Category Archives: Random BS

Random things I see as I travel.

Groundhog’s forecast comes in depths of bitter winter


Punxsutawney Phil is set to make his famous groundhog forecast early Sunday, and after a winter like this one, more folks than usual may be hoping he doesn’t see his shadow.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club expects about 20,000 people on hand for the event, executive director Katie Donald told The Associated Press. This is the first year that Groundhog Day coincides with the Super Bowl.


PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. — Punxsutawney Phil, most famous groundhog in history, emerged from his burrow early Sunday morning and with the help of his handlers declared that he saw his shadow.

The Groundhog Day prediction means six more weeks of winter.

Phil made his weather prediction just before 7:30 a.m. in front of thousands of onlookers at Gobbler’s Knob in the tiny western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

The Groundhog Day celebration is rooted in a German superstition that says if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on Feb. 2, the Christian holiday of Candlemas, winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says, spring will come early.

Phil has not seen his shadow just 17 times since 1886, according to incomplete records kept by the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, which is responsible for caring for the groundhog and putting on the annual ceremony.

Last year, Phil did not see his shadow.

The accuracy of the groundhog’s predictions, however, has long been debated.

Interest in the holiday has soared in the last two decades thanks largely to the 1993 Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day,” in which a weatherman becomes trapped reliving the holiday again and again.

Crowds at the event have grown from a few thousand before the movie came out to tens of thousands after.

D.C. area’s longer-than-average commutes could be taking a greater toll on women

Adeyinka Ogunlegan remembers sitting at a red light on Georgia Avenue when the text-message alert came through. Her main route home to Laurel was blocked because of emergency utility repairs.

In an instant, her run-of-the-mill commute, a drive she does daily, generally without incident, turned into a logistical nightmare.

Her son, who is now 4, was waiting to be picked up at preschool, and her daughter, now 3, from the babysitter’s. The clock was ticking, traffic was crawling, and she still had at least 20 miles to go. She knew instinctively that a trip that normally takes her about an hour would take far more time unless she came up with a plan.

“I was like: ‘Oh my God. Oh my God,’ ” she recalled. “There was no bailout. It wasn’t pretty.”

Ogunlegan took a deep breath to keep herself from panicking. As her car idled, she could feel her blood pressure escalating. She checked Google Maps in hopes of finding a way out of the traffic jam. Ahead, she spied a few cars turning off onto side streets and decided to take a chance. She managed to navigate her way through side streets (thank you, GPS) to New Hampshire Avenue and from there to the Intercounty Connector, on which — for a fee — she sped to Laurel, arriving at her son’s school with a minute to spare.

Washington Post poll of area residents this past summer found that women and men who drive average a roughly 30-minute commute. But for about one in six women — about one-third of whom have children at home — that sometimes harrowing daily commute is getting longer. While D.C. area drivers are seeing less congestion on local roads, they still spend seven more minutes commuting each day than the average American, according to the Census Bureau.

Those lengthy rides could have implications for women’s health and stress levels, particularly because their commutes often include stops other than home and work. A growing body of research shows that when it comes to commute stress, women feel the impact more than men.

In a 2010 study, researchers in Britain found that women reported having higher stress levels related to commuting than men did — even if they had shorter commutes.

“The theory was that it was a question of flexibility in time use,” said Jennifer Roberts, a professor of economics at the University of Sheffield. For women, “there were more deadlines for where they had to be. It was not just an issue of, ‘I have to be at my desk at 9.’ It was, ‘I have to get my kids to child care. I have to pick up the dry cleaning.’ ”

Roberts and her colleagues found the impact was particularly acute for women with preschool-age children. Researchers found the psychological effect on them was four times as great as for men with children of the same age.

Add a longer commute into the equation and it could be even worse for women, Roberts said.

Rori Pollak, executive director at Little Beginnings Child Development Center, has seen more than her share of harried moms and dads flying through the doors of the Arlington County day care.

“Most are very apologetic,” she said. “The hardest part is really for the child if they’re the last one here.”

