“Natives who beat drums to drive off evil spirits are objects of scorn to smart Americans who blow horns to break up traffic jams.” — Mary Ellen Kelly
“An object at rest tends to stay at rest, especially if you’re behind it when the light turns green.” — Robert Brault
Aphorisms and other quotes about traffic tend to be amusing only if you haven’t been sitting recently in traffic somewhere. If you are among the people who live here or the 500,000 who drive into and out of the city each work day, there’s nothing amusing about our traffic.
The afternoon rush hour downtown is now more than four hours long, stretching from 3 until 7 p.m. and beyond. Apart from other known bottlenecks, your Notebook is surprised there haven’t been serious road-rage incidents each afternoon in the jammed 9th Street tunnel leading to I-395. The jockeying for position onto the one-lane exit is frightening.
Part of the problem is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s yearlong SafeTrack repair project that’s driven many rail commuters to their cars.
“The Metro system’s troubles pose a serious threat to DowntownDC’s economy,” says the 2017 annual report of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District. And the group warns, “Companies with a large number of suburban residents may be prompted to consider relocation to the suburbs in the absence of a strong public transit system.”
Downtown has seen a 7 percent drop in weekday rail commuters and a 15 percent drop in Metrorail use on weekends. Many of those commuters are believed to be driving.
But Metro woes are only part of the core city problem.
Despite some serious effort by the D.C. Department of Transportation to manage traffic signals, address lane striping and improve intersection flow, morning and evening rush hours are chaotic messes.
The District has a heartless reputation for writing parking tickets, but the truth is that rush hours are wild west zones where illegal parking, intersection blocking and illegal turns are rampant. The Department of Public Works — responsible for ticket writing — is either not doing its job or, more likely, is overwhelmed.
Too many motorists fearlessly violate rush-hour laws. Hard-pressed delivery drivers who can’t find open loading zones — or simply don’t bother to look — just double-park and add the fine (if they get one) to their costs. This is especially problematic during rush hours on major downtown streets.
Although motorists scream at high-priced speeding tickets they get from traffic cameras, our parking ticket fines don’t intimidate enough people into obeying the law.
At the risk of inviting hate mail, both higher ticket prices and effective enforcement are desperately needed.
The District used to have chaos during snowstorms because emergency routes weren’t enforced. But $250 tickets, enforcement and an education campaign have eased that problem. Similar enforcement may help on a day-to-day basis.
Downtown D.C. has a lower office vacancy rate than nearby suburbs, but efforts to draw more people to live downtown have stalled. The Transportation Department has said about 25 percent of downtown traffic is people just looking for parking. In the future, improved public transit, car-sharing and driverless cars may ease our traffic mess.
But right now, better enforcement seems to be the missing ingredient.
■ We’re still car-centric. The U.S. Census Bureau takes a look at commuting every few years. People driving alone has stalled from decades of increases nationally but still accounts for nearly 80 percent of commuter trips.
■ Memorial Day disrepair. Biking around downtown and the National Mall gives you a close-up view of pretty much everything.
On Sunday, we cycled over to Constitution Avenue to see part of Rolling Thunder. Our ride took us into Constitution Gardens, the offset lake and pathways near 17th Street NW.
The water was filled with algae and way too much trash. Whole sections of the coping along the water’s edge had broken and fallen into the water.
Here’s how the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall puts it online:
“If you visit Constitution Gardens today, you’ll find dead fish floating atop stagnant ponds, flooded and cracked sidewalks, and weed-strewn swathes of dirt where lush lawns once grew. What you won’t find so easily are restrooms, functioning water fountains, dining options, and other basic visitor amenities.”
Fortunately, the trust has begun a restoration effort because the National Park Service is reeling with billions of dollars of unmet needs nationwide. The trust is planning to use the old stone lock-keeper’s house at 17th and Constitution as a new welcoming plaza into the gardens.
To learn more about the trust, and maybe help, visit nationalmall.org.
■ Staycation time. We’re taking off from TV work this week to visit the nation’s capital. We plan to blend in with the tourists and see what they’re seeing.
Have a good week everyone. Summer is almost upon us.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.