Driving / Parking, Washington D.C.
"Waste of time is the most extravagant and costly of all expenses."
In this city renowned for marble monuments, outstanding museums & celebrated sights, you will want to walk or take the Metrorail (Metro).
[DO NOT DRIVE] because parking is at a premium, & the parking police are unforgiving. DC drivers seldom use turn signals & often ignore the yellow stop light. Rush hour is horrid with entire streets changing directions suddenly & without warning.
The Metrorail is efficient & inexpensive. The Metro uses a ticketing system called Farecard. You purchase it from those vending machines located at each stop. A magnetic strip on the card encodes the value remaining. Now, after you purchase a card, insert it into the slot at the turnstile. At your exit, insert the card into a turnstile again, & the cost of the trip will be deducted from the card.
To make travel more convenient, buy sufficient fare for a roundtrip. But, you will save money if you purchase a $5.00 pass that allows a day of unlimited travel on the Metro.
The cost varies depending on the distance traveled, usually from $1.10-$3.25.
8:00 am to 2:00 am on Friday/Saturday
8:00-Midnight on Sunday
5:30-Midnight on Monday-Thursday
There are 5 Metrorail Lines, & they are color-coded: Orange, Blue, Red, Yellow, & Green.
You may also combine Metrorail with Metrobus which has almost 16,000 stops scattered throughout DC & surrounding areas. Bus tickets cost $1.10 & usually .25 for transfers. You pay the driver with either a tourist pass or exact change.
We walked while in DC because it's an easy city to navigate once you learn the grid system. Just remember that the US Capitol is the grid's center & the 4 quadrants go from there.
NW is on North Capitol St.
NE is on South Capitol St.
SE is on East Capitol St
SW is the Mall
If you walk, make sure you have a good pair of walking shoes & a good street map in hand.
Limousines are a standard mode of transport for Washington's important people and people who think they are. They not only come in basic black stretch jobs like in the included photo (outside the Hart Senate Office Building), they can also be in white, or customised stretch SUVs (sport utility vehicles, for those on the Left Bank) where folks can have all the luxury as well as the ability to move about in snow, ice or more treacherous terrain.
I was lucky to park my car close to the Lincoln Memorial, on a street (free!) - Ohio Drive SW. I saw a car trying to park between the two cars in a long row of parked cars and the driver after two attempts gave up, thus I parked there. Well, my parking training from Paris was again useful, that time in DC. There is a sign which says: 3 hours parking there and no parkometers. Hmm... it's likely I parked a bit longer there. Before I checked whether other cars had any paper clock put behind widshield to set for hour and minute of the parking and thus show whether 3 hours already passed or not (popular in Europe) but i didn't notice any. You see what I mean, right?
- read carefully parking signs put along a street you are going to park,
- parking on a street in downtown is usually limited to 2 hours from Monday to Friday from 9.30 am - 4.00 pm or even 6.30 pm and paid in a parkometer (get change ready)
- in Georgetown parking on a street was limited to 2 hours Monday to Saturday 9.30 am - 4.00 pm and 6.30 pm - 10.00 pm
- I've seen tickets put behind windshield wiper of cars whose drivers didn't pay
- I've never seen cars parked where it was not allowed (they are towed away, I've seen cars ready to tow them), hmm... in European cities it often works quite different :-(
- there are a few covered parking lots in downtown, look at the prices in my picture ($16 per 12 hours, expensive? it's half the Californian price from downtown San Francisco in 2003!)
- Georgetown tends to be a bit more expensive for parking than downtown
- check the opening hours of the parking lot (some are closed at night!)
- check how to pay for the parking (in some automatic parking lots you have to have change ready to pay and be let out)
- the option is to drive to metro parking lots and use metro, the lots are free in weekends and cheap in business days (say $3.50 - 5.00 per day) but you must buy a SmarTrip card to pay for the parking, details here.
I drove hired car I-95 from Richmond, Virginia northwards to Arlington, Virginia where I stayed and there were no traffic jams on the interstate. But they were on the road from Dulles International Airport to Arlington and DC and on the roads leading to the Capital Beltway. Washington DC is encircled by the Capital Beltway, formed by Interstates I-495 and I-95. Interstate 66 heads from DC west to Virginia. Interstate 50 heads east to Annapolis, MD and the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Beaches. Interstate 95 heads north to Baltimore and New York. Interstate 270 heads north to Frederick, MD and beyond.
From Arlington I easily got to DC by metro or metro + metrobus. I drove a car to National Cathedral and to Arlington Cemetery as well. I do not recommend driving in and to downtown Washington because of shortage of free of charge parking space. Metro is a very convenient mean of transportation in DC/Arlington.
But just in case you drive, a few tips for drivers
- there are no traffic jams in downtown DC except in rush hours but there is heavy traffic and traffic jams in roads to/from DC in rush hours (7.00 am - 9.00 am and 4.00 pm - 7.00 pm)
- streets in downtown are broad, multilane and... mostly empty or... closed for traffic (some temporarily due to road works or safety rules)
- there are very few one-way streets
- navigating in downtown is rather easy but it is difficult outside (watch for left lane exits!)
- they drive slowly and carefully, no worries, it's no problem to change a lane.
