Live Online
Navigation Bar

  • See who's talking this week on our site

  • Partners:
    (Craig Cola For The Washington Post)

    Related Items
    Aug. 26: Frank Ahrens on the Hell that is No. VA Traffic
    Multimedia Report: Commuting Sentences
    Online Only: Live Traffic Reports

    Dr. Gridlock Live

    Monday, August 30, 1999

    When it comes to traffic, Dr. Gridlock wants to know where it hurts. He answers your traffic and commuting questions in a column that appears Monday in the Metro section and on Wednesday or Thursday in the Weekly and Extra sections. (You can always read his latest right here.)

    The doctor was online at 11 a.m.

    dingbat Our guest today is Washington Post columnist Ron Shaffer, also known as Dr. Gridlock. Ron, welcome! Our first question: How long have you been Dr. Gridlock? Who came up with the name? And is it only you?

    Dr. Gridlock: Fourteen years ago. Eugene Robinson, then assistant city editor, came up with the name. Almost in jest. It's not a jest any more. I am assisted by Jessica Medinger, who screens incoming communications.

    MCLEAN VA: Has there been a formal study to determine the time difference during heavy traffic of

    1. Cars staying in the same lanes versus Cars changing lanes.

    2. For cars staying in one lane, which lane is faster?

    My observation is that I will pass one vehicle and the same vehicle will pass me. The "fast" lane is not the fastest because more people move into the "fast" lane and congest the "fast" lane.

    Dr. Gridlock: I haven't seen any but it's a good question. I'll ask a few sources about the concept. But I join you in noting that drivers will change lanes multiple time in front of me and only wind up a car ahead of me at the next stop light.

    Rockville, MD: when will the Branch Avenue part of the green line be open?

    Dr. Gridlock: It is projected to be completed in the spring of 2001. That will also mark the completion of the 103 mile Metro system.

    Scottsdale, Arizona: Almost forty years ago, when I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Department,nearly every police officer on foot patrol and many scout car officers provided traffic control during the morning and evening rush hours. Officers were even held over from the midnight tour when traffic was especially bad. On a recent trip to DC, I never saw any traffic control being provided by uniformed police officers. Why?

    Dr. Gridlock: That is a favorite subject. In New York City, you see traffic police at scores of major intersections and they help keep traffic moving.
    I have talked with Chief Ramsey about this and he talked about civilians at intersections, like in Chicago.
    So far, no results. We need the help.

    Falls Church, VA: Dr. Gridlock - Great to see you online! Thanks for the valuable service your column provides to the region. As you know, traffic congestion is of tremendous concern to the people of this area. In fact, my question is: why isn't your column a daily?

    The Post should devote more resources to covering traffic and transportation. It is an issue that comes up time and time again in Bob Levey's column and is hot in VA politics right now. If the Post is unwilling to make your column a daily, than it should at least give you more inches. It is too short now.

    And though the license plate quiz game is cute, I'd really rather you use that space to address commuting, road construction, DMV procedures, parking, Metro, bike paths and the myriad issues under your purview. Thanks!!

    Dr. Gridlock: We went from once a week to twice a week in April and our incoming communications jumped from 100 a week to 400 a week. I'm not sure how much more I can absorb although I recognize this is an important subject for a lot of people.

    Chester County, PA: What if the now long-cancelled expressways such as I-95 and I-66 had been built to their full planned length in the District of Columbia? Would traffic congestion be better or worse off today?

    Dr. Gridlock: Traffic would probably move better through the area, but I'm not sure we'd be happy with what the city looks like. The highway money was diverted to the construction of the Metro system, and that seems like a good idea even today. What do you figure is the single worst commute in the region? Not the longest, necessarily, but the yard-for-yard most miserable, slowest, nastiest, most enraging?

    Dr. Gridlock: I asked for nominations from folks in Southern Maryland, Loudoun and Prince William counties and got a number of commutes too horrible to imagine. To ride along with them I would have to show up at 4 a.m. cut across counties for two to two and a half hours, and then spend a day in the city before turning around and repeating the commute in evening rush hour. I couldn't comprehend doing it even for a day, let alone five days a week.

    Alexandria: Speaking of traffic control, why weren't there ANY traffic cops helping with the flow during the overturned possibly explosive truck incident? It took me 1.5 hours to go 1.5 miles on back roads. It seems like a few people directing flow instead of lights would have made a small difference.