Like many day-care centers, Little Beginnings charges a fee for late pickups. Parents who are one to 15 minutes late pay $20, and the fee escalates from there. Those who have more than four late pickups within a certain time frame face possible dismissal from the center. But Pollak rarely has to enforce the rule.

Pollak said she and her staff understand the stresses and work closely with parents to ease the anxiety. For example, center officials encourage parents to have backup plans in the event of emergencies.

Independent travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin said women may find commuting more stressful because they tend to do more than just travel to and from work. They make additional stops — at the market, at day care, at the dry cleaner — a phenomenon known as “trip chaining.” Men, by contrast, are more likely to drive straight from work to home.

In her research, McGuckin, who has worked as a consultant to the Department of Transportation, found a difference in men and women’s attitudes about commuting.
“The commute for men is a moment of respite in the day, where they can sit and listen to the radio,” she said. “But I think, for women, it’s simply another tense, mind-racing trap because you should be somewhere or have just a few minutes to get to day care before you get charged.”

And despite women’s advances in the workplace and as wage earners, that dynamic has not necessarily changed.

“Though we see some changes in the younger generation, women still do the majority of housework and child care,” said McGuckin, who has examined the effects of commuting on men and women. “Commutes women do are more often populated with stops. And they’re more likely to do pickup in the afternoon.”

Federal statistics illustrate the disparity. Among households with two working parents who commute, women make more than half — 63.3 percent— of the trips for drop-off and/or pickup.

Ogunlegan, a lawyer at a Rockville-based public-affairs firm, is one of those women. The family has one car, and her husband takes a commuter bus and Metro to his job at the Commerce Department in downtown D.C., which means she is responsible for both drop-offs and pickups.

As a result, she has carefully calibrated her 50-mile daily drive. Mornings can be hectic, but it’s the drive home that is the real stressor.

“It can be crazy,” Ogunlegan said about her commute, which includes two drop-offs, at the babysitter’s and at school, before she heads to her office. “It’s just this juggling act that you have to manage.”

She knows that if she does not leave work at 5 p.m. on the dot, she risks missing the 6:15 p.m. pickup deadline at her son’s preschool. She’s had a couple of late pickups — including one when she was in such a rush, she couldn’t remember if she had even closed her car door. Center officials were understanding, but even so, she does not like to be late. She knows her son’s teachers have children, too.


“You feel bad,” she said. “You just don’t want to be that parent.”

Some women said that, when they are able, they’ve tried to make adjustments to their schedules and to the places they choose to work to ensure they can be close to where their kids are. But even then, they know they are just one snowstorm or traffic tie-up away from a late pickup.

Susan Burkinshaw, a comptroller who lives in Germantown, has turned down higher-paying jobs in the District and Virginia so she can work within a 10-mile radius of her children’s schools and avoid the frantic last-minute scramble that comes with traffic delays.

For Kellie Reynolds, a mother of two from Gaithersburg, pickup always felt stressful, particularly when her children were younger.

“I never wanted to pick them up late,” said Reynolds, who works for the Federal Drug Administration. “It wasn’t the [late fee]. It was thinking about how bad the kids would feel if it was closing time and I wasn’t there.”

For years, Reynolds handled afternoon pickup and shuttled the kids to doctor appointments and practices because she had a more flexible work schedule than her husband, who worked in Frederick, Md. But after he took a job in Rockville, she became the one with the longer drive. As a result, he is able to pitch in more often, easing some of the stress.

Some women also acknowledge that they may put more pressure on themselves.

“I think it’s just the way our brains are wired. [We’re] always planning our next event — the laundry, calling about the doctor’s appointment,” said Bridget Dunn, a mother of two from Alexandria. “I don’t know that men do the same thing. We get hung up on these kinds of things because we’re sort of the conductor. I think the stress lies in that.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Park service planning to charge for parking around Mall

The National Park Service has scheduled a public meeting for Feb. 11 to discuss its plan to install parking meters at various points around the National Mall later this year.

