9 Things No One Tells You About Traffic in DC

UPDATED November 5, 2015

Congrats, you’re moving to the DC area! Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?

Sure, the nation’s capital is home to numerous landmarks, museums, awesome restaurants, and political bigwigs. It’s also home to some of the worst traffic in the US, usually ranking in the top 10 on this dubious distinction.

Scratch that, we’re officially number one. Yay DC traffic!

It’s bad enough to bring out the worst in people too. You’ll see plenty of otherwise upstanding citizens flipping each other off while sipping lattes on the way to high-powered meetings.

Don’t despair though. The list below will help you to make the best of traffic in DC. Or maybe not.

1. The REAL Speed Limit on the Beltway

OK, the posted speed limit on I-495 is 55 miles per hour. Please, please don’t make the dreadful mistake of following this.

At best, you’ll be ridiculed. At worst, you’ll be lynched by an angry mob of government contractors and corporate lawyers.

For all intents and purposes, 75 is the new 55.

If traffic allows it, of course. Which it rarely does. Don’t be surprised to get stuck in a gigantic traffic jam at 2am because of construction.

traffic in dc

2. If Hell Ever Fills up, I-66 Will Serve as Overflow

Seriously, this road is purgatory. Someone needs to add another 6, so the name reflects the highway’s true nature. And it was recently “beat” even the notorious I-405 in LA.

If you can help it at all, don’t drive on I-66. It respects no rules or conventions about traffic.

You’ll run into congestions all days and times of the week. Then traffic would get better and as you’re about to rejoice, it would crap out again.

You’ve been warned.

3. The I-95 Express Lanes (Almost) Take a PhD to Figure Out

So in December 2014 we got these nice Express Lanes. They should provide a paid alternative to the notoriously bad I-95 congestion.

That’s the way they work: between Stafford and the Beltway, anyone can enter the lanes with an EZ-Pass transponder and pay for usage based on dynamic pricing. If the car has 3 or more occupants and is equipped with a special version of the EZ-Pass transponder switched to the HOV mode, then the ride is free.

However, during rush hour, once you get to Edsall Road, only HOV-3 vehicles can proceed, even if they don’t have an EZ-Pass. Everyone else must exit onto the regular lanes or risk fines ranging from $125 to $1,000 plus possible points off their driving record.

To make things easier, these lanes reverse direction too. In the morning they are open inbound to DC and around noon switch to outbound.

Clear as mud?

Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it just when it’s time to relocate away from the DC area.

4. Traffic in DC and Weather

It rains a fair deal here. About one third of the time, in fact.

You wouldn’t know it based on how drivers react to rain though. Everyone panics and slows to a standstill.

Half the drivers don’t have their headlights on. The other half probably don’t have their wipers on. Everyone is trying to crash.

Don’t even get me started on when it snows. This is the kind of driving nightmare you’ll be facing:

Live traffic capture from January 6, 2015. Snow day.

Better just stay home.

5. Traffic in DC and Night

Like any other place on Earth, DC gets proper day and night cycles. But it still seems to baffle some drivers.

You’ll be shocked how many people don’t have their headlines on at night.

I guess a lot of other people try to compensate for the fact by driving with their high beams on. I still can’t decide which one is worse.

6. Traffic in DC and Hills

While the DC area is not particularly hilly, we do get the occasional elevation change.

Regardless, traffic will start backing up for seemingly no reason. Then you realize everyone has been slowing down because of a hill.

Sometimes I imagine these drivers are asking themselves: what is this invisible, all-powerful force pulling me back? What can I do to fight it?

Umm, it’s called gravity and all it takes is a slight stab on the accelerator as you approach the uphill. Maybe they should teach this at driver ed.

7. Traffic in DC and Road Curves

Look around and you’ll see plenty of modern cars zipping across our fair city. But when it comes to navigating a slight turn in the road, you’d think people are driving Model Ts with bald tires. Everyone starts braking in panic.

Not really sure what can be done there. Just try not to scream.

8. Traffic in DC and Stoplights

There is a strange dichotomy at play here.

On one hand, you’re expected to take off at NASCAR speeds no more than 150 milliseconds after the light turns green. For comparison purposes, the average eye blink takes about 300 milliseconds. Stray ever so slightly beyond this time window and the horns start blaring.

On the other hand, multiple drivers start using their phones and no one even notices it’s time to go. I’ve witnessed this a few times: 3 or 4 cars idling blissfully through several light cycles. Then another car pulls up and ruins the party…

traffic in dc

9. Drivers from […] Are Terrible!

Whether it’s about hogging the left lane, not using turn signals or swerving in and out of traffic, it’s always the drivers from that OTHER jurisdiction.

The one that you don’t live in.

And drivers from outside DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) should expect some tough love from the locals while trying to navigate our byzantine roadways.

What Should Newbies Do?

When you understand how bad traffic is around here, you’ll know why property prices explode the closer in you get to downtown DC. The biggest takeaway is: even 5 miles could take you more than an hour, so know what the usual traffic patterns are.

What I advise my relocation clients is to pull up Google Maps during their usual commuting time. Then enter the driving directions to their office from the location they’re considering. The live traffic function tends to be pretty accurate and should provide a decent idea of the daily commute.

I drive about 1,000 miles every month all over the DC area. I’m happy to share my traffic insights with you, just contact me below:

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