Life among the landlocked

The Thinker by Rodin

I wonder how many workers in Los Angeles who live on one side of the sprawling metropolis would book a room in a hotel on the other side for three nights to attend a conference because they didn’t want to deal with the traffic.

I’m guessing not many LA’ers would consider this possibility, even if they could do it on their employer’s dime. Perhaps they would have done so in the past, but move over LA. Your city no longer holds the title for having the worst traffic in the United States. Perhaps due in part to malaise from the Great Recession, the Washington D.C. area now holds the dubious title of having the nation’s worst traffic. And here in the D.C. area, considering the hassle of getting from my house near Dulles International Airport to my place of business for the week near Baltimore-Washington International Airport (a distance of about fifty-five miles) the answer was clear: better book a hotel room.

That’s how bad the traffic is around here. Unlike Los Angeles, which at least has plenty of ways to get from point A to point B, in the Washington area if you need to get from, say, suburban Virginia to suburban Maryland you are largely limited to the Capital Beltway.  This usually means getting in a frequently congested queue of slow moving cars many miles long.

I drove to the conference from my house on Monday morning, leaving about 7:30 AM. I arrived ninety minutes later. This is actually a pretty good commuting time, considering it was in the thick of rush hour. I was helped in part because the bulk of the commuter traffic in the morning is from Maryland into Virginia. This is because Virginia has more jobs than Maryland, so Marylanders queue up on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway and on I-270 to get to Virginia. Many of those Maryland commuters were commuting to Tysons Corner in Virginia, so there were the usual clogs of cars on this road to tediously slog through. For me, because there were no accidents on the inner loop, the beltway was not a bad bottleneck, although it was slow in spots between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This is what you do if you are a Washingtonian with a car. You are on a road that was designed to be an expressway. Instead, you stop. You go a little. You stop. You go some more. Sometimes you creep for miles at five to 20 miles an hour. Then you stop some more again. And you go some more again. Many of the spots where this will happen are predictable, but on any given commute you know there are guaranteed to be a few gotchas, i.e. bozos involved in wholly preventable traffic accidents. Often Type A drivers cause these accidents. We are overrun with Type A drivers in this area because we are all here to make our mark on the world. We live on overly caffeinated coffee and work crazy hours. One in ten of us are lawyers.

So traffic is just another battle we must win. So we dodge and weave crazily in traffic and then crunch someone’s fender. Since the traffic is already bumper-to-bumper, this just causes a huge queue of cars to stop for miles behind the accident. The service vehicle often becomes a victim too. Crazy Washington drivers being who they are, they have few qualms about driving on the shoulder when convenient, in the process blocking the service vehicles.

So of course I opted to stay in the hotel. While most of the congestion and/or mayhem happen during rush hours, there is no accounting for the time of day for these events. Tuesday I witnessed a ten-mile backup on I-95 approaching Baltimore from the south. Fortunately I was going the opposite way. (I had to teach a class in Virginia that evening, so I left the conference early.) Some jackknifed tractor-trailer was responsible for blocking four lanes of traffic. The usual. And speaking of “the usual”, as I made my way from Baltimore back to Virginia there was the usual creeping traffic on the outer loop near New Hampshire Avenue and approaching the American Legion Bridge, then more in Virginia. In Virginia the beltway is being “modernized” to put in HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes and this construction is squeezing the already squeezed commuters on the road. These HOT lanes are basically expressways for the obscenely rich. But that’s okay in Virginia because the rich are basically in charge anyhow and god forbid we spend public money to make the beltway faster for the 99%. The very idea!

Spending three nights in a hotel fifty miles from home actually made a great deal of sense. I saved huge amounts of time (at least three hours a day) by not commuting even if it meant being deprived of the company of spouse and feline. Yet the experience seemed so ridiculous, to be so close to home and yet to sleep in a hotel. It was the only practical alternative because taxpayers around here apparently are masochists. Instead, we regularly pave over what we have, and very occasionally adding a lane or two. In general traffic moves much better in Maryland than in Virginia because they spend much more on transportation. You can see it on Route 29 with all the new interchanges. Even so these modest improvements are not enough, and in Maryland they just result in less gridlock than in Virginia.

Today, at the conclusion of our conference, I contemplated yet another stop and go largely unpredictable commute home on the Capital Beltway and decided I just couldn’t endure it again. Instead, even though it was further and probably a half an hour longer, I drove to Frederick, Maryland and then across the Potomac River at the far north Point of Rocks Bridge. At least I could move. At least, except for some congestion on I-695 (Baltimore’s beltway) I could move at highway speeds. At least there was some predictability of when I would get home. Had I tried the beltway, there was probably a five percent chance I would still be sitting in traffic somewhere. I just didn’t want to deal with the possibility.

I do hope that when I retire I can retire somewhere with much better traffic. You know, some place like Los Angeles.

One thought on “Life among the landlocked

  1. Ah, Virginia. Where it took me 90 minutes to drive 11 miles to work (through Tysons Corner). How I do not miss it! Now, my commutes is 20 miles and it takes me 25 minutes. I’ve had a wonderful year of decompression, and I hope I never have to go back. When people complain about traffic around here, I just laugh.

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