Are we there yet? Reflecting on the past decade of local travel — and the next.
My first “Dear New Dr. Gridlock” letter was from Shelagh Bocoum of the District, and the topic was a Metro experiment in rearranging poles and seats.
It was a big deal in the summer of 2006. Would the design in the Metro test car I saw become the future for the transit system?
Well, the answer was a little bit “yes” and a little bit “no” on the poles and seats. Meanwhile, I had no idea the carpet I stood on in the test car would eventually be regarded as a smelly relic of the 20th century, to be done away with in the newest rail cars. So it went over the years. In newspaper parlance, I write an agony column. Readers share their concerns, and together, we work on their relationships — with our transportation system.
After more than 1,000 columns, I realize that one of the curses of the digital age is that old newspapers are so easily accessible. Columns no longer yellow and crumble. When the future arrives, they survive to baffle and bemuse a new generation.
I’m going to retire at the end of the month, so I want to assess the past decade of local travel, as well as its future, knowing that the past is open to interpretation and the future full of surprises.
A lot of big stuff did get done: Transportation departments rebuilt the Woodrow Wilson and 11th Street bridges. The Frederick Douglass Bridge got a major overhaul and is about to be rebuilt. The Springfield interchange was untangled. The Intercounty Connector was completed.
The biggest change on the highway system was the creation of the high-occupancy toll lanes network in Northern Virginia.
How did we do on transit? The major regional project was construction of the Silver Line. The District created the Circulator bus system and, after a very long time, opened a streetcar line.
This wasn’t all good. The Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 HOT lanes haven’t achieved everything I hoped for, because the final plans didn’t include robust commuter bus services. Looks as though the I-66 and I-395 programs will correct that.
Metro is still recovering from the stress of opening the Silver Line, though I think the project ultimately will be viewed as the greatest among them all in shaping the region’s growth.
The change I like best is the change in the safety culture. I don’t mean the one at Metro. That hasn’t gone as well as I hoped.
I’m thinking of the increased concern among transportation departments and activists for safety on the streets. I see this in programs such as Vision Zero, striving to eliminate all trafficrelated deaths. I see it also in the creation of bike lanes, more sophisticated traffic signals, more enforcement cameras and re-engineered intersections.
The greatest safety change on the horizon is the arrival of selfdriving cars. But that’s still a faroff horizon. Meanwhile, engineers work on strategies to make the roadways themselves smarter and safer through programs such as Virginia’s Active Traffic Management. I’ll discuss those parts of the futurecast in Thursday’s Local Living column.
The biggest mystery to me is why traffic isn’t worse. Yes, it’s bad. My least favorite drive is Tysons Corner to Bethesda after 3 p.m. But given the region’s growth and the fact that Metro has shed tens of thousands of riders, I thought all local travel would be grinding to a halt.
No, I don’t believe that the explanation is Capital Bikeshare, much as I admire that program. It’s more likely the lingering effects of the Great Recession, changes in the federal workforce and the growth of telecommuting.
I think Metro will rebound, primarily because the region has no choice but to save the backbone if its transportation system. It’s a question of when the region realizes that. (Not yet.)
In speculating about the future, the really humbling thing is this: It took me a long time to realize that the 21st century was going to be different from the 20th. I don’t mean simply that we won’t be doing another interstate highway program.
New technologies are creating new ways of thinking about local travel. People won’t be bound to a mode — a personal car, a bus, a train or a bike. They’ll choose a destination and quickly figure out the cheapest, most convenient way to get there.
It’s revolutionary and liberating. And I hope, for once, just what the doctor ordered.
Dr. Gridlock ROBERT THOMSON