Give it to me straight...How bad is DC area around 5-6pm?

Mark P.

DIS Veteran
Aug 19, 1999
We'll be traveling south, and would it be unwise to not take the beltway, and drive straight through on MD295/I295 instead, or at that time of day, is the Beltway the most sensible route to take? Does even the Beltway get congested too??

The beltway does get backed up especially where it converges with 95 South. We haven't driven to Florida that way in a few years so maybe it's better. We've flown the last four times. The last few times we drove we took the Cape May Lewes ferry and then the Cheasepeake Bay Bridge tunnel. It was an easy ride over to Emporia, Va. We cut out all of the DC and Baltimore traffic. Be sure to make reservations on the ferry if your going at Easter time. By the way we'll be staying at the Swan and then the AKL when we go in March-April.
Hopefully, you'll get a local to reply. If you are talking about a weekday, I'd say avoid it like the plague! If it's a weekend, go for it.

Usually, we avoid I-95 north of Fredericksburg, VA. Too many times we've gotten caught in snarled traffic, either due to volume, construction, and/or accidents, etc. Interestingly enough, our chokepoint on a summer 2001 trip was in MD, between the DE state line and Baltimore! We decided to try I-95 from Philly south again! Think I'll stick with my end around route.

"Bad" is not the word for traffic around DC at 5-6PM. "Horrible" would be a more apt description. The only way to avoid what may be the worst traffic in the entire U.S. would be to a) avoid it entirely by taking an alternate route, or b) travel around DC at an "off" hour. When we drive, we try to leave the house at 3:00AM--getting around DC before 5:00AM. To beat the afternoon snarls, you probably wouldn't want to try until after 7:30 PM, at least. And weekends aren't much better. You still have all the trucks plus far more tourists. One of the worst backups I've seen was last summer at the "mixing bowl"* It was on a Sunday afternoon around 1:00. Traffic was backed up from the mixing bowl on the capitol beltway all the way back to near I-66. Many miles, and there was NO accident and NO construction!! Just traffic.
So my suggestion would be to go very early--or very late....
*The "mixing bowl" has to be seen to be believed. It's where all the beltway and I-95 traffic comes together in a hopeless tangle of lane changes, construction and traffic signs, with tourists driving slow ( they have no idea what lane to take) combined with locals and trucks driving like bats out of hell!! I won't even take this going to Williamsburg anymore--we use US 301 these days--.
Thanks for the replies folks:) We too usually fly, but decided to drive this time, and we'd be hitting the DC area right at the wrong time on a Wednesday. We were going to pick up DS early from school then leave, but at this point, he might just miss another day all together and we'll leave earlier to avoid the "mixing bowl", lol...

Thanks again!
At peak times on the beltway the traffic can stop, crawl, then clear up, then suddenly come to a stop again- I would avoid it at that time of day at all costs!
I'm in southern Maryland so I don't know too much about the DC traffic, but just want to second the 301 idea. I'd have to look at an atlas to see how to hit it from Baltimore, but take 301S through Waldorf and keep going. There is a toll bridge into Va and I think it was $2 last time we went over. I'm not a big fan of 95 at any time, especially the DC/Va traffic! I don't know what 301 looks like in rush hour, but from Waldorf to the border it isn't bad at all. Once you get into Va, you can stay on 301 into Richmond or cut over to 95, about the same time-wise either way. Leaving DC on 95 in rush hour in Va is not going to be easy.
301 isn't too bad--and it does head in the right direction. It is slower than 95, mainly due to the traffic lights in Waldorf, la Plata, etc. But if you must travel at "rush hour" times, it is a pretty good alternative. We use it to get to Williamsburg these days and as snugglebug says, you can head right back to 95 once you are in Va. and safely past DC.
Someone asked for a native. I don't live there now, but I grew up there and my parents still live there, just 5 miles from the aforementioned "mixing bowl". There is currently a major construction project going on which will eventually make this a little better, but.....

Getting to I-295 on Maryland side doesn't help because you end up meeting the Beltway on the Maryland side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge which is where some of the big backups are.

The Beltway is slow at various places during rush hour, and rush hour can be from 4-7 (a lot of government workers get off at 4). As a "local", if I am headed south from Baltimore area (my wife is from there) I sometimes take BW Parkway which turns into Route 50/New York Avenue and heads right into downtown. Then you can make your way through to 395/Shirley Highway (using the tunnels under the Mall) and take the car pool lanes down Shirley Highway until you get south of the mixing bowl (Springfield VA). You really need to look at this on a map--New York Avenue runs through some rough parts of NE DC (but if you stay on NY Ave lots of traffic no problem). If you want more detail on this option, post here or PM me.
I would try to get through the mixing bowl before 3pm. But if you can't avoid it, be sure to get to the left asap and get on the HOV(high occupancy vehicle)lanes if you'll have 3 in your car. HOV is pretty smooth sailing, but don't speed! There are a ton of troopers on HOV to catch violators.

If you're coming off 495 onto 95 South, the mixing bowl can be a nightmare. You'll be in one of the right lanes trying to get all the way left to get on 95. Meanwhile, a bunch of people on 95 will be trying to get all the way left to exit at Springfield.

