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Lessons From Out of Town

An out-of-town television news crew interviewed me last week about our traffic problems. The two reporters explained to me that their city now finds itself overwhelmed with congestion. Turning to other places for ideas, they were fascinated by the notion that getting around Washington is so difficult that the local newspaper has a columnist who writes about nothing but transportation issues.

The TV crew was from Belgrade.

The Serbian capital has too many cars for its roads and bridges. When more and more people can drive, fewer and fewer want to wait for a bus to come along. It was all starting to sound very familiar.

Are there lessons we can learn from the experiences of other cities, both positive and negative. One letter-writer things we can. Here's what he suggested:

"I was wondering if you could start a series about suggestions from other cities that could work here in Washington, D.C. ?

"Since so many residents of this area are from somewhere else, the resulting submissions could be instructive to our local authorities on how to alleviate many of our traffic problems.

"I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I have a couple to get things started:

"1) Have a designated one-way bus lane that flows against the traffic on the one-way streets downtown. The bus would have its own right of way. No one would be in their way. Parking restrictions would be strictly enforced with stiff fines for offenses and towing as well.

"2) To end the dangerous practice of illegal right and left turns while the curb lanes wait for pedestrian traffic to clear, have four way red lights at all downtown intersections. All traffic would stop while all pedestrian traffic would have a right of way to cross during those times. Have police available to enforce the illegal turns to send a strong message. The blocking of the box would lessen because the rush to make it to the other side would be lessened.

"3) Institute a Weather Emergency policy ala the Snow Emergency policy now in effect. When heavy rains hit the area, for instance, it may as well have been a foot of snow, such is the apoplexy exhibited by our drivers.
No parking during the emergency. Heavy ticketing and towing would be in effect."

Readers of this blog have traveled extensively, and some of you are former Washingtonians now living elsewhere. What have you seen that could help us here?

[Join me at 1 p.m. today for an online discussion of these and other local traffic and transit topics. If you'd like to submit a question or comment early, you can use this link.]

By Robert Thomson  |  November 12, 2007; 8:04 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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Next: Metro Hearings Start Tonight


If that bus lane idea were to work, they would have to enforce laws against double-parking and against cabbies stopping wherever the [bleep] they want. The "bus lane" on 9th Street is a joke. Nobody obeys it. I don't obey it either. If drivers were to respect the alleged "bus lane," there would, practically speaking, be only a single lane for non-bus traffic because DC does nothing to prevent rampant double-parking, especially between G and H Streets (the block where Zaytinya is located); indeed, the Zaytinya valet parking often has the left thru lane blocked as customers stop to drop off their cars. DC cannot expect anyone to accept a bus lane restriction if the effect of that restriction is to take a road with three lanes (plus parking on either side) and reduce it to ONE lane (when you account for parking, illegal parking, and the bus lane).

The reason this matters for a contraflow bus lane is that if drivers do not respect the bus lane, it's too dangerous to have a bus going in the opposite direction, and I think it would be too expensive and inefficient to send someone out to put up cones or some other sort of divider every day.

Posted by: Rich | November 12, 2007 10:15 AM | Report abuse

As evidenced by my travels on the west coast from Seattle to San Diego, I think more could be done to improve traffic flow on our congested interstates (the beltway included) by installing ramp meters on nearly every on-ramp.

The metering system set-up in places like Seattle and SF really helps control the number of cars entering the freeway at one time, thus improving traffic flow (particularly in the right lanes) for cars already on the freeway.

In addition to erecting the ramp meters, each on-ramp to a freeway should be at least 2 lanes with the left-most lane a dedicated carpool lane. (So in essence, the waiting line for carpoolers to get through the metering is a different and shorter waiting line than that for single drivers.) According to recent news in Seattle, the city is beginning photo enforcement of these ramp meters so single drivers can not ride up the carpool only lane to access the freeway faster AND so drivers do not try and "jump" the meter, e.g. run the red light at the ramp meter by tailgating the vehicle directly in front of them.

