big raspberry to VDOT for last weeks water-main break near Falls Church. Using an alternate route for 495 is not a really helpful suggestion. Also, it seemed like none of the local news stations had updates after it happened, which was annoying.

Robert Thomson: I'm not sure what VDOT could have done to prevent the water main break that vexed thousands of drivers last week -- during what was generally an unpleasant week for commuters.

My colleagues, Ashley Halsey III and Mark Berman, did quite a few advisories and updates here on washingtonpost.com.

All of us in the local communications biz and in the transportation agencies should focus more attention on getting information to travelers in a timely fashion. We can't build too many new roads or rail lines, so getting out information about current conditions and letting travelers know their options will become more and more important.

About alternatives: This is always problematic to me. There are driving alternatives to our main commuter routes, such as the Beltway. But they crowd up quickly when they have to take that kind of volume, and I worry about sending people onto routes they are not familiar with.


@ Streetcars in Md.: Perhaps Silver Spring questioner can urge Montgomery County and Maryland to be a little more enthusiastic on funding public transportation? Metro doesn't have dedicated sources of funding and that's part of the problem. The streetcar plan is a -- DC -- plan. If he/she has a complaint, then they should take it up with their own local officials.

Robert Thomson: Yes, I think all the local jurisdictions need to step up on funding for Metro and for other transit systems, such as the Purple Line. The feds, too. The federal funding formula to support transit lines is way too restrictive.


Springfield, Va.: I hope you can help me witht his problem.

When I go to Washington Post Taffic, I do not see any of the cameras in Prince Georges County. However, the WTOP traffic sight does show the PG County cameras.

I would prefer using the Washington Post so can you tell me how to view the Prince George's county traffic cameras?

Robert Thomson: Generally speaking, I think there aren't enough traffic cameras on the eastern side of the region. But specifically, you make a good point about our camera map at www.washingtonpost.com/traffic. Even the few that I know of along the Beltway in Prince George's don't show up on our map. I'll ask about that.


Accountability: So at what point would your faith in Metro leadership be undermined? Accidents, obstruction, revelations that this has been a problem for the entire length of Catoe's tenure isn't enough...what is?

Why can't we, the riders, elect the board and have them be accountable to us? We're paying the fares but we have no voice and no control.

Robert Thomson: The transit authority -- any authority -- is insulated from popular control. I like the idea of having a regional vote to elect the Metro board. But consider that most voters would be people who don't use Metro. Do you think they would support candidates who want to increase public spending on transit?

On "faith in Metro leadership": Is my statement that I don't believe it will help us to replace the entire leadership in Metro the same as saying I have complete faith in Metro leadership? Also, do you really think the problems with Metro that we all see started when John Catoe arrived here? Do you really think they would be solved by replacing the general manager?


Alexandria, Va.: While I acknowledge the Federal Government's right to supervising subway systems, and may even applaud it, the problem with D.C. Metro is that it needs the government's money, not just it's oversight. Metro has had a horrid year, but a repeat performance could be avoided if Metro had money. At least, I hope so ...

Robert Thomson: I think more money is definitely part of the solution. The stuff that makes up Metro is starting to break down and needs to be replaced -- pretty quickly. But not every problem Metro is having can be solved just by giving Metro more money. For example -- and it's just one example -- Metro could do a lot better communicating with riders during disruptions. That's not a huge investment.


Washington, D.C.: Good morning, thank you for your coverage of Metro's changing policies with regards to Commuter Benefits.

I represent the contractor managing Commuter Benefits for District Government employees.

We will make Metro's changes as simple as possible for District employees who elect pre tax commuter benefits.

Any unused funds at the end of the month will be returned to us - the contractor, not the District Government.

Participants may choose to apply the funds in the following month(s) via the online ordering platform. There is no plan year end, so there is NO 'use it or lose it' - your money will go back to the account we have created for each participant. The funds can be applied to future purchases of any regional Transit system (Metro/MARC/VRE/DART/etc). This appears to be the biggest concern. Participants will not lose money, and have the flexibility to apply unused funds to any transit fare media. (They just cant get a cash refund for tax reasons)

If a balance builds up, they can request to modify the amount of the deferral (aka their pre-tax deduction) through the District Benefits office.

While it is true that Metro will return the money to the 'Employer', the funds are returned to us - not the District Govt.

The typical participant will reduce their commuting/parking expense by 30-45 percent after accounting for taxes, a wonderful benefit in difficult economic times.

Modeling tools/calculators are available at ADP.com under 'Tools and Resources'. There is no cost or registration.

We will be participating at 'Health Fairs' throughout the District during Open Enrollment season to help answer questions on the changes as they relate to the participant experience.

Robert Thomson: I wanted everybody to see this during the chat, because I know many of you are concerned about the changes in the SmartBenefits program. D.C. employees, I don't have any more information about this than what the commenter provided. Be sure to check with your benefits people before making decisions.


