After struggling with Hawaii’s traffic, the D.C. area looks pretty good to new arrival

Robert Thomson
Columnist September 25, 2013

When I was a child living in Hono­lulu, the locals would tell us this story: Saint Peter is escorting a new arrival through the Pearly Gates and displaying all the wonders of paradise. The new arrival is suitably impressed but notices a small groups of spirits in tears and asks the saint why they are in such distress amid such eternal splendors.

“Oh,” Saint Peter says. “Those are the Hawaiians. They just want to go back.”

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

Made sense to us. But that idyllic era was many decades before Honolulu’s growth into a metropolis, an experience shared by this letter writer.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:


Traffic backed up on the outer loop of the Beltway after an accident last month in College Park. A letter writer who recently moved to Northern Virginia from Kailua, Hawaii, praises the Washington region’s road system compared with her previous state’s, also notorious for logjams. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

We recently moved here from Hawaii — Honolulu County, to be specific. We were No. 2 in the United States for the worst traffic [in a 2012 study by the Inrix traffic data service], and it was totally true. With more than 1 million people on the island of Oahu alone, traffic is horrific. A normal 20-minute drive from Tripler Army Medical Center could take more than two hours if you left two minutes late. When school starts, traffic worsens exponentially.

Granted, we have lived in Northern Virginia only two months. We have yet to get caught in any jams. I listen to the radio and plan my routes accordingly. Other great things are that there are many different ways to get from point A to point B, the freeways are well marked, and Google Maps are extremely helpful.

Traffic here is nothing compared with other states. I think people need to check out Los Angeles or Honolulu and realize how good they have it here!

Aloha & mahalo,

Jan Shapiro, Fairfax County

DG: I offer this letter for its shock value to the Washington region’s commuters, not to discourage you from visiting the islands. (Take me with you.)

By now, drivers, transit users, cyclists and pedestrians should have experienced the increased congestion and slower travel times that mark the end of vacation season, that little bit of paradise — such as it is — that local commuters have from late July into August.

I asked Shapiro to elaborate on a couple of points about traffic issues in Hono­lulu and Northern Virginia. She and her husband lived in Kailua, a shore community northeast of downtown Honolulu. That’s about an 18-mile drive from the Tripler medical center, largely on Interstate H-3. (And your first thought is, an “interstate” on an island in the Pacific Ocean? How does that work? But the main concerns about building a highway across paradise were environmental rather than appellative. Plenty of “interstate” highways stick to one state.)

There’s a reversible lane on the highway and an open right shoulder lane for rush-hour travel. (Seems like they know all our tricks.)

Now in Northern Virginia, they “have both noticed the road system as being phenomenal,” she wrote. “Freeways and streets are well marked and well maintained.”

During their first few weeks, she and her husband tested the roads at different times. “If there were a lot of cars on the road, at least they were moving,” she said. “Traffic comes to a complete standstill daily in Hawaii, for no reason whatsoever!”

All right, so there is a downside: “The only not-so-great thing I’ve noticed about driving here regards the traffic-light timing.”

But, “all in all,” she wrote, “driving here is a piece of cake. Tell those complainers to spend a week on Oahu during peak drive times; they will come home with a new appreciation for the road system here!”

As always, I appreciate hearing from well-traveled residents of this region who can add to our perspective on traffic.

One other thing I remember about Hawaii: We arrived from New York in winter. We thought Waikiki was just as warm as a New York summer and went swimming. People who had lived longer in the islands were more reluctant to swim when the temperature was lower. By the next year, we had adapted, and would swim only in the warmer weather.

I hope to check back with Shapiro this fall to see whether she has adapted to our view of local traffic. I’ll bet a pound of Kona coffee that she’ll encounter some of that traffic that comes to a halt for no reason.

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