Multi-space meter
The meters would be the multi-space style, similar to those near
Nationals Park. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

The meters would require drivers to pay for what is now free parking on Madison and Jefferson drives near the Smithsonian museums, on Constitution Avenue north of the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials, around the Tidal Basin, on Ohio Drive and on a short stretch of parkway along the Potomac River northwest of the Lincoln Memorial.

The park service lists three goals for this program: Manage the parking turnover so more visitors can use the spaces, encourage people to take transit, rather than drive, and raise money to improve transportation services around the Mall.

The District government and the park service also are working on a plan to recreate a National Mall route for the D.C. Circulator buses in 2015. When the Circulator buses first began operating a few years ago, there was such a route, but the District Department of Transportation eventually shut it down because it wasn’t attracting enough riders.

Like almost all public transit, this bus route probably would operate at a loss, but the parking meter revenue could help subsidize it.

The parking meters would be the multi-space kind, with a single kiosk dispensing receipts that drivers can place on their dashboards.

Like the meter style, the rates, hours and days would be similar to those in the rest of downtown Washington, but they have not yet been set, according to the park service. The park police would be responsible for enforcement.

The park service has been working for years on plans to better manage the crowded streets around the national memorials, museums and open space.
According to a 2006 transportation study, the park service manages 14 miles of roads within the National Mall and memorials area, which includes 1,900 now-free parking spaces, about 400 of them on the Mall near the museums.

In this area, the park service has long faced some of the same traffic problems as in the Acadia, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks: At popular tourist times, people can’t easily get around in vehicles. In other settings, the park service has banned traffic and required visitors to board shuttle buses. The plan for the National Mall would offer new access to transit — the Circulator buses — while discouraging long-term parking through the use of meters.

The Feb. 11 meeting to discuss the plan is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the cafeteria at the park service’s National Capital Region headquarters, 1100 Ohio Dr. SW.

Weather causes road problems, school and flight delays

Light snowfall in the D.C. region overnight created challenges for commuters Wednesday morning, as some schools closed and others announced delayed openings, airlines canceled flights and police closed a usually busy ramp onto the southbound lanes of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway because of downed wires in the roadway.

U.S. Park Police said the wires toppled overnight onto the ramp that leads to the parkway from Route 193 in Greenbelt. They are not sure when the ramp will re-open, as they are waiting on a repair crew.

Police warned drivers throughout the region to use caution because some roads are slick and icy.

Metro had troubles on four of its five lines Wednesday morning due to the extreme cold weather.

VRE sent an email alert Wednesday morning to its passengers warning that power is out at its stop at the L’Enfant Station at 6th and C streets SW. VRE officials said riders should use caution when getting on and off trains because the platforms are dark.

Schools are closed in Prince William, Stafford and Culpeper counties. Schools in Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard, Frederick and Arlington counties, and in Alexandria, are opening two hours late.

Air travel has been affected by the latest round of snowfall. About 250 flights across the country were delayed and another 950 were canceled as a result of the winter weather, according to FlightAware.

Eighteen flights were canceled at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Another 15 were canceled at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and four were canceled at Washington Dulles International.

For more transportation-related stories, click here. For updates on the Washington weather forecast, go to the Washington post’s Capital Weather Gang.

D.C. commuters were better choosing Metrorail in snow and cold, despite delays

Transportation and safety officials are always telling commuters they should use transit when travel conditions deteriorate. But many people were unhappy with the Metrorail service during last week’s snow and cold.

Would driving really have been a less stressful experience?

No. Despite problems that affected all Metrorail lines on the worst weather days, most train riders still made a good decision in picking transit over their cars.

We have many reasons to question decisions made by the original planners of the rail system. As in: 586 escalators? What were they thinking? But the fact that they overcame tremendous financial and political hurdles to build the rail lines should earn them our gratitude whenever our transportation network is put to the test.

Now, you’re probably reading this in the comfort of your home or office. My argument would be a tough sell to anyone standing on an outdoor platform with snow coming in sideways and the temperature plunging.

Metro officials themselves saw both sides.