Wheaton, Md.: There is a delivery truck that stops nearly every weekday morning in the right lane westbound on University Blvd in Wheaton, right outside El Pollo Rico. It is usually there around 6:30 a.m., when it is illegal to park in that lane. It snarls traffic and creates a hazard because people aiming to turn right onto Veirs Mill Road have to quickly get out of the right lane, into the left, and back into the right lane, often changing lanes in an intersections. Whom do you call about these kinds of issues? Is it actually legal for that truck to stop there?

Robert Thomson: Sounds like an issue for Montgomery County police.


Annapolis, Md.: What is the schedule for the Kenilworth Avenue work zone, Doc? And will thre EVER be a Route 50 East exit from Kenilworth that has fewer than four lanes attempting to crowd in at the top of the exit while we poor saps waiting in line toward the back just sit and watch?

Robert Thomson: I don't know of any plans to change the junction in the way you describe. The lastest thing I know about construction along Kenilworth Avenue -- and there's always something on Kenilworth Avenue -- has to do with the upcoming rebuilding of the Eastern Avenue bridge over Kenilworth. That's a District Department of Transportation project. There's nothing to worry about immediately.

The rebuilding is scheduled to begin late this month. The old bridge will not be demolished until late December or early next year. Replacement will take about a year.

The DDOT says drivers will find two lanes open at all times, but that may include using the service roads for additional lane space. That will definitely be the case during construction of the bridge piers.

The lengthy project farther south on Kenilworth at Burroughs Avenue is pretty much wrapped up.


Strollers on Metro: More than those SUV sized strollers on train cars, what scares me is the people who ignore the "No strollers on the escalator" rule! They're not just taking up huge amounts of space, but they're putting their child, themselves, and lots of others at risk should the stroller slip. I know the elevators can be slow, but come on. This seems like a completely avoidable risk to me.

Robert Thomson: Yep. People are way too ambitious about hauling big stuff onto the escalators.


Arlington, Va.: Dr. G:

Re: the incident involving the girl who fell on the tracks: Do you think that this situation might result in a call for guardrails along the track platforms? What are your thoughts on this matter?

Robert Thomson: No. These incidents are really rare. Guardrails wouldn't make enough of a difference to justify installing one more thing that's going to break and need constant maintenance so it doesn't become its own safety hazard.


Fairfax, Va.: Believe me, people were using alternate routes to 495 last week! Ask anyone who was on mid-county roads! Those of us who live here know how to use roads like Gallows, Shreve, Idlewood that more or less parallel the Beltway, but probably others do not. Anyway, they were all over Rtes 50 and 29, getting nowhere fast!

Robert Thomson: I know you're right. In my earlier answer, I wasn't suggesting that people NOT seek alternatives during big disruptions on the Beltway or other major roads. I'd like to see more information available to drivers about what those alternatives are and what the current state of traffic is on them, so they can make good decisions about whether to bail out.


Anonymous: Robert, regarding more rail, you wrote: "They'll also have to be placed where D.C. gets the most bang for the buck. (In other words, where they'll encourage the most community development -- maybe even some private contributions to cover construction costs." This means big pressure on whatever is along the route. Demolish beautiful small-scale buildings surrounded by trees and put giant hi-rises in their place.

The feds should put rail in places that have those shuttered factories and abandoned malls. Purple line development could wipe out existing communities in Montgomery County.

Robert Thomson: I live in one of those existing communities along the Purple Line route. I think it's reasonable to worry about what's going to get built along the route in decades to come. For example, I worry that housing for lower income people is going to be displaced in favor of higher-income housing.

But this just means we can't build a new transit line and then stop thinking about it. Citizens will have to be active in monitoring development along the route.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Bob! Is there any way to more effectively regulate the two-way traffic on Canal Rd./Clara Barton Parkway on holidays? Veteran's Day was a disaster! Everyone ignored the fact that the normal weekday commute directions were not in effect given the holiday. The lights and lane indicators were indeed showing the proper directions. Thank you!

Robert Thomson: I heard a lot of complaints about the traffic behavior on Canal Road on Veterans Day. But I'm not sure what the solution is. I see bad behavior by drivers at any place we have variable lane controls. I agree it's a problem, but other than creating sufficient travel capacity to end the need for variable lanes, I don't have a solution.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Doc --

When the Circulator buses were introduced, I recall that one of the things the planners were trying to do was increase ridership by decreasing wait times --- that is, if I know a bus is likely to show up in a few minutes (like the 42), I'm likely to take it, whereas if it's a bus that I might be waiting a long time for (like the L2), I simply won't take it at all. Such that short inter-arrival times are a cause, and not a consequence, of increased ridership.

I was mentioning this to someone and they asked, reasonably, for data on that supposed effect --- how long is "a few minutes" versus "a long time" such that the system sees a meaningful uptick in usage? I couldn't find any information and was wondering if you knew of an effect like this, whether it has a name ... or if I just remembered wrong entirely.


