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Heavy Traffic in Rosslyn and Georgetown

In this interconnected region, a problem at one intersection can create a traffic jam that sprawls across the states and the District. That was the case early this summer when the work staging area on the Legion Bridge slowed traffic on the George Washington Parkway, Chain Bridge Road, the Beltway, the Dulles Toll Road and I-66. So I was wondering if another work zone was at the heart of new traffic problems on the parkway, on the streets in Rosslyn, on the Key Bridge and along Canal Road in Georgetown.

Key Bridge.jpg Morning traffic heads onto Key Bridge. (Robert Thomson)

That's what I'm getting the most complaints about now from drivers, and they're right. I walked around Rosslyn and Georgetown on Thursday and Friday mornings, writing about that in my Sunday column. Traffic was really bad from late in the rush hour through what should have been the start of the post-rush period.

North Lynn Street, the ramp from the parkway to the Key Bridge, the bridge itself and inbound Canal Road were particularly difficult.

This is a troublesome spot anyway, because of the volume of commuter traffic that must pass through the junction of Canal Road, Key Bridge, Whitehurst Freeway, M Street and 35th Street NW.

inbound canal.jpg Traffic crawls through work zone on inbound Canal Road.(Robert Thomson)

On inbound Canal Road, a right turn lane was blocked off recently to allow a safe area for the construction workers to proceed with one of the last phases of the road widening project near Georgetown University that started in January and is scheduled to end next month. That could certainly be contributing to the heavy traffic, sending some frustrated commuters over to the George Washington Parkway as an alternative and increasing the volume on that side of the river.

Still, it was hard to believe that lane was the sole source of the problem. There were two inbound lanes open, the same set-up the District Department of Transportation said it would maintain throughout the project. It didn't appear to be the same sort of bottleneck created by the now-vanished staging area on the Legion Bridge.

ambulance.jpg An ambulance had to cut into the more open outbound lanes to get free of stopped traffic on inbound Canal. (Robert Thomson)

But I couldn't spot any other issue in the area, with the possible exception of the light timing for inbound traffic on Canal. It's a long wait for a short green at the junctions with the Whitehurst Freeway and Key Bridge. But one thing that makes this such a troublesome area is that any gain on green in one direction would have to be subtracted from another. And there's plenty of traffic all around.

The one bit of hope from my observations was that the Canal Road widening project is pretty far along. Lanes were being paved overnight last week and they look pretty good. The new left turn lane into Georgetown University looks about ready to open and the widening of the rest of the inbound roadway should help when that's complete in October.

By Robert Thomson  |  September 24, 2007; 6:06 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion  
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Some of these people could take a bus, and I don't mean just the Metro. They could take the little blue Georgetown University bus from Rosslyn to Georgetown and then get a Metro or Circulator. They could also, of course, take the 38B to Farrugut Square.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | September 24, 2007 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Police should also enforce the no parking laws on M Street for evening rush. Get out there and tow those cars that clog outbound traffic. Unclog the traffic and easy money for DC.

Posted by: Time | September 24, 2007 11:48 AM | Report abuse

First of all, we carpool with four people. And we all live in a metro-dead zone. Have you ever tried to commute from one metro-dead zone to another (Georgetown)? If not, don't give us your "bus" solution. I did do it for months and it took exactly 5 times longer than driving on a good day and cost a heck of a lot more.

Posted by: bus my eye! | September 24, 2007 12:05 PM | Report abuse

yeah, the little bus is great, but they need to 1) upgrade their bus or 2) take smartcard. they also don't run very often -- it is usually quicker to walk across the key bridge than wait for the bus. $1.50 is also a lot for a ride across the bridge.

Towing on M street is very aggressive -- and so are the $100 fines. I don't think that is the problem.

Wait I have the solution: tear down Whitehurst, replace it with a six lane K street that adds another difficult intersection to the exit of the Key Bridge, and dump another 50K cars into Georgetown -- that's the ticket.

Posted by: charlie | September 24, 2007 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Funny that you mention the N Lynn St exit to the George Washington Parkway. Today a guy in a white truck rear ended me as he tried to merge into the three lanes of traffic going to the key bridge. It was AFTER the lanes had split.
He has obviously tried to skip ahead of all the other traffic. I was ahead of him, and slowed to let a car in ahead of me. And he was too busy trying to jump in-front of everyone to bother with what the traffic already in his lane was doing.
It's a horrible intersection, and I see people doing what this guy in the white pickup did everyday. If I was headed to the key bridge it'd drive me nuts seeing all these people doing this illegal and very dangerous manoeuvre.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | September 24, 2007 12:40 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Bill | September 24, 2007 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I can't be sure, but it seems that the timing of the lights was recently adjusted. On recent trips heading into Georgetown on Canal Road, I thought that the green light allowing traffic to continue past the Key Bridge intersection was much longer than it used to be (which would account for less time being given to the turning Key Bridge traffic).

