Should I avoid DC traffic tomorrow?
July 12, 2018 3:42 AM   Subscribe

I found this thread from a while ago - while I am not coming from the same area (coming from closer to Ohio through PA, going to South Carolina), I do have a similar question - I know they have build up the DC area roadways a lot since that question was asked and usually we go through the DC area, but at closer to 2am, so what I'm debating is; should I avoid DC/495/95 tomorrow around 8-10am and stay inland, or should I follow Google Maps suggestion, take 495/95 south, and take the HOV express lanes? (and if so, suggestions of where to get on/off to avoid the most traffic?)
posted by GuppieXX to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total)
It's impossible to answer this question. Summer traffic on 495/95 is usually much lighter than other seasons. Here's what should happen: You'll be ok, even during rush hour, on 495 until you hit 95 -- but then you'll have a slowdown for a little while, maybe 30 minutes or so. Not stop and go, but slow. The problem is that there's no way to predict that -- one little fender bender, or one traffic stop anywhere on 495 will mess up traffic throughout the area (a slight exaggeration, but only slight) and you'll be in stop and go traffic. I would suggest using Waze and following its dynamic suggestions on your travel day.
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:51 AM on July 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Whether it makes more sense depends on the time differential between the DC route and whatever other route you're considering. Try running the scenario setting the departure time from your departure point tomorrow to your destination and that will give you a reasonably accurate average NB-to-SB rush-hour-through-DC time. Google maps should already take express lane usage into consideration where they're available. If the alternative route is coming up as 30 minutes or more slower than the DC route then it's highly unlikely that rush hour--even an unusually bad day--will slow you down so much that the alternative becomes the faster route, although it's possible that a slightly longer but less frustrating/anxious-making route is still a win if you're not a fan of crowded city rush-hour driving conditions.
posted by drlith at 5:03 AM on July 12, 2018

Grain of salt first: I don't drive much these days, though I live in DC.

Warning next: this weekend is going to have two overlapping huge sets of events, the MLB All-Star Game and the opening of the new soccer stadium. We're being warned of very heavy traffic, starting as early as Friday (the All-Star "FanFest" itself starts first thing Friday morning).

Now, more salt: I don't know if this will significantly affect the morning rush. But I wanted to mention it, because it seems to me that if it does affect Friday morning rush hour traffic, it'll be the inbound traffic that gets the brunt.
posted by theatro at 5:17 AM on July 12, 2018

I lived just off of I-95 south of DC for 15 years and my advice is to always, always, avoid I-95 between DC and Fredericksburg. It's the most congested highway in America, and you are one fender bender from being in a 2-hour backup. And because of the limited number of bridges crossing the Rappahannock, you don't really have any options if I-95 sucks.

Play around with Google maps. If you can get a route that avoids DC metro traffic and is less than an hour slower on paper I'd take it.

PS - in morning rush the HOV lanes on I-95 south of DC will all be running north, you won't be able to use them.
posted by COD at 5:23 AM on July 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Like folks mentioned above, DC-area traffic is a crapshoot on any given day, but a couple things. 95 South (regular lanes) from the beltway south is probably OK that time of day after you pass Springfield/Newington area where it backs up for the folks going to Fort Belvoir. I frequently drive to Richmond at that time of day and the traffic usually moves.

You may see more trouble up in MD. If you are coming from 270 to 495 to 95S, 270 and 495 heading into VA could be really backed up in the morning. Morning rush hour here is like 6-10 am.

Also, when Google maps talks about HOV on 495, there are no free HOV lanes on 495 (beltway). There are HOT lanes or Express lanes. That means you pay a toll that varies according to the amount of traffic in the regular lanes. They can regularly be ~$5-$10 and higher. And you must have a EZ Pass to use them. There are no toll booths. The HOV lanes start when you get off the beltway on 95 and are free for HOV-3, but as mentioned above, they will be heading north not south in the morning.

Have you thought about going the other route through WV and NC? Have you tried the Waze app? It's great for trips like this. Good luck and safe travels!
posted by jraz at 6:10 AM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I used to commute from Maryland into the suburbs of Virginia daily (Woodbridge-ish area). I was going through the area a bit earlier, but generally, traffic on 495 going into Virginia isn't an issue since you're mostly going against the flow of traffic. 95S should similarly be OK for the most part, provided there's no accidents or anything.

I think you may run into trouble further north and further south, but right around the DC area (495 south of 270 & then into Stafford), you should be fine.
posted by darksong at 6:53 AM on July 12, 2018

I drive on the beltway every weekday morning and afternoon (although going in the opposite direction from you will be in the morning). What people have said about it being a crapshoot are correct, but generally the crapshoot is not whether or not it's going to be bad (unless you go through before 6:30 a.m. or so), but how bad it's going to be--especially as you get later in the morning.

I recommend taking the "longer" route (by miles and/or time) unless there is a really drastic difference in the estimates to avoid the headache of going 3 miles an hour for 20 minutes at a time. I have also noted that the estimate (via Android Auto) for me to get where I'm going may be one thing when I leave, but as more people get on the beltway and/or someone screws it up for the rest of us, that estimate can drastically change.
posted by Kimberly at 6:54 AM on July 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

What's the actual route? Ohio-where to SC-where? I ask because we travel I-81 to SC sometimes, and the consistency of that route can beat the crapshoot of I-95. If you are northern enough that you are crossing PA, what would it be like to do I-70 -> I-81 or I-68 -> I-70 -> I-81.
posted by ersatzkat at 7:42 AM on July 12, 2018

I drive the upper left quadrant of the Beltway every day. I would avoid all of 495-95 if you can. Even if there are none of the 20-40 minute traffic jams described above, short, sudden slowdowns remain a constant threat. Traffic can be going 70 mph for one stretch only to suddenly drop to nothing the next. If you take your eyes of the road at that moment, you risk rear-ending someone at high speed.

Also, some of my worst experiences on 95 south have been on Fridays in the summer, as I joined many others traveling south to the beach. This phenomenon of people leaving for vacation throughout the day creates "getaway traffic" that essentially makes for an all-day rush hour.

But I am also confused about why you're considering coming near Washington, DC. The Ohio-Pa state line is almost directly north of Columbia, SC, and nearly the entire distance between them is linked by interstate highways. DC, on the other hand, is a 220-mile detour to the east. I also suspect driving south through the Appalachians is going to be more scenic than the Beltway and I-95.
posted by hhc5 at 8:30 AM on July 12, 2018

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the help; probably just going to avoid DC... it has been so many years since we have made this trip during daylight, I was just curious as to whether those Express lanes really helped enough to make the DC idea worth considering.
posted by GuppieXX at 9:10 AM on July 12, 2018

The beltway express lanes DO help and could be an option, but they are HOT lanes (high occupancy toll). So you'd need some form of EZ Pass, and if you don't want to pay tolls, you need a SPECIAL EZ Pass that can flip to a setting that tells the toll system "hey, I'm in a carpool". The toll lanes cost more during rush hour/high traffic times.

I-270 has HOV 2 lanes that start at Shady Grove (no EZ Pass required) - that would pass you to the outer loop in Bethesda, and you'd pick up the HOT lanes after crossing the American Legion bridge. You could ride those all the way around the outer loop. I'm guessing the I-95 HOT lanes would still be pointed north, not south yet, at the time you'd need those, but you'd also be going against the rush hour traffic.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:15 AM on July 12, 2018

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