Holiday guide for getting around D.C.

Columnist

Travelers filled with the holiday spirit are heading for places they may visit only rarely the rest of the year. This can be challenging, and they need to prepare for such trips.

Yes, you say, we’ve already been warned about the Delaware toll plaza and that stretch of I-95 between D.C. and Richmond. But I’m not talking about long-distance travel today.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

This is about surviving a trip to the local mall. Don’t be lulled by the passage of Black Friday. Many heavy days and nights of shopping remain. The weekend of Dec. 17-18 — the last full weekend before Christmas — and Christmas Eve, the following Saturday, are all likely to be busy. Meanwhile, distracted drivers, package-laden pedestrians and the aftereffects of office parties will create their own hazards.

These are some survival tips gathered from some transportation experts and local travelers.

Hours and trips

Plan a shopping expedition as you would a long holiday getaway drive. Analyze your gift lists and divide them into target zones to limit the number of trips you must make through heavy traffic. If your work hours are somewhat flexible, target stores that open early and begin your shopping expedition in the morning, when the stores and parking areas are less crowded.

Parking area safety

We had a lengthy discussion in the Dr. Gridlock column this year about whether it’s best to pull straight in or turn around to face out of the parking space. We didn’t decide whether one side was correct, but the debate did illustrate that people have very strong opinions, and sometimes very short fuses, when it comes to parking behavior.

Some drivers are adamant about facing outward, so they can better see cars and pedestrians as they leave the space. They also note the difficulty of seeing through sport-utility vehicles and minivans parked beside them. Other motorists think that it’s rude for a single driver to hold up a long line of cars while maneuvering into a space.

When in doubt about someone else’s intentions, resort to courtesy and patience. Anger is a distraction just when you need to be especially aware of the cars and pedestrians around you. Be especially alert for pedestrians and don’t assume that they see you. Stay in the lanes, rather than cutting across parking spaces.

And pedestrians, don’t get so wrapped up in figuring out where you parked or worrying about whether you really can juggle all those packages that you fail to keep a constant lookout for cars that are moving or about to move.

Tysons Corner

The huge shopping areas at Tysons Corner remain one of the D.C. region’s biggest work zones. But Tysons should be somewhat easier to navigate this holiday season than last. Drivers still will pass through construction zones for the high-occupancy toll lanes and the Dulles Metrorail project. Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) is still disrupted by the rail project, although the lanes are open.

However, Route 123 (Chain Bridge Road) is in better shape. The left lanes at the Capital Beltway have been restored. On the northbound side, heading away from Tysons, the ramp to the Beltway’s inner loop has been restored, and the left-turn lane at the traffic signal is gone.

I have seen some significant backups on the inner loop approaching the Route 7 exit on the south side of Tysons.

Inside the Tysons Corner Center mall, shoppers can check on traffic conditions and bus routes on any one of five big monitors. The screens were installed in 2009 as part of the effort by the Virginia Megaprojects office to keep traffic moving around the construction.

Traffic elsewhere

Each holiday season for more than a decade, the Virginia Department of Transportation has customized the signal timing at several hundred intersections around many shopping centers in Northern Virginia to better balance the commuter traffic and the surging number of shoppers.

The goal is to give adequate time for drivers entering and exiting shopping centers while reducing traffic backups and keeping the main roads moving.

Through New Year’s Day, the signal timings are affected around these shopping areas: the Tysons malls, Reston Town Center, Fair Lakes Shopping Center, Fair Oaks Mall, Potomac Mills mall, Manassas Mall, the Route 234 shopping centers, Springfield Mall, Cascades Town Center, Potomac Run Center, Dulles Town Center, Leesburg Outlets, Dulles 28 Centre, Central Park Shopping Center and Spotsylvania Towne Centre.

Maryland uses a different system, with signals responding to current demand throughout the year. No matter how the signals operate, they have to be red sometime, and they can be overwhelmed by holiday traffic.

Besides those Virginia shopping areas, other hot spots in the D.C. area include Rockville Pike, Landover Road near the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 100 near Arundel Mills, and Interstates 295 and 95 near National Harbor.

In the District, drivers often grumble about the $2-per-hour cost of street parking in the popular entertainment and commercial areas and the fact that the rules are enforced on Saturdays. At least now drivers can take advantage of the pay-by-phone parking system, so they don’t have to haul around bags of quarters.

The program — operated by Parkmobile, a private contractor — allows drivers to use their mobile phones to pay for parking at about 17,000 metered spaces. Drivers can sign up for the service at the company’s Web site, www.parkmobile.com .

Transit

Metrorail: This weekend, free shuttle buses have replaced Red Line trains between Rhode Island Avenue and Glenmont, and six stations along that route are closed. On the Orange Line, buses are replacing trains between Deanwood and Cheverly. But Metro isn’t planning any major disruptions — the kind that close stations and sections of rail lines — for the rest of the month.

Metrobus: If you use the buses for holiday activities, watch the timetables. The transit authority will adjust the schedules on several dozen routes across the Washington region starting Sunday, Dec. 18.

Safe travels

It’s the season to be distracted. Texting and phoning while driving are obvious problems but far from the only ones: Don’t stare at directions, shopping lists, the kids in the back seat or gift catalogues.

SoberRide: Since it’s also the season for concentrated partying, the SoberRide program, offered by the Washington Regional Alcohol Program through a network of cab companies, is going to be operating from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night from Friday, Dec. 16, through New Year’s Eve. Adults in the region who are at risk of driving while impaired can get a free ride home, up to a $30 value, by calling 800-200-TAXI.

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