Posted by: Bryan | September 24, 2007 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to hear about that Arlington.

Another obnoxious trend I've noticed lately in this huge bottle neck is how inbound cars on the Key Bridge who want to turn left when the left turn lanes are backed up, but who are too important to wait patiently with the rest of us, now just turn left from the right turn lane.

Posted by: Paul | September 24, 2007 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I didn't mean to offend anyone with the bus suggestion. I was just simply pointing out that there are some alternatives to driving. I'll be honest in saying that I actually would drive to if Georgetown weren't so crowded, since that is the best route to take from VA to my job here in DC. (Okay, and I'd need cost [cough, cheap, cough]-effective parking.)
The few times I tried it gave me a headache and made me react with a quite a few expletives. It was worse in the afternoon, since there are more pedestrians in G-town between 2-9 p.m.

Anyway, if I lived near Rosslyn, and worked near G-Town or GWU hospital, I'd bike.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | September 24, 2007 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Well, the people of Georgetown didn't want a Metro station, so this is the result... Georgetown is the one and only place I will actually ride a bus to get to, due to the parking situation (they even enforce resident permits on Saturdays there its so bad...)

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 24, 2007 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Actually, here's a thought I just had...I wonder how much the Rock Creek Parkway construction debacle factors into this as well. Drivers from certain parts of Northwest might be diverting to Canal Road from Rock Creek Parkway...traffic on the parkway has been lighter than it was in the spring lately, while GW Parkway/Canal Road traffic has been much worse.

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 24, 2007 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Noticed something: Fridays bring out the rudest, most self-absorbed and dangerous driving habits in commuters. To the white man in the black Jaguar with VA plates that cut me off from BEHIND while we were both trying to make a left turn in the Mark Center area of Alexandria last Friday: K. A. R. M. A.

He was too important to wait for the pedestrian crossing the street and the right turning cars from opposite us, both of which I was yielding to. As I was the car ahead of him, I never in my life thought that he (or anyone) would pull around me from behind and to my left (EXACTLY where I was trying to turn, dumbarse!) when both of us were waiting to turn left, and had been waiting for 10 (gasp!) seconds for the right of way, and I had had my turn signal on the entire time. Thanks for the near miss! I'm 8 months preggers and I'm sure my child appreciated the surge of stress hormones it got doused with thanks to your retarded driving etiquette.

Grumbles...self-important drivers are the worst on Fridays.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | September 24, 2007 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I use to work at 1000 Thomas Jefferson in Georgetown .. and I THANK GOD daily that I moved away from DC to south eastern Virginia = no traffic, salary increase, more free time not sitting in traffic 3+ hours a day, and less stress.

Posted by: Thankful | September 24, 2007 5:06 PM | Report abuse

What really gets my blood boiling are the people that when I'm in the left lane (the proper lane) on Canal at Whitehurst waiting to go straight so I can cross Key Bridge feel that their time is more important than mine and pull up in the right lane that is supposed to turn and expect me to let them in. Not only do they cause those of us waiting patiently in what can sometimes be a long line to have to wait even longer, but they cause a backup for the people trying to turn down Whitehurst. One day the other week they had barrels up so that people couldn't do that, I wish they would add something more permanent.

Also, the added lane to go straight into Georgetown doesn't seem to be helping traffic in my opinion. The lane going to Georgetown still backs up which causes everyone crossing the Key bridge to have to still wait for that lane to move forward before we can go. I honestly don't know if I've ever seen a worse cluster [expletive].

Posted by: Cara | September 24, 2007 5:28 PM | Report abuse

The point Cara makes is one of my pet peeves in general, although I don't drive through Georgetown very often. I saw some people attempting the same sort of maneuver yesterday on the way to RFK--people were queued up in the left lane of the Southwest-Southeast Freeway almost to South Capitol Street, and you had a few self-important types who would drive all the way down to the Pennsylvania Avenue ramp and then try to shove left. I'm not sure which irks me more--the people who do this, or the idiots who let them in (which just encourages them to do it again).

To the baseball fans' credit, there were a LOT fewer people pulling this stunt yesterday than there are pulling the opposite stunt (driving down the stadium lane, then cutting right) on weekday afternoons during rush hour.