    Dr. Gridlock: My impression is that police place top priority (and maybe all their energy) in securing the scene and blocking off lanes off traffic. Directing traffic seems too often to be an afterthought.
    What we need is motorists who observe this contacting the Virginia and Maryland state police chiefs (in Pikesville, Md. and Richmond.

    Alexandria, VA: Are these chats going to be a weekly thing now? -I really hope so!-

    Dr. Gridlock: Thank you, I'm not sure. We'll take it one at a time. A question: what would you folks get out of this format than from the newspaper columns?

    Mt. Rainier MD: Metro is the best thing to happen to this city in a long time. When car-addicts complain to me about their taxes subsidizing the subway, I remind them that the only reason they can move at all on these roads is because the rest of us are scanning our newspapers on the Metro. Thereby lowering our blood pressure, alleviating road rage, and expanding our knowledge. They should subsidize more of that!

    Dr. Gridlock: I agree. That's why it seems to make sense to spend more money on Metro than on huge interstate highway projects that inevitably fill up.
    Virginia is talking about another $1 billion for road projects immediately, but no money set aside for Metro expansion.
    The likeliest: West Falls Church Station/Tysons Corner, Reston, Herndon, Dulles, Ashburn.

    Washington,DC: In DC who is it that decides the timing of traffic lights. Is there a method, recognized by the District, for a citizen to influence those decisions?

    Dr. Gridlock: Bill McGuirk is the D.C. Department of Public Works official in charge of traffic lights.
    He has been responsive to Dr. Gridlock. Feel free to contact him (I don't have the number at this location but will if you write Dr. Gridlock).

    Reston VA: Are you using hunt & peck? this seems to be going really slowly.

    Dr. Gridlock: Ok. I'm going to try touch typing. Here's goes: zklgnpfahjqihj'qrkgjpuishg
    A;DFLKG After we ran our "Commuting Sentences" multimedia package on people with horrible commutes, an e-mail war ensued between people who live near work and have no patience for commuters, and people who said the only way they could afford a nice home was to live way outside the Beltway. Do you sense a split in the area between the commuters and the non-commuters?

    Dr. Gridlock: The folks who live close in sometimes have a smugness about having an easy commute. The commuters from afar whine incessantly(with good reason).
    I don't note a social clash because these two groups seldom come in contact (fortunately).

    Stephens City, VA: Hello Dr. Gridlock!

    I drive 150 miles a day to and from work along I-66 and encounter all sorts of problems during my commute.
    One of the most irritating that I would LOVE to hear from the perpetrators is why many smokers insist on tossing their cigarettes out the window while driving. Not a day doesn't go by when I'm not pelted by at least three butts tossed my way. I thought Smokey the Bear tried to attack this problem years ago -I remember the TV commercials-. I managed to cure my one smoker friend not to do it after we passed a brush fire off of I-81.

    Do you have any insight as to why many-most smokers do this?


    Dr. Gridlock: No, but I would like to hear from the public why they do. Perhaps it is to clear smoke from the car, at the expense of a brush fire or incinerating the car behind.
    By the way, if you've got a 150 mile commute and this is the most burning (sorry) issue, then you're probably in good shape.

    Alexandria, VA: I think you'd get interaction from people that may not ever write or email you. Plus, it could be extremely topical to get feedback the same day as a big event -like the Wilson Bridge jumper, the explosive truck in VA, etc.-.

    I just like the format of these - it's like you're right there for us.

    Dr. Gridlock: I like your second comment especially. As one who writes ten days in advance of publication, the immediacy of this format is much appreciated.;

    Hyattsville MD: Does it seem to you like transportation is the LAST thing people think about when they buy a home? Ever so many people seem to be shocked to find out how bad their commute is, having moved to the way-out suburbs. This is hardly a new phenomenon!

    Dr. Gridlock: Sometimes it is. I had a friend who bought a big home in Stafford County and commuted to Fairfax City across bad county roads.
    She said, "You go for the big garage, the walk in closets, the bells and whistles, but after you commute you realize it isn't worth it. "
    She advises all new home buyers outside the beltway to try the commute before buying the house.

    Bethesda, MD: Glad to see you are online! I have been noticing two "bad" driver safety annoyances lately: 1- people not using their signals for turning, lane changes, etc. and 2- people not turning on their headlights when it's raining! Even though now it's a law! Any comments on these serious safety issues? Thanks!