With the construction, it has been a little easier lately. Now, instead of having to get at least 3 lanes left, if you can get one lane left you'll be okay. Don't panic that you've seemingly missed the merge onto 95. Once you go under the bridge, the very left lane becomes the very right lane on 95 and you don't have to merge over. But from that point try to get left to get on HOV. You'll be able to take HOV all the way down to Dumfries. The initial merge on to 95 can be a little backed up at that point, but after a mile or so you're home free.

Good luck--hopefully you can avoid it, but those tips might help if you can't.

If you take 301 and want to get back on 95 asap, go route 3 west. That'll take you to 95 through Fredericksburg.
I remember the first time I experienced DC traffic at rush hour! :) It was a summer Friday at late afternoon, it seemed like everyone was out on the highway! Glad I wasn't driving. Sorta reminded me of Los Angeles at rush hour!

Definetly try to get thru around mid-day. We've been thru DC in the mornings (around 8-9AM) and it's been backed up at times. Maybe some locals can chime in with some exact times to watch out for.
Fridays in the summer are unbelievable! If you're headed south, you'll want to be down to Fredericksburg by 3pm. If you're headed north, you don't want to be there between 6am and 9am. This is on the Virginia side, I'm not sure about the Maryland side.
I've grown up around the Beltway all my life and the Beltway is defintely passable depending upon the day in question but I agree with all of the above. As a traveller, it would be best if you can be off it by 4:00 PM at the latest.

The Virginia side is always far worse than the Maryland side due to the "mixing bowl's construction" situation and you need to watch the signs carefully. Use the HOV lanes if you have the required passengers and put the driver with "nerves of steel" at the wheel if you do decide to tackle the Virginia side at rush hour. Also listen to the radio about 1 hour before you plan to hit the Beltway to hear if there are major accidents shutting it down (roughly 1 or 2 a month) and have an alternate route in mind. Virginia has a great web site (don't know the URL but it is easily found by searching) which will update you on local conditions for construction. We have a contractor in our office who travels through the "mixing bowl" every morning and gives us daily updates and says it is getting better.

Our family travelled through California 18 months ago and hit several big cities in rush hour and survived with style so I think the Beltway is certainly "doable". Not knowing where you're starting from I'm guessing that you'll probably be on at most one-half of it and with any reasonable luck driving it for forty-five minutes or so.

Good'll be fine!
I'm a local and I would say "horrific" describes rush hour traffic, especially into Northern Virginia.

If you need to travel through DC, do it before 3:00 PM or after 6:30-7:00 PM. Otherwise, expect bumper to bumper crawling.

We occassionally drive to Florida, and last did so in October. We leave at 4:30 AM because then we avoid the worst of both Washington and Richmond's rush hours. It usually then smooth sailing until Jacksonville.
Ok, you guys have me confused and scared to death! We will be traveling down and back and have only traveled this once right after Sept. 11th. as we were at WDW and kept our rental car and drove 25 hrs. straight to get home. We left WDW at about 7:30 am and with very few stops I only remember it being dark when we hit D.C. Traffic was BAD but then again everyone in the country was driving somewhere as no planes were in the air. I wrote to AAA and asked them to keep us away from the big cities. We travelled the whole entire route home on I-95. What is the beltway? Is this part of I-95? In looking at what AAA sent us I see they have us on 95 up until the Delaware Memorial Bridge, then onto 301 straight thru till Bowling Green, then onto 207, then it looks like at Carmel Church they put us back onto I-95. Can anyone tell me if they have traveled this and if this looks like the right way to go and if this will avoid this mess everyone is talking about? Is this route going to be easy for us or are we headed for more trouble? Thanks!
As you travel down I-95 (after hopefully getting around Baltimore ok), you'll come to the capitol beltway. You'd think I-95 would continue on, but it dosen't. You'll come to a "split" in the road where you can take the beltway in either direction. Unfortunately, the beltway around DC(the Wilson Bridge side) is also I-95 and that of course is a large part of the problem---a true monument to pathetic planning. Taking the Beltway in the other direction (toward Dulles Airport and I-66) is not much better and either direction ends up at the "mixing bowl".

The route AAA planned will get you around the major cities.. but 301 is a lot slower, lots of traffic lights, etc. Getting thru Baltimore on I-95 is always a gamble, with the Mchenry Tunnel sometimes being a major headache. But getting around Richmond is pretty easy, with I-295 going around that city and avoiding much of the traffic.
So IMHO, it's mostly getting around DC (particularly on the Virginia side) that is the major problem. I lived in NYC for awhile and even the Long Island Expressway was better than I-95 at the "mixing bowl".
So my earlier advice still stands--beat the big city traffic by either going thru very early, or very late.
The beltway is 495, I95 overlaps that on the maryland side. Basically, I95 meets 495 between DC and Baltimore (mixing bowl, horrible traffic) then 95 continues on the maryland side and over the Wilson bridge, you are now in Virginia. It then splits off of 495 and you have another mixing bowl. This one is worse in my opinion. To avoid just that one, you could take route 5 down to Waldorf and continue on 301 into Virginia. It does get backed up, but it's not terribly bad. I can make it from the beltway to home (Waldorf) in about 45 minutes. I do not like going into virginia because the traffic is terrible and rather confusing. If it were me, not knowing the area very well, I would take 301 and deal with the stop lights. Once you get into Waldorf, the traffic is not bad at all compared to closer to DC.
This reminds me of a story I read about a lady who lived in Woodbridge Va. and worked in DC. The traffic was SO bad that in less than a year of commuting, she taught herself French AND German while sitting in back-ups listening to audio tapes!!


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