“Throughout the storm,” said Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, “Metrorail and Metrobus continued serving our riders, and Metro’s parking lots and stations remained plowed, salted and shoveled.

“While some of our equipment is feeling the effects of the deep freeze that followed the storm, our employees deserve special recognition for their hard work . . . to keep people moving.”

Tom Downs, the Metro board chairman, focused on the effect of the cold temperatures, a likely cause of the broken rail that slowed travel on the Blue and Yellow lines in last Thursday’s morning rush. Downs recognized “the difficulty the system has operating when the temperature is in single digits. Cracked rail is a phenomenon that everybody who operates a railroad understands. . . .The only thing I can say to our customers is that we’re sorry, and we try to repair the damage as quickly as possible when it occurs.”

Both statements are true enough, but they must be combined for a realistic picture of transit travel last week.

On the rails

Snow totals Jan. 21 were the greatest for the Washington region in four years, but they did not force Metrorail to curtail above-ground service.

Still, those who did commute by rail encountered problems throughout the week. Not all of them were related to the snow and cold. As the storm intensified that afternoon, signal problems and train equipment problems — usually doors and brakes — led to delays of up to 20 minutes, according to Metro reports.

During the big chill Jan. 22, service on all lines was disrupted by track and train problems. The most common cause of delay was a brake problem. Of 51 incidents logged by Metrorail that Wednesday, 22 were attributed to brake problems. Five trains had door problems. During rush hours, most delays reported by Metro were less than 10 minutes. But at 8:23 a.m., a Blue Line train experienced a brake problem and unloaded passengers at the Arlington Cemetery station, an outdoor platform, resulting in a 14-minute delay on the line.

At 9:25 a.m., passengers had to get off an Orange Line train at McPherson Square’s underground platform because of a brake problem, and riders were delayed 24 minutes. At 4:12 p.m., passengers had to get off a Green Line train onto the outdoor platform at College Park because of a door problem, resulting in an 18-minute delay.

The delay totals listed here are from Metro’s reports for the week. Passengers waiting for trains often send out Twitter messages reporting longer delay times. They also experience the residual effects of delays in that they might have to pass up trains that are too crowded to board.

A Tweet last Wednesday morning from Sarah Dunn read: “Longest Metro ride this a.m. in 4 yrs living in D.C.; 90 min. from Dunn Loring to McPherson. Usually takes 30 min.!”

Also, the tidiness of the aftermath reports masks the uncertainty riders experience during the disruptions. Many complain that they aren’t getting enough information over the loudspeakers in stations and on trains to estimate the length of a disruption or devise alternative routes.

A Tweet the same day from Brian W. of Oakton read: “Are any [Orange Line] trains moving? Been sitting at Clarendon for 30 min. and seen no trains.”

The worst disruptions last Thursday affected riders on the Blue, Yellow and Green lines. In the morning rush, many riders on the Blue and Yellow lines were delayed about a half-hour because of the cracked rail between Braddock Road and Reagan National Airport. Workers had to install a new, 39-foot section of rail. Meanwhile, trains traveling in both directions shared the one open track around the problem area.

On the road

So, wouldn’t rail riders have been better off on the Beltway and the region’s other highways? Not according to safety officials and highway departments. During the week’s worst weather, they were urging people to stay off the roads.

The feds, local governments and many school systems did their part by closing last Tuesday and either staying closed or delaying openings the next day.

Road crews benefit far more from these shutdowns than does Metrorail, because the lack of traffic gives the plows a much better chance of keeping lanes open, even if they can’t get down to bare pavement.

The difference between the relatively easy commute on the snowy afternoon of Jan. 21 and the ghastly eight-hour commutes of Jan. 26, 2011, was the federal government’s timely decision to close offices for the day.

Even so, driving was tricky on the highway ramps and merge lanes. Crashes repeatedly shut highway lanes on important commuter routes throughout the region.

During Friday morning’s commute, the major travel disruption occurred on Rockville Pike, where an early-morning water main break near White Flint Malltemporarily closed that busy route to all traffic. Metrorail riders never encountered a similar service disruption.