D.C. traffic still looks pretty good driver used to Honolulu’s highway congestion

Robert Thomson
Columnist January 3

As summer was ending, I heard from a traveler who had recently moved from Hawaii to Northern Virginia. Her message: “Traffic here is nothing compared with other states.”

It was a refreshing commentary, but I felt sure that a few months’ experience with the full force of the D.C. region’s traffic would sway her like a palm branch in a Kona wind.

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

Maybe not.

Aloha, Dr. Gridlock:

I just wanted to give you a five-month update on what you locals consider traffic: There is no traffic!

Maybe if you would stop texting or talking on the phone while driving things might not even slow down here. My husband and I have driven all over the District-Maryland-Virginia area, at all different times of days, during different weather conditions (rain seems to freak people out). The traffic just is not there.

There are some places that have slowdowns during traffic hours, but nothing like the stops and go’s we have on Oahu. Traffic usually comes to a complete stop daily on our six highways.

If you visit the island of Oahu, avoid the morning rush hours between 5:15 and 8:45 and again in the afternoon and evening. You aren’t going anywhere.

A ferry service attempted to get people from the leeward side of the island into town. Didn’t work. We have a “zipper lane” open in the mornings for HOVs. On top of that, the shoulder lane of the H-1 highway is open. Now we are hoping the rail system will ease some of the delays.

The big problem I see here is that the traffic lights are either not on timers or there are no sensors built into the roads at the traffic light stops. The other night near Tysons, I jumped out of our car, crossed the road to push the walk button going the other way to try to get the light to change. (My husband was driving.)

It still took approximately five minutes for the light to change after I got back in the car.

The drivers here are mostly considerate. I don’t hear a lot of honking horns (something you rarely or ever hear in Hawaii), which is nice. The majority of the drivers obey the law and drive considerately. There are a few — okay, more than a few — bad drivers.

One of our slogans in Hawaii is “Drive with Aloha.” Locals strive to do that, even when stuck in a 21 / 2--hour traffic jam.

Hauoli Makahiki Hou,

— Jan Shapiro,

Fairfax County

And Happy New Year to you, too.

The Mainland translation of “Driving with Aloha” is “Don’t be a jerk.” Sounds like Shapiro has brought her island attitude here with her. She encounters several of the traffic issues that enrage local drives — signal timing, for example — but she’s rolling with them.

While our traveling personas may not be in line with the Hawaiians’, our congestion-fighting strategies are on a par. Hono­lulu is working on a rail transit project, and we have ours, in the Metro Silver Line and the D.C. streetcar line.

The islanders don’t want to pave paradise, so they try to add commuter capacity to the network they already have, using HOV lanes and opening shoulders at peak periods. When our transportation planners can’t find money or space to add capacity, they also try to get more out of the system we have.

Virginia is particularly active on this, adding lanes in the middle of highways for carpoolers or toll payers and opening shoulders during congested times. This fall, the Virginia Department of Transportation plans to launch a year-long pilot program in which buses will be allowed to travel on the shoulders of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.

Whether they’re building something new or just trying to make what we have work more efficiently, the planners here in one of the nation’s most congested regions rarely talk about making traffic better. They talk about making it less worse than it would be if we do nothing.

Spending a few billion dollars to upgrade commuter routes that would have gotten a failing grade a decade hence will instead earn them a C or a D. Unless you’re like me and you see a future in listening to commuters vent about trips that took twice as long as they should, it is not inspiring to compare our ambitious plans for housing and job growth with our transportation program.

You may need some of that Aloha spirit. The Hawaii driver’s manual distills it this way:

“As a well-adjusted person, you are more likely to be a good driver. You must always act not merely from your personal point of view, but with consideration and courtesy to other users of the streets and highways.”

Must be difficult to reflect that in a multiple-choice question on the written exam. But given the way our traffic is tending, there may not really be a choice to consider.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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