Head for Beach at Rush Hour? Might Work

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

It goes against everything travel experts tell drivers -- leave early, stay late, avoid rush hour at all costs -- but the best time to leave town to avoid traffic on this and every other weekend of summer fun may just be 5 p.m. Friday.

Enough people heed the advice about getaway days that drivers are just as likely to hit a lengthy backup in the morning or early afternoon as they are during the regular Friday rush, traffic experts say. And sometimes a traffic jam snags them the day before or the day after. So drivers are adjusting.

"People are going in what is traditionally the rush hour because it no longer is the rush hour," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which predicts that one in 10 Washingtonians will leave the area this Memorial Day weekend. "They're saying, counterintuitively, that what used to be rush hour may be the greatest getaway time because everyone else is going at another time."

That's exactly what Douglas Macintyre is hoping for. He and his family are traveling from Rockville to Virginia Beach today for a weekend softball tournament involving his daughter. His wife wanted to leave about noon to beat traffic, but Macintyre resisted.

"She leans towards taking the kids out of school and getting an early jump," Macintyre said. "I question whether that's even helpful. I think a lot of people leave at noontime. I'm kind of hopeful that leaving at rush hour and taking the HOV lanes will save me some time."

Still, many travel experts warned against leaving during the conventional rush.

Chris Landis, who manages the Virginia Department of Transportation's Smart Traffic Center, agreed that traffic has gotten worse earlier on getaway days. But he said: "I definitely would not condone or recommend people who are traveling to go out of town during rush hour. The only thing you can do is leave even earlier than what was early before."

Kelly Melhem, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, had similar advice for those crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on their way to the beach.

But Melhem said traffic is shifting. The number of people using the bridge on Fridays was down slightly last summer, she said, and a midday Saturday rush began to form.

"We don't want to move traffic from one peak travel time to another," Melhem said. "The goal is to spread out traffic."

Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration, said that elsewhere in the state, "we definitely see more people at an earlier commute, to the extent that sometimes [rush hour] even ends earlier."

Even Townsend said he is not quite ready to tell people to leave at 5 o'clock, if only because the idea is so radical.

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