Are we there yet? Re­flect­ing on the past decade of lo­cal travel — and the next.

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Liv­ing. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1301 K St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071, or email

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.


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