The Washington Post

Traffic guide for last-minute shoppers

Capital Beltway drivers heading for last-minute Christmas shopping in Tysons Corner could consider using the express lanes access point, on the left. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Monday morning’s light commuting traffic reflected the start of a holiday week, but travelers in search of companionship are likely to find it at the parking areas around malls over the next two days. Here are some tips for surviving the last minute shopping rush.

The Capital Weather Gang says the rain will taper off by late afternoon Monday, followed by slow clearing and dropping temperatures. Tuesday will start off partly sunny, but clouds will increase, possibly accompanied by some snow flurries, but nothing significant. See the full forecast for the D.C. area.

Plan your expeditions
Analyze your gift lists, and divide them into target zones to limit the number of trips you must make through heavy traffic. Aim to go to stores that open early and begin your shopping expedition in the morning, when the stores and parking areas are less crowded.

Parking-area safety
The most challenging location for drivers and pedestrians is the parking lot. Seems like everybody follows his or her own set of rules. Drivers get into a big debate about whether it’s best to pull straight in or turn around to face out of the parking space. They have very strong opinions and very short fuses.

When in doubt about someone else’s intentions, resort to courtesy. Be especially alert for pedestrians. 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 can juggle all those packages that you forget to keep a constant lookout for cars.

AAA Mid-Atlantic and other safety advocates offer these additional tips for staying sane and safe:

  • Avoid petty confrontations over parking spaces.
  • Most malls have secondary entrances with less of a concentration of parkers around them.
  • Outlying areas in parking lots normally have more open spaces, lighter traffic and a lower risk of collision.
  • Use your headlights in parking areas. Help other drivers and pedestrians to see you coming.
  • Avoid parking between tall SUVs or minivans. It might be hard to see oncoming people and cars when you back out later.
  • If you won’t impede traffic flow, back into a space or pull through two spaces to park, so you won’t have to reverse when you leave.
  • Children may be below your usual line of vision, and can make quick movements.

Tysons Corner
The 495 Express Lanes, the toll lanes in the middle of the Capital Beltway in Virginia, created two new ways in and out of Tysons Corner. There’s one on the north side of Tysons at Jones Branch Drive and another more centrally located that connects with the Westpark Drive bridge. Turn left at the traffic signal on the bridge and you’re looking at Tysons Corner Center. Turn right and you’re heading toward Tysons Galleria.

Before entering the lanes, you will see signs that tell you what the toll is. It’s best to have an E-ZPass transponder to pay the toll. Otherwise, you’ll need to go to the express lanes Web site at and pay it there. Look for the button that says Missed a Toll?

Traffic elsewhere
Each holiday season, the Virginia Department of Transportation customizes the signal timing at several hundred intersections to better balance the commuter traffic and the holiday shopping crowd.

The list of shopping areas with signal timing adjustments shows where to expect holiday traffic congestion in Virginia: the Tysons Corner malls, Reston Town Center, Fair Lakes Shopping Center, Fair Oaks Mall, Potomac Mills Mall, Manassas Mall, shopping centers on Route 234, Springfield Mall, Cascades Town Center, Potomac Run Center, Dulles Town Center, Dulles 28 Center and the Leesburg Outlet Mall.

Maryland uses a different system, with signals responding to current demand throughout the year. But traffic hot spots will include Rockville Pike, Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 100 near Arundel Mills Mall, and I-295/I-95 and Indian Head Highway near National Harbor, where the Tanger Outlets opened last month.

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.



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