    Dr. Gridlock: Failing to signal lane changes, what can we say. Perhaps if police would ticket such scofflaws, the number might be reduced.
    As to wipers on, lights on, both Virginia and Maryland need to do a better job posting signs to that effect. You sure see them in New Jersey and New York.

    Central Virginia-Lynchburg: I would like to know why can't people go to & from work at different times instead of the bankers hours of 9-5 ?
    If everyone does banker hours work that is why you have gridlock !
    RJ in VA

    Dr. Gridlock: They do. Some people work four, ten hour days, Others show up for work anywhere from 6-10 a.m. But I take your point. Local transportation planners should (and are ) taking into account more "flex time" possibilities.

    Burke, VA: Dr. Gridlock, Is traffic in Northern Virginia really that much worse than that in Maryland? I admit it stinks, but does crossing the Potomac really provide any relief?

    Dr. Gridlock: I believe traffic is worse in Northern Virginia. That impression is buttressed by the opinions of others who work in Virginia and live in Maryland.
    Consider this: 25-30 years ago the Virginia Department of Highways developed a master plan for Fairfax County, with highways and parkways going all over the county. Local opposition caused the county board to reject the plan.
    Later I found out the master plans were all stored in a warehouse along the James River in Richmond. One day the river flooded and washed away all the master plans.
    Symbolic, perhaps.

    Herndon: An answer for the guy with the smoking question: Though I don't smoke anymore, when I did I always threw them out the window. I smoked for 10 years and think I might have hit another car maybe once. The reason for throwing it out is that otherwise you have to keep your ashtray full of butts, and that's nasty.

    Unless people are throwing them up into the air, they should reach the ground within a second of being dropped. When a cigarette hits pavement at 50 mph, there is usually little fire-causing potential left. The tiny embers are soon extinguished

    Even in my irresponsibility I was careful of other drivers and when the season was particularly dry, but on most highways the grass isn't anywhere nearby, and most city roads around here have curbs.

    There is of course, the argument that "what would our streets look like if everyone threw their cigarette butts out the window?" To which my response was: "everyone does, and it's not -that- bad, since most cigarette butts are made of biodegradable material.

    It may not satisfy the reader, but that's the reason "why".

    Dr. Gridlock: Thanks for offering an opinion. But littering the roadside so that you can keep your ashtrays clean chokes me up.

    Alexandria VA Metro is great but parking at a metro station is terrible. Are there any plans in the works to expand parking at stations like van dorn -where the lots are full by 7 or 7:30-

    Dr. Gridlock: Parking has got to be a top Metro priority. It makes no sense to turn away would-be Metro users because we can't park them.
    General Manager Richard White understands this. Dr. Gridlock just did a column about what time the parking lots fill up in the morning. I'll save your question and answer it in the column, after I update the situation with sources. Thanks.

    Arlington, VA: Hi Dr. Gridlock - the value of these online chats is that it acts as a supplement to your too-short and too-infrequent newspaper columns. Hope to see you as an online regular.

    Dr. Gridlock: We'll see. Five minutes left with the good doctor.

    Springfield, VA: Here's why folks don't signal--the people who speed up to head off the signaled lane change! I was taught to signal all lane changes, but often find the only way I can accomplish one is to just look in the mirror and go, go go!

    Dr. Gridlock: There is a lot to what you say. You signal--and some bozo zooms around you in the lane you were aiming for. Grrr. However, using turn signals may prevent accidents.

    Washington, DC: Are there any plans to perhaps put in a Metro station near Georgetown? Right now getting to GU is a nightmare - I commute from Alexandria and the transfers are just a real pain. Also, I thought I heard something about a purple line going out to the Tysons Corner area -could have been just my imagination- -- any info on this? I think the Tysons Corner line would be a great idea. One last thing: any word on keeping Metro open until 1 or 2 a.m.?

    Dr. Gridlock: It's my understanding that the Georgetowners didn't want a Metro station, I'm not aware of any plans to build one now.
    As for the Purple Line, Montgomery County executive Douglas Duncan and others have proposed this--a Purple Line around the Beltway but it is not funded. The cost is awfully high.. Ron, thanks so much for being our guest today. We'll have to see if you can do this regularly. Last question: What's the best way for people who didn't get their questions answered today to get in touch with you? E-mail? Snail mail? Telephone?

    Dr. Gridlock: You can e-mail me at or fax at (703) 352-3908 or write to Dr. Gridlock, PO Box 3467, Fairfax, VA. 22038-3467. Please include your name, address and phone number.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    yellow pages