Posted by: xyv1027 | November 12, 2007 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Sorry "clicked" Submit too soon:

Other than the need for stiff enforcement, one of the biggest hinderances toward ramp metering in DC is the fact that so many on-ramps are these outdated, relatively short clover-leaf ramps. For ramp metering on busy on ramps to be effective, cars entering the freeway need a long ramp to queue up on. The outdated cloverleaf ramps don't work out too well.

Another benefit: With ramp metering, through-interstate traffic can not use the service road as efficiently to get through main line congestion. For example, through traffic going west on I-66 through the 123 interchange, would not use the service lane to bypass the congestion on I-66 because this would only put the "would-be-bypasser" in the waiting line to get through the ramp meter.

This in effect improves traffic flow for those entering from roads like Route 123 as fewer drivers are going to use the service road cut-through.

Posted by: xyv1027 | November 12, 2007 11:17 AM | Report abuse

One of the biggest problems we have in the DC area is too many entities that do not want competing transportation options to affect their revenue.

The 5A metrobus is a good example of this. The bus is almost always full and takes commuters from Herndon Monroe to Rosslyn, then Enfant Plaza without any other stops inbetween. The route was designed for Airport traffic only but commuters found it to be a cheap and very fast/efficient way to get to work. Eventhough the bus is full and often turns away commuters Metro doesn't increase the schedule. Why? probably because they rely on revenue from most people at Herndon who take the feeder bus to west falls church and pay higher metro fares to get into town.

Point to point bus service into major hubs Rosslyn, Metro Center, Pentagon would be faster and more cost effective than the current system that only feeds the end of the line. Metros goal is to get everyone on the train as fast as possible to start generating revenue and ridership numbers. They don't really care if that mentality makes the system expensive and inefficient.

Posted by: R. Timm | November 12, 2007 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Just a few notes on the post and the comments...
The all ways ped crossing idea keeps being floated and DC does not like it. I remember something in the Post quoting a DC official saying the streets are too wide and the stoppage would therefore have to be too long. All the same, DC has had some of these in the past. I remember crossing at a couple of them in the early 1960s and possibly as late as 1970, down around the F Street shopping district.
Parts of 66, and I believe 395, had ramp meters installed - I think somewhere around 1986 but I could be way off - and they were removed because of public opposition, which did not yield to the pleas by VDOT that they were effective on the west coast. I'm sure there was Post reportage on that too.
I think the issue with the 5A is that the subsidy bill for that line goes to the DC government, which bought in to help DC people get jobs at Dulles (cleaning staff for example). The incentive isn't there to fund a full-scale service that way. That doesn't make it a bad idea, but it means someone else has to come up with money. Note the non-subsidized WFC to Dulles bus costs $9.
It's quite true that the WMATA Bus-Rail Interface Plans explicitly wanted to turn the buses into feeders to rail. I think that was reasonable at the time, to avoid a double capital investment, but when the lines saturate as they are close to doing, there's a better case for extending the buses.

Posted by: WW | November 12, 2007 4:53 PM | Report abuse

5A to Dulles: if they really want to make it for airport users/employees, then why not make the bus "boarding only" at Rosslyn and Herndon-Monroe heading west, and "alighting only" at Herndon-Monroe/Rosslyn heading east. Many bus companies have these policies for one reason or another, and even Amtrak does. Perhaps having a steep Airport employee discount on the West Falls Church to Dulles bus might help even out demand as well (this is what AirTrain JFK does in NYC...$5 one way, or $40 unlimited monthly trips) to maximize revenue and usage at the same time.

"Just because it works somewhere else doesn't mean it will work here": Exactly. Right on. Each region's needs are different. The culture and willingness to accept new ideas is different. Thus far, the only argument for HOT lanes in VA has been "they work in California and Minnesota and Colorado". I wonder if their level of opposition was as strong as it seems to be here.