Robert Thomson: I think the issue of increasing bus ridership is a fairly complicated one, and that arrival times are only one of the factors.

Putting enough buses on a route so that people don't need to worry about an arrival schedule has shown some success. Most of the innovations I'm familiar with involve 10 minute headways, but I don't know that there's any magic to the 10 minute arrival times. (If it were 12 or eight, would it make that much difference to ridership?)

Other issues would be branding the buses and the bus stops so that travelers associate the service with frequency and reliability. You've also got to put the buses where people want to go, while making sure that the stops aren't so frequentl or in such congested areas, that they defeat the original purpose of reliability.

The bus also has to look nice and be comfortable.

Not all bus services need to be like the Circulator or the other 10-minute services to be successful. Metro introduced the Next Bus tracking system so that riders everywhere would have a reasonable idea when the bus was coming. That's a step I hope will increase ridership everywhere.


Metro Stinks!: This is getting rediculous. I apologize, but this is a long rant about my experience going to FedEx yesterday via Metro.

After hearing that the Morgan Blvd. Metro station is not that far away from FedEx, I decided to take the Metro from Rockville to take my kids to their first professional game ever! As Broncos fans, it was especially nice that we could see our two favorite teams play. Stupidly, I thought that getting to Rockville at 11:30 (90 minutes before the game) would be sufficient (after noting that it was a 61 minute ride).

But after just missing a train, we had to wait over 20 minutes for the next one because of track maintenance (on a Redskins home game day!!). Then one or two of the cars were empty because of problems, so rather than a relaxed ride, my kids and I got to enjoy a rush hour crowd and stand up the whole way to Metro Center! The ride took a lot longer (due to single tracking delays), the walk from the station was longer than advertised, and we didn't get to our seats until the last play of the first quarter (missing both Broncos TDs)!!

Ok, so at least the ride home would be better, right? Metro will have trains ready at the station like for Nationals games, right? No. Fortunately, we were able to cram on to a train after waiting four minutes, because if we didn't, the next train would be 16 minutes later!! But once again, we were packed like sardines because the front car was empty (it was out of service). What is up with having individual cars out of service?

Bottom line is that it took us about two hours from when we got to the Rockville station to when we were in our seats. Then it took about two hours to make the trip back home. If I ever do this again, I'll gladly give my $35 to Dan Snyder and take the car!

Robert Thomson: I'm sorry that happened to you. The weekend track maintenance has annoyed many riders for years. (Oddly, weekend ridership is increasing.)

At the start of each month, Metro puts out a schedule of each weekend's maintenance program. You'll find it on Metro's Web site, at www.wmata.com, and I also post the weekend delays on the Get There blog before the weekend starts.

From Morgan Boulevard to FedEx is a walk of about a mile. Not bad, but it's going to take a while with a crowd.

Metro does add extra trains after games. The platform signs don't necessarily reflect the correct arrival times when extra trains are being added. (I'm not saying that's a good thing.)

A car might be closed off for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's a door malfunction, sometimes a problem with the heating or cooling. Metro shuts off the individual car so it doesn't have to take the entire train out of service.

I'm not sure driving to FedEx is any less frustrating. But if you try that, the Maryland State Highway Administration always recommends going down to the Central Ave. exit from the Beltway because it tends to be the least crowded of the three exits.


City of Fairfax, Va.: I'll be driving up to West Point in early December for a promotion ceremony. One of my group will not travel on I95. As I'm not sure whether she'll be joining us in Northern Virginia, or we'll be picking her up in (northern) Baltimore, could you give me I95-alternates from both places to the Point? Thanks.

Robert Thomson: Bad memories of West Point: When I was a kid, I tripped over a cannon and broke my leg.

But I'm very much into holiday routes and alternative routes. Please watch on the Get There blog this week and also on next Sunday's Commuter page in The Post Metro section, because I'll be offering a variety of suggestions on such things.

And readers, please add to the suggestions I make.


Bike lane bafflement: why can't they make it two-way for bikes like the ones on the GW Parkway or Eisenhower Ave.? There is plenty of room and would keep the cyclists going up 15th from being in traffic.

Robert Thomson: That's a possibility. The intention was to give southbound cyclists a safe route south along what is otherwise a northbound street. (Some were riding south in the travel lanes.)

Northbound cyclists can use the right lane, which is a shared-use lane. It's marked for them, and the signs remind them -- and the drivers behind them -- that its permissible for bikes to take the entire right lane.

This whole setup is an experiment. DDOT says it will monitor how bikers and drivers use it, then adjust it accordingly.

Everybody, I know you've still got a lot of good questions and comments in the mailbag, but I need to break away now. I see some themes that I'd like to continue on the Get There blog and in our new discussion group, called Taken for a Ride. (There's a link at the top of the chat.) So please join me as the week continues. Also, you can reach me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com.

Let's meet again next week, and in the meantime, stay safe.


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