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The Baffling Beltway

Lately, we've discussed plenty of important and controversial transportation issues here on the blog and in the Dr. Gridlock columns, including the traffic problems created by the rehab of the Douglass Bridge and the Legion Bridge, and the new transportation taxes and fees in Northern Virginia.

So it came as a surprise that the topic generating the most responses in the past month was this: How do you figure out which way you're going on the Capital Beltway?

It must be a credit to the role this central artery plays in our traveling lives. It's a valuable resource and the bane of our existence. I'll run some more of the letters in an upcoming newspaper column, but here's one that illustrates the themes and suggestions among the writers.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I could really relate to the inner/outer loop confusion discussed in the Sunday column. I was born and raised here. The Beltway opened when I was 16, and I couldn't figure it out for many years.

Here's what helped me: I visualized the belt around DC (DC being in the middle). It helps to look at a map the first time that shows the belt around the city. I remind myself that the loop closest to DC is the inner loop; it's the INSIDE loop of the two. It also helps me take the correct exits; I know if I'm going toward the city, I take the first exit (usually), and if I'm heading away from the city I take the second cloverleaf.

The clockwise, counterclockwise never worked for me.

And while we're on the subject of the Beltway, when did it become the job of the motorists on the Beltway to yield to the incoming traffic and not the other way around? The whole idea was to keep the traffic moving and now, everyone in the right lane has to brake for the cars speeding on from the entrance ramps. It contributes mightily to the traffic problems.
Linda Gordon
Silver Spring

That last is just one of many complaints letter writers have about Beltway traffic. You can almost work your way through common complaints lane by lane. In the middle, it's weavers and speeders. To the left it's people who cruise in the passing lane.

Our letter writer's idea rule of thumb on identifying exits is interesting and clearly works for her. But I'm wondering how often it can be applied. In Silver Spring, for example, the Maryland State Highway Administration is rebuilding the outer loop's exit to University Boulevard to eliminate the weaving merge for entering and exiting traffic. The result will be that all traffic goes up one ramp, whether it's heading toward the District or away.

What other observations do you have about the region's Main Street?

By Robert Thomson  |  July 31, 2007; 8:29 AM ET
Categories:  Driving  
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Next: Beltway Alert in Bethesda

Comments

I blame part of this ignorance on the general public's lack of map-reading skills. Yes it's confusing but if you look at a regional map of the DC area two or three times, you can understand the concepts more clearly.

I think it's ironic that while people's average daily travels (in number of miles) has increased over the last 15 years, their practical geographic knowledge has decreased.

Posted by: jpgdlc | July 31, 2007 9:37 AM | Report abuse

You've got to be kidding me. I figured out the whole loop thing when I was 4, that's nearly 26 years ago. Let's think of this logically...the Beltway is a circle. Belts are generally circles when connected so therefore the Beltway is indeed a circle.

Now, think about where DC is in relation to the Beltway. It's inside the Beltway, if you're closer to DC, you're on the inner loop, if you're not, you're on the outer loop.

Traffic reporters have been using inner loop and outer loop as long as I can remember.

If you want to figure it out, you don't even need a map. Draw a dot on a piece of paper, then draw a circle around in. What part of the circle is the inside and what part is the outside. It's the same as a house. The area enclosed by the walls (the line) is inside so therefore the closest area MUST be the inner loop.

Geez people, it's so easy, the Cavemen already figured it out.

Posted by: Loops | July 31, 2007 10:02 AM | Report abuse

You've got to be kidding me. I figured out the whole loop thing when I was 4, that's nearly 26 years ago. Let's think of this logically...the Beltway is a circle. Belts are generally circles when connected so therefore the Beltway is indeed a circle.

Now, think about where DC is in relation to the Beltway. It's inside the Beltway, if you're closer to DC, you're on the inner loop, if you're not, you're on the outer loop.

Traffic reporters have been using inner loop and outer loop as long as I can remember.

If you want to figure it out, you don't even need a map. Draw a dot on a piece of paper, then draw a circle around in. What part of the circle is the inside and what part is the outside. It's the same as a house. The area enclosed by the walls (the line) is inside so therefore the closest area MUST be the inner loop.

Geez people, it's so easy, the Cavemen already figured it out.

Posted by: Loops | July 31, 2007 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the above post - it's really not that hard and I haven't lived here my whole life.

Posted by: MMH | July 31, 2007 10:03 AM | Report abuse

If traffic is moving on the Beltway (even slightly below the speed limit), then ramp traffic should be yielding to Beltway traffic. But if Beltway traffic is stop and go, it makes sense for right-lane Beltway traffic and ramp traffic to take turns and merge *at the same spot* like a zipper. Otherwise, delays on the ramps would become intollerable.

I too am astounded by peoples' lack of geographic knowledge. I think part of the problem is that traffic reports and even official press releases refer to the inner and outer loop, but the signs leading up to the Beltway only show cardinal directions. Of course if they only showed inner and outer, people would get confused too (Raleigh NC's I-440 Beltway had this problem until they changed all the signs to east and west), but having both might help both sets of travelers adapt (Charlotte's I-485 beltway uses signs that say "I-485 south outer" and "I-485 west inner"). Otherwise, you really just won't understand if you can't visualize what is going on, and not everyone's mind is visual.

Posted by: Woodley Park | July 31, 2007 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Yes, it does come down to the ability to RTFM...

I can't remember my driver's license tests, but I think that in this area at least, some map-reading tasks should be mandatory!