But let's see if I can think of places where I see this sort of thing. I should note that I'm distinguishing between using the full merge lane in slow traffic (which you SHOULD do, taking turns at the end) and blocking a thru lane in order to cut into a queue later on (which you should NOT). Hmmm....

Ninth Street Tunnel (people stop in the thru lane to the Waterfront to try to shove into the queue for I-395 to Virginia)

SW-SE Freeway at the RFK end (as noted above)

Inbound I-395 exit to VA-27 towards Memorial Bridge (people try to cut right into the exit lane right as the lane splits off)

Northbound Van Dorn Street at the Beltway (people drive down the left-turn lane for the Beltway and then drive across the striped area to cut into the thru traffic)

VA-27 going to Memorial Bridge if the road is backed up (people drive down the "Exit Only" lane for the GW Parkway towards Reagan Airport, then stop at the point where the exit splits off to try to shove left to the bridge)

Posted by: Rich | September 24, 2007 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Rich brings up a good point...I can't stand when people do that. One of the best solutions I have seen is what NYC does...plastic bollards on the lane line. These things are all over the city. Now for a really bad queue, that will simply shift the point where cars cut in further back...but if you can extend the bollards back far enough (say past the back of the location where the queue ends 95% of the time, or 95th percentile queue in traffic engineering terms), then there is no advantage to using the other lanes.

MTA Bridges and Tunnels division really likes the bollards a lot (so much that they even installed them the length of the two tunnels to enforce the no changing lanes law). When they first set up E-ZPass, the E-ZPass lanes were just any old toll lane, and sometimes difficult to find. Once a critical mass of people had tags, they started grouping the E-ZPass lanes and placing an E-ZPass only approach lane. In fact on some facilities (Throgs Neck Bridge, Midtown Tunnel) only 1 of 3 lanes is for cash, the other two are reserved. They painted a double white line but most people thought they could ignore it riding the E-ZPass lanes and cutting into the cash lanes at the toll plaza. Well one day MTA surprised everyone with a set of bollards on the double white line. Trapped a lot of cash people in the E-ZPass lanes...but MTA police were ready with a huge cadre of officers ready to write tickets. They're pretty quick, they just fill in the license plate number and time and hand it to the driver after collecting the cash toll. I think every single one of them got slapped with a $25 fine, and the next day, I didn't see hardly anyone ignoring the signs!

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 24, 2007 7:59 PM | Report abuse

I'll tell you what screws up traffic in Georgetown the most, at any time. People who insist on "blocking the box" at every intersection just so they can move ahead when the light in the next intersection turns green. It happens all along M Street and causes blockages through the area. It's my personal pet peeve, and I always wait until there is room for my car before I move ahead if I am stuck at an intersection. I get beeped at a lot for it, but I think that if the intersections weren't so blocked up it would help traffic over all. Just a venting point, thanks.

Posted by: Kat | September 25, 2007 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Can I add a place to Rich's list of where people cut in at the last minute.
The place where, yesterday, a driver hit me as I was driving onto the Georgetown parkway. The Rosslyn split to exit to George Washington Parkway and Key Bridge - featured in first picture above. You can see that the left 2 lanes are empty - this is the lanes that the selfish, a**hole drivers drive up to try to cut in at the last minute.
I head off to the parkway (i.e. the empty lanes), but if I was going to Georgetown it'd drive me crazy every day.
BTW the driver now has to pay for repairs to my car. His attempts at jumping in front of everyone else is going to cost him the best part of 2 grand. (AS this is illegal, he has no way to contest this). Hope it cheers some of you up.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | September 25, 2007 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Arlington, thanks for the promising news.

Back to the original post, I really think all this Canal Rd reconstruction work at the entrance to GEorgetown University is a big debacle. First and foremost, it adds a traffic signal on an already congested thoroughfare (Canal Rd). I think the effects of this signal will be felt the greatest during the afternoon rush as folks going inbound on Foxhall Rd/Canal Rd must turn left on the left turn signal to go into Georgetown. This will, in effect, delay outbound Canal Rd traffic for a few seconds longer and lead to more tie-ups for folks coming out the Whitehurst, out M Street and inbound on the Key to make the left to Canal.

I say this time and time again but I really don't understand why transportation folks think making more at grade signalized intersections is the key to improving area roads. Where I live in Reston, they've put up at least 6 or 8 new traffic signals in the last 5 years. All these signals do is bog down traffic more and of course the signals are not ever synchronized either. AND, half the traffic signals aren't even necessary. A simple stop sign was doing the job for years on end, then a signal goes up, a signal that turns red for the main primary route every time the sensor is tripped for a car exiting out of a new development. WHY?

