Correction to This Article
The Washington Post Magazine story last Sunday on traffic may have created the impression that WTOP radio does not have airborne traffic reporting. The station has morning and evening reports by airborne reporters.

Get Outta the *%? Way!

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By Tom McNichol
Sunday, September 27, 1992

Walt Starling has solved the riddle that has baffled countless Washingtonians for years: "How do I get out of this {word you never hear in church} traffic jam?" His elegantly simple answer: Just fly over it.

"The great thing about this job is that there's no boss looking over my shoulder," Starling says.

Well, I guess not. Starling's boss would have to be hovering 1,405 feet above the ground to get a good look over his shoulder. We're flying in Starling's brown and white Cessna Skyhawk II prop plane on a hazy afternoon, gently banking over the I-95/495 split north of College Park, the evil majesty of another Beltway traffic snarl unfolding below us. For most rush hours during the past 18 years, Walt Starling has had the best seat in the house to observe the hopeless mess Washington traffic has become, working as an airborne traffic reporter for several radio stations, most recently WLTT-FM. Down below us are all of the poor souls sitting in the cheap seats, eyes locked on the brake lights in front of them, hands gripping steering wheels in murderous choke holds. It's not a pretty sight.

Starling feels sorry for the drivers trapped in traffic below him, but it's an aloof sympathy, like the distant pity Americans feel for Russians waiting in long lines to buy meat. Starling, you see, hardly ever gets stuck in traffic jams himself. During the morning and evening rush hour, he's always gliding high above the melee. And when he finally does land, Starling simply walks down the runway of the College Park Airport, past a clump of trees, and steps into the back yard of his home. Rush-hour snarl? Not unless there's a bike blocking his path. In this respect, Starling is the quintessential Washington expert: a person whose deep knowledge of a subject remains unsullied by personal experience.

"I took a day off from work last Thursday, and had to drive around the Beltway during rush hour," Starling, 40, a Washington native, tells me. "It was a real eye-opener. I have to say, I didn't care for it much."

We gently bank westward toward Silver Spring, hugging the Beltway. It's only 4 p.m., and already, below us, the mad procession has begun.

"It's really neat to watch a lot of little backups form into one big long backup," Starling says, an observation, I'm guessing, few on the ground are currently making.

And yet, there is something fascinating, even beautiful about a Beltway traffic jam viewed from above. The Beltway snaking like a great, silvery umbilical cord 64 miles around the city. Legions of tiny Matchbox-size cars assembling and reassembling in rhythmic patterns, like colored squares in a Mondrian painting. And the aching beauty of not being part of it.

No doubt about it, Starling's life is truly blessed. But for most of the rest of us on the ground, driving in Washington is life in the slow lane, a horror movie perpetually stuck on half speed. Oh sure, New York and Chicago have many more cars on the road, Atlanta has its famous "Spaghetti Junction" northeast of town, Philadelphia has its murderous Schuylkill Expressway, fondly known around town as the "Sure-Kill Expressway," and Los Angeles has the added thrill of sniper fire. But Washington, it could be argued -- and we'll get to the arguing in a minute -- is a uniquely rotten place to drive.

Where to start? The failure of L'Enfant to foresee that hundreds of thousands of motorized carriages would one day fill the streets he designed for horses and pedestrians, and that maybe diagonal streets and traffic circles aren't such a good idea? The explosive and largely unplanned expansion of the Washington suburbs into teeming "edge cities" with woefully inadequate road systems? The area's many river crossings, resulting in continually bottlenecked bridges? The more than 50,000 federal employees who receive free or discounted parking at their workplace, removing any incentive they might have for taking public transportation? More traffic-snarling VIP motorcades per capita than any other city on the planet? An unusually high percentage of cab drivers hailing from countries that don't regard traffic laws with the same reverence we do here in America? An unusually high percentage of natives who don't regard traffic laws with the same reverence as do Americans "Outside the Beltway"? And what about that Beltway anyway? Is it someone's idea of a bad joke? Could that someone be . . . Satan?

"Look, it's only 4 o'clock and this part of the Beltway already has three major backups," Starling says, pointing down at the road. "Here's one at the I-95 split, another one at Colesville Road, and a third one by the Mormon Temple. Now, you watch when the rush hour really gets started. Sometimes you'll see three separate jams like this just get longer and longer until they all link up. Then you've got trouble."

Trouble. Some people fool themselves into thinking of it as simply Driving Home From Work, but Trouble is its real name, etched into a million frayed nerve endings. And it's only gotten worse since Starling began working as an air traffic reporter in 1973. In that time, the Washington region has added more than 1.4 million motor vehicles; the roads, needless to say, have not kept the same breakneck pace. Once-sleepy suburbs such as Springfield, Bethesda, Falls Church and Tysons Corner have awakened to find themselves mired in major-league traffic, and the Shirley Highway has become the world's second-largest parking lot. (To get to the world's largest parking lot, take the Shirley to Exit 8 and follow the signs to the Pentagon.) Traffic engineers nowadays talk about the emergence of a "third rush hour" at weekday lunch time, and of a "weekend rush hour" made up of drivers running errands at the local malls. Are we approaching the day when all of those rush hours join together into one continuous traffic jam? If that happens, will anyone notice a difference?

CONTINUED     1                 >

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© 1992 The Washington Post Company

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