Posted by: jpgdlc | July 31, 2007 10:10 AM | Report abuse

In some parts of the country (eg. the midwest) people actually vacate the right hand lane at entrances so that people can merge. You know, drivers think about the conditions that are around them, anticipate changes, and drive as though others are allowed on the road.

I'll spare you all any more proclimations of my own map-reading genius. I just hope that all the experts posting above are are as satisfied with their knowldge as they are with telling other people about it

(i.e. it's good you're so smart and you can read a map. now stop telling us about it)

Posted by: Fighting 495er | July 31, 2007 10:15 AM | Report abuse

It's not the ability to read the map that's necessary in this, it's the ability to think with the common sense that inside anything is going to be inner.

Posted by: Circle meets the Square | July 31, 2007 10:24 AM | Report abuse

As for the merge business, I look at it as sort of a negotiation. If I'm in the right lane and someone's on the acceleration lane, I note whether there's room in front of me or behind me. I keep a constant speed if there's room before/aft. If it becomes clear that the person can't/won't figure out how to merge (slows down even thought the only place to get in is a head of me) then I speed up or slow down to accomodate them (in the case mentioned, I would speed up since they won't and currently there's not enough room behind me - if I speed up, then there'll be room).

Posted by: Bethesda | July 31, 2007 11:04 AM | Report abuse

At Georgia Ave in Maryland trying to get onto the outer loop, there is not enough merge area to get up to speed before entering the Beltway, at least for my car. This is compounded by people who refuse to accelerate as they approach the highway on the entrance ramp. I just pretty much have to rely on the kindness of a stranger to get in at 40 mph.

The sad thing is that this is an improved merge from how it used to be, when the same lil' stretch of lane had to handle both incoming traffic and exiting traffic.

Bad design drives bad manners and poor traffic flow.

Posted by: Lindemann | July 31, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

(In MD's defense, I don't know where they would put additional merge area, unless they were able to bend space-time somehow and localize it on the merge lane. Basically, I'm just venting.)

Posted by: Lindemann | July 31, 2007 11:26 AM | Report abuse

As far as map reading, this doesn't suprise me. I moved here 5 years ago, figured out the "beltway" in about 2 weeks and have not had issues since. My wife of 2 years grew up here and repeatedly gets lost on the beltway, her parents are the same way...it is amazing, but some people are just not good with directions!

As for those zip-zoom-flyers coming down the ramps, I think what is really being referenced are the extreme cases, you know, the guy that just refuses to yield, can't wait his turn to merge, and expects everyone to let him in. My solution to those people has always been to drive a junker to work each day and just dare someone in their BMW 7 Series to break the law and merge into me...I can already feel a tingle in my neck!

Posted by: site400 | July 31, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I moved to this area from Atlanta. 15 years ago, no one used the terms inner loop or outer loop to refer to the Perimeter (Atlanta's Beltway). Now, they use these terms. When I came here, I thought that the above terms were so helpful in learning the area's major highways. My rule of thumb: If you look to your right and you are looking toward DC, then you're on the inner loop. If you look to the right and are looking away from the city, you're on the outer loop. The mile markers also have 'IL' on the inner loop side and 'OL' on the outer loop side. Generally exits marked 'A' take you away from the DC and exits marked 'B' take you to DC.

Posted by: Perimeter to Beltway | July 31, 2007 5:03 PM | Report abuse

In my opinion, there nothing wrong with the layout of the belt way or the signs that help you negotiate it. It is just that alot drivers do not plan their trip.

I think what it comes down to is that you have to have some kind of sense of direction and a general idea on how you are going to get to where you are going.

Posted by: bugged about traffic | July 31, 2007 10:38 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Dr. Gridlock,
I'd like to add my comments on travelling the Capital Beltway by asking about the signs. When leaving Virigina the signs say "Baltimore or Richmond." No wonder my out of state friends think I live closer to Baltimore than DC, there's absolutely no mention of Prince George's County. Only when you get into the County does it reference College Park. Is there a conspiracy in trying to pretend that Prince George's County does not exist? When I am travelling the VA Beltway the signs reference Alexandria, Springfield, and Tysons Corner. Why is Prince George's not allowed the same recognition, not to mention helping to guide you as to what direction you're headed. Even a reference to Andrews AFB makes a lot more sense than "Baltimore."

Posted by: Audrey ElAmin | August 1, 2007 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Audrey, What you are talking about is something called a control city. These are meant to be helpful guides to out-of-town motorists in assisting them and reassuring them that they are traveling in the right direction. A control city is suppose to be a city that is generally known to most folks, so its usually a very large city or area. Springfield, Alexandria and Tysons Corner are all very well known to most people, not so much because of size but also because of location, e.g. Springfield is known because of the Springfield Interchange that is located there.

So I don't think highway planners purposefully "forgot" about Prince Georges County as you suggest. But rather, there aren't really any well known locations directly on I-95/495 in Prince Georges. (I don't think the majority of people on I-95 know anything about the location of Andrews AFB even though that is given as a control point in some of the signage.)
Although most people driving from VA to MD and into Prince Georges County do know where Baltimore is, so that is why the control city of Baltimore is used.

(For some other insight, on I-95 south of Richmond, there are signs that use a control city of Miami, yet Miami is hundreds of miles away at this point, but most of the population knows Miami is in Florida so if the sign reads "I-95 Miami" they know they are headed in the right direction.)

Posted by: xyv1027 | August 1, 2007 4:58 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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