OK back to Georgetown, I've also noticed how the additional (2nd) lane continuing east from Canal Rd onto M Street doesn't really help the queue of cars waiting on Canal because everyone trying to make the right turns at either the Whitehurst or the Key Bridge is stuck waiting all because of the traffic congestion ahead on M Street east of the Key Bridge. There is no easy solution to M Street's congestion though. The best thing I can think of is eliminating some of the left turn movements (particularly east on M Street at 33rd and 31st NW). Make traffic patterns here similar to those in place on K Street where left turns are prohibited during rushhours. (Of course this will never happen because all the affluent NIMBYs in Georgetown will raise hell.)

Posted by: xyv1027 | September 25, 2007 1:21 PM | Report abuse

xyv, I hear your pain in regards to all the traffic signals going up like weeds through NoVA.

Have you noticed the better timing of the signals on Route 7 though between Tysons Corner and Leesburg? On my commute in the late PM rushhour (7pm or so), I can travel from Tyco Rd in Tysons to the Algonkian Parkway/Route 7100 exit without stopping. These lights are very well sychronized AND traffic moves along at a constant speed, typically 50-60 mph with higher speeds the further west you get. Route 7's signals use to be a nightmare, but the engineering in synchorization has been a huge success.

Now maybe of the traffic gurus or transportation engineers on this blog can speak to why putting up new traffic signals is the one and only solution for our traffic congestion.

Posted by: Lowes Island guy | September 25, 2007 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Aside from the road improvements" along Canal Rd, I think the biggest culprit behind morning traffic jams coming in off the Key Bridge is the retiming of the signal at the DC end of the bridge. A previous commenter is right in that the signal has given more green time to eastbound Canal Rd traffic (and therefore seemingly less green time to folks coming in off the Key.)

I've found a solution that works for me though. Up until a month ago, I used 495 North to the GW Parkway south. Now instead of using the Key Bridge (or the Chain Bridge which has been awful lately), I actually cross over into MD on 495 and head in on Clara Barton and Canal Rd. With my unofficial timing, I'm saving almost 10 minutes and TONS of stress. For some reason, the stress level along Clara Barton and Canal is nothing like the GW, Key and Lynn St corridor. (This option would probably have been a disaster up until a month ago when the 495/ALB roadwork was done.)

Bring down some of those barrels from New York! They are needed all over this area. The line jumpers at the signal on eastbound Canal to stay straight on M street should all be ticketed just like they do in NY. You can't tell me that ALL those people are tourists/folks unfamiliar with the road.

Posted by: Avoiding the Key Bridge | September 26, 2007 7:33 AM | Report abuse

DC tried installing those bollards down at the RFK end of the Southwest-Southeast Freeway right at the spot where the two right lanes go up the ramp to Pennsylvania Avenue and the left lane goes left to the RFK Access Road. Every time I go to a ballgame at RFK I notice that half the bollards have been knocked flat on the roadway, which makes me assume that people are just driving over them. I'd never do that to my car, but I guess it proves my theory that people around here would rather wreck a $100,000 Mercedes than show courtesy to anyone else.

Posted by: Rich | September 26, 2007 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Putting up traffic signals is not the only solution for traffic congestion. In fact, access management standards (limiting the number of access points to major roadways, consolidation of driveways) try to discourage this. And if you head way out to Loudoun County or down to NC, or even the state that has some of the best access management in the country, Florida, you can see this in action. People try to do it in more congested areas like Fairfax, Arlington, etc. when they can, but unfortunately, the train has already left the station in most of these areas, especially in a congested place like Georgetown. Georgetown was developed over 100 years ago, before access management was invented. So there are several driveways every block. It would be nice to put in a service road to consolidate all of these driveways, but that would require knocking down half of Georgetown. That is an extreme example, but in many older suburban areas you run into the same problem...not enough room. Where access management is used, it works fairly well, but it isn't perfect. You have service roads or internal connectors between parking lots, so anyone going from parking lot A to parking lot B doesn't have to enter the main road. But where you used to have 2 traffic signals for traffic from parking lot A and parking lot B to turn out onto the main road, now you have all of that traffic concentrated into one signal. So you have one less signal which stays red twice as long. I would argue that that is worse than 2 short reds that are properly synchronized.

