Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Washington DC: Getting in, out and around town

Driving in and out of the District can be difficult, especially if you aren't used to the heavy traffic. When I first moved here I was stunned at the amount of road congestion, even in suburban areas and side streets way outside D.C. It didn't take long to realize why D.C. is (one of the) most congested areas in the United States. Navigating a car can be tricky, annoying or downright frustrating. However, over the years I've adjusted (as much as anyone can) and wanted to share what I've learned.

Parking in Washington DC
Finding parking downtown is not always easy
Downtown - In my opinion the best way to get downtown is by Metro rail, but if you want to drive and you plan to visit the National Mall, I'd advise you plan to get there early. There is some free parking, but these fill up quickly (and I believe time allotted is limited if memory serves). 

Street parking throughout the city also tends to fill up very quickly, especially in the areas in and around the Mall. There are privately-owned pay to park lots throughout the city, but I don't have much experience with these as I try to use the Metro as much as possible. Chances are they are costly, so do your research before heading into town and see what garages are in the vicinity of where you plan to be. Although, if we leave early, we've been able to snag free parking along Constitution Avenue on the weekends.

Using Interstates - I'd highly recommend avoiding Friday and Sunday nights. Getting out of the District on Friday afternoon and evenings is painful, you could easily sit on the Beltway (I-495) and take hours to get anywhere remotely away from DC. (My personal record is 2 miles in 2 hours, after that I gave up driving the Beltway on Friday nights). Other highways and local roads in surrounding areas are also typically traffic heavy on Fridays. I'm not as sure about getting into town, but if it's anything trying to get out, it could be painful.  

I've found traveling either way on early Saturday mornings to be an excellent time. Avoid rush hours during the week.
Traffic in Northern Virginia I-66
Mid-afternoon traffic on I-66 in Virginia

Morning hours are tough if you're looking to get downtown, and you do have HOV lanes to consider. Rush hour tends to start pretty early. Many locals head to work between 5 and 6:30 a.m. just to avoid the heaviest of traffic. For afternoons, keep in mind rush hour can start as early as 3 p.m. around here, but the 5 to 6 p.m. hours are the most congested. Having driven the Beltway during mid-day, it can be crowded, but, for the most part, you keep moving.

Parking - Many spots at the stations are reserved, but you can get parking if you go early enough and arrive at the same time as commuters. A tip - the reserved spots at the stations open up at 10 a.m. Many people I know arrive at 10 a.m. on the button and can usually get a spot. I've taken this advice and it works! The last time I tried it was during Cherry Blossoms, a very busy time downtown, and got a spot with no problem and took the train downtown.

The rare times I do drive downtown, I typically just park at Union Station - I know I can get a spot there and, while there are fees, I know exactly what I'm getting when I park there. Plus the station itself is interesting to see and it also has a Red Line station (which you can take the train to other places in the city or easily transfer to other Metro lines). Sites such as the Capitol, Library of Congress and Supreme Court are also in relatively close proximity to walk from Union Station.

Another option to consider is Metro Bus, but I don't have experiences to share as I rely on the train - it's convenient and, for the most part, reliable. 

Traffic in D.C. is annoying, but on the plus side, there are so many wonderful things to see and do. With a bit of planning you can avoid some of the congestion and focus on having a good time. 

Metro Washinton DC

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