Ramp meters: This could get very touchy depending on how the ramp meters are set, since there are two competing arguments on how ramp meters should work. System 1: The ramp meters cycle fast in order to even out the flow of entering traffic. This will prevent the problem you have when a big "mass of cars" all come up the ramp at the same time, which is what happens when you have a left-turn signal with dual lanes at the bottom of the ramp. The dual lanes concept makes the signalized intersection at the bottom of the ramp operate most efficiently, by dumping the most cars onto the ramp in the shortest time, but this in turn ends up royally screwing up the freeway traffic. Ideally, to implement system number one, you would have the signal timed to dump as many of the cars onto the ramp in the shortest amount of time, then store those cars on the ramp and let them onto the freeway one by one over the entire cycle length of the signal at the bottom. Then the ramp will be empty just as another huge load of cars is dumped on. Of course this means you need a long ramp and it also means that you are doing nothing to cut into the otherwords, anyone who wants to get onto the freeway can get on in a reasonable amount of time. System number two involves a ramp meter with a really long cycle, such as they do in Twin Cities. These ramp meters may only let one car onto the freeway every 20 seconds or even only one per minute. That means you might have to wait a really long time in order to get onto the freeway, but since traffic is held back at the ramps, once you get onto the freeway your trip is faster. This in effect discourages the use of the freeway for short trips, and holds back the traffic so you can have a fast trip once you get onto the highway. The downside is that it tends to cause traffic to back up into neighborhoods, and it tends to reward those who commute from further out rather than those who live closer into the city. It also adds traffic to the local roadway network because more local trips are being taken on local roads. I definitely think people would complain a lot if system number 2 was implemented.

All red pedestrain phases: I say we make a deal with drivers. Play by the rules, or you will be punished. If you stop for pedestrians when you are supposed to, including at unsignalized intersections and at signalized intersections when making a turn, then traffic engineers will continue to let you go when there are no pedestrains. But break the rules and try to mow down the pedestrains, and we may have to resort to all-red phases and more red lights at currently un-signalized crosswalks. Drivers will be the big losers, since no cars can utilize that roadspace when pedestrians push the button. But since safety is more important than mobility, and since drivers abused the privilidge, then take the privilidge away from the drivers.

Weather emergency policy won't work. Don't forget that some people park on the street since that is their only place to park. That is my driveway. I think it is a reasonable assumption that when a snowstorm comes, I will know about it in advance because it is a "big deal" around here, and I will make alternate plans to house my car during the storm. But if I had to do that during every rainstorm? If I metro to work and un unexpected thunderstorm comes up you expect me to run back home to move my car? What a crock. The only other reason besides snow that I can think of for an emergency no parking rule with less than the required 72 hours notice would be if there was a sudden emergency evacuation, such as because of a terrorist attack. In that case, I would expect that a "courteousy tow" be given to anyone in violation, whereby your car is towed for free to another legal parking space or to another central location (they do this in NYC...), rather than a "punitive tow", where I have to take a cab to Blue Plains and pay hundreds of dollars to get my car back because I parked 9 feet 11 inches from a fire hydrant instead of the required 10 feet.

Posted by: Woodley Park | November 12, 2007 6:50 PM | Report abuse

London's inner zone where you get charged for entering during business hours is radical, but a potential solution. Dedicate all funds collected to improving Metro so that those who choose not to drive will have improved access.

Posted by: ah | November 13, 2007 9:52 AM | Report abuse

virginia could use a street grid and all areas could use some law enforcement

how about having cops enforce the law instead of sleeping in parking lots during rush hour?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 14, 2007 5:09 PM | Report abuse

if we get 4-way red lights, is that a green light for running over jaywalkers? since that's about 98% of pedestrians, that'll get rid of the crosswalk problem quick

Posted by: Anonymous | November 14, 2007 5:11 PM | Report abuse

I was stationed in Germany in the '80s.

When a bus pulls away from the bus stop curb, it always has the right of way.

It doesn't need its own lane, because everybody allows the bus to merge without waiting. Cut off a bus, you get a damaged car and a ticket.

The buses move faster, and as soon as it pulls over at the next stop, all of the drivers pass and move right back to where they were. Nobody loses anything and the buses move.

No cost. No sweat. Would yield immediate dividends.

Posted by: Tim from Silver Spring | November 15, 2007 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"everybody allows the bus to merge without waiting"

hahaha, and nobody runs lights or speeds or cuts anybody off in the cartoon world of silver spring

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