So why do we put up traffic signals to help traffic flow? Answer: traffic signals help traffic flow on the side roads at the expense of flow on the main road. That is the bottom line. Many times it is safety that provides the impetus for the signal, but sometimes its complaints from residents who are trapped in their subdivision because there is no signal to get them out onto the main road. Maybe it is because of too much growth in the subdivision (too many cars turning onto the main road), but more often than not its due to too much growth on the main road (too few gaps in traffic to turn into). There are signal warrants in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that specify when a traffic signal is allowed. The rules are meant to discourage un-necessary signals. But if we placed signals everywhere a warrant was met, we'd have a lot more signals than we have there is some judgement involved that has been used. Most of the time it is local planners working with VDOT or MDSHA that determine a signal is needed, and the developers pay for it. You better believe the developers are trying every way possible to not put up a signal if they don't think it is necessary (they are expensive), but for safety reasons they are often required to. Sometimes developers want them, but VDOT wouldn't let them put one in if it wasn't warranted. Lets face it, telling people they have to wait 20 minutes to turn out of Wal-Mart or your own neighborhood will not only make people unhappy, but it will also drive people to take risks that they should not take.

Why signals, why not make everything an interchange? Interchanges are expensive, and use up a lot of land. Might be great out in Culpeper County, but where land is expensive and already developed, there just isn't room...nor is there money to pay for it. In a built up area, such as a city, such as Georgetown, people don't want elevated structures in the middle of their neighborhood. Tunnels are expensive and pedestrian tunnels arent used very much because of seclusion concerns.

Ban left turns on M Street in Georgetown? Hah! Its not just Georgetown NIMBY's that would be complaining, but you'd have A LOT of people legitimately complaining that they cannot get to where they need to go. People live in those neighborhoods, and people make those turns to get from Key Bridge up Wisconsin Avenue to many areas outside Georgetown. K Street is different in that you can easily take Eye or M Streets to make your lefts. M Street in Georgetown has no suitable such alternative. DDOT already bans left turns off of M at Wisconsin, which they should since that is a very busy intersection, but a reasonable alternative needs to be provided, or else people will likely just make the left turns illegally anyway when no cops are looking.

Why aren't signals synchronized? Believe me, they are when they were originally installed, but many times local jurisdictions don't perform maintnance on the signals and timing updates as often as they should. Timing plans are not good if they are over 2 years old, but many jurisdictions are using timing plans way older than that! Closed off E Street near the White House still gets a good chunk of green time at 15th Street! Plus, there is only so much engineers can do with signal timing. It is very difficult to coordinate 2 major roads which cross each other, without one road losing coordination at the one intersection where the crossing occurs.

I know a lot of what I said may seem negative and defensive, but its the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, a lot of people see something wrong with their commute and propose a solution which positively impacts them and negatively impacts another group of people. You are not the only person out there who uses the roads, bike paths, transit lines, highways, etc., and sometimes other peoples' needs need to be accomodated too. Sure, it would be great for VA commuters if we could just ban left turns off of M Street in PM rush, but VA commuters heading outbound arent the only ones who's needs need to be accomodated. Its the traffic engineers' job to sort through the selfish requests of some and do what is best for everyone, given the constraints such as politics and finance. Ironically, the very same new signal people are complaining about will likely turn out to be a great improvement. Now cars coming off Canal Road who want to turn into Georgetown can do so at a place where they won't block inbound traffic (they will have a left turn lane), and there will be less cars making the left off of M Street in G-town, so in all liklihood those left turn arrows on M Street can be shortened.

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 26, 2007 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Woodley Park, thanks for your always insightful response.

I understand you in many respects and your arguments make sense in most cases, but when translated to a few specific examples in my local area I still don't see why we need 6 more traffic signals in the last 3 years in Reston, for example. Your point about signals bogging down traffic on the main road and helping (alleviating) traffic on the side road is a good one, that is IF there is "traffic" on the side road. (To me, a vehicle or two every 20-30 seconds is not traffic.) Yet, the single vehicle every 30 seconds trips the sensor to get the green light. This is why many folks on here feel that many signals around this area are not only erected by developers (as you suggest), but also put in place so that the folks living in the new developments get good access to the primary road, e.g. lots of green time and a fact-acting sensor for "traffic" leaving the development.

I've always wondered why the Fairfax County Parkway was constructed with so many signalized access points. It seems that many of the signalized intersections would never have to exist because drivers leaving the side road could drive down one block south to enter the Parkway via an interchange. Thinking in the Reston area, the signals on 7100 at New Dominion Parkway and Bennington Woods Rd are a nuisance to traffic on 7100. Vehicles on these streets could easily enter 7100 from the interchanges at either Baron Cameron Ave or Sunset Hills Rd. Side street traffic might have to drive an extra 1/2 mile to get where they're going but they'll save a signal which stops six lanes of 7100 traffic to let one car out of a tiny side street.

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