If you don't want to fight traffic in town and struggle to find a parking spot, a great alternative is to drive to one of the stations outside of the city and take the Metro in to town. My last visit, I parked at Cheverly, Maryland, and enjoyed the 20-minute ride to the city center. Cheverly and the other Metro parking areas recently implemented the SmarTrip card system to pay for parking. A SmarTrip card costs $5 and strores up to $300 in value. It has a special RF chip embedded in the card that allows you to swipe it across a sensor, rather than inserting a paper ticket in the slot. Ahhh technology... no waste, no moving parts. SmarTrip cards are also in use on the buses and the Metro.
Many stations, particularly outside of the city offer daily parking, but only a few offer any long-term, or even overnight, parking areas. Check the DC Metro's website.
Driving in the city of Washington DC can be a real experience. Here are some of my big gripes after just a few weeks in the city:
1. Pedestrians never obey don't walk signs, and they always assume they have the right of way even if they are crossing in front of you when you have a green light. Where this is most frustrating for me is when I am trying to turn on red--I check to ensure pedestrians have a don't walk signal, I check for a break in oncoming traffic, then I go, only to find the crosswalk full of jaywalkers.
2. Avenues, squares, and traffic circles. We are all used to grid patterns in cities and they are easy to figure out. But in Washington DC the avenues are angle streets that create odd six eight, and ten-way intersections; and because of these funny angled avenues, through streets are occasionally randomly blocked, breaking up the grid pattern.
3. Drivers ignore red lights and block the box. Anytime a light changes from green to red at a busy intersection it seems the next six or eight cars will always try to squeeze through, so when the cross traffic light changes to green they always have to wait 10-20 seconds for the intersection to clear before they can proceed.
4. Security measures. Do we have to block half of the roads around all the government buildings? If I can walk there with a back pack or suitcase, why can't I drive there?
(more to come, I'm sure)
The Capital Beltway is one of the most famous roads in the country, particularly for those who are interested in politics. The Beltway is also one of the most infamous roads in DC for local drivers who spend half of their lives sitting in traffic. It is also just one of numerous limited access highways provided transportation to and from the DC area. On a random Saturday in December 2008, it took me an hour just to cross the damned old Woodrow. On a Saturday! Thank god I don't have to drive this freakin road every day.
The Beltway (I-495) - As its name suggests, the beltway forms a ring around central Washington DC, with the road almost entirely in the states of Maryland and Virginia, traveling through DC just over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It is designated as Interstate 495 though the eastern portion of the Beltway is also the path of Interstate 95. On local traffic reports you will hear the inner loop and outer loop mentioned... the inner loop is the clockwise lanes closer to the city and the outer loop is made up of the counterclockwise lanes. The total route is 64 miles.
Interstate 395 - I-395 begins in the south where I-95 meets the Beltway at Springfield, VA (this huge interchange is known as the Mixing Bowl). It runs 13 miles northeast through Virginia then over the Potomac and into downtown DC. After passing under the Mall it ends at New York Avenue.
Interstate 295 - I-295 runs just 8 miles from the Beltway at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, along the east bank of the Potomac, then into downtown Washington DC (where it is called the Southeast Freeway, or even Interstate 695 for 1.5 miles) before it merges with I-395. If you continue north on I-295 rather then heading into downtown DC, this route becomes Anacostia Freeway / Kenilworth Ave then the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
Interstate 66 - I-66 begins in Washington and runs west for 76 miles to Interstate 81 in Middletown, VA. This is the only two-digit Interstate in the city of Washington DC other than the tiny portion of I-95 over Woodrow Wilson Bridge. In Washington I-66 occupies the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge just north of the Lincoln Memorial and it turns due north before quickly ending around Foggy Bottom and the Rock Creek Parkway.
George Washington Memorial Parkway - The GW Parkway is a small freeway maintained by the National Park Service. It follows the south and west bank of the Potomac through Virginia from the beltway to George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. The Northern Section runs from the Beltway past the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport to the north end of Old Town Alexandria at North Washington Street. The Southern Section begins at the south edge of old Town on South Washington Street, and runs to Mount Vernon.
Clara Barton and Cabin John Parkways - These small freeways run along the C&O Canal and the north bank of the Potomac from Georgetown to the Beltway. The Clara Barton Parkway runs the entire distance from downtown to the Beltway, while the Cabin John Parkway is just 1.5 miles long and connects to the Beltway a few exists to the north. the Clara Barton Parkway is part of the GW PArkway Administration under the National Park Service. It provides numerous parking areas for visitors to the C&O Canal trail.
Dulles Access Road (Rt 267) - As the name suggests it runs to the Dulles Airport. It is really two roads, a free road directly to the airport with no local exits, and a toll road providing access to the communities near the airport. A portion of the tolls will be used to build the Metro's Silver Line to Dulles Airport. The roads run about 14 miles from the Beltway east of the city to the airport.
Anacostia Freeway / Kenilworth Ave / Baltimore-Washington Parkway (DC & MD 295) - The non-interstate portion of I-295. It runs from I-295's end point all the way to Baltimore (via MD 295), mostly along the east side of the Anacostia River.
Interstate 270 (Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Highway) - Runs from the Beltway through Maryland, 34 miles to to I-70 at Fredericksburg. This route runs Northeast away from the city, and it connects into central Washington on Wisconsin Avenue.
DEPENDS on your point of arrival and also your itinerary. This tip was written for those who will be travelling inside the loop.
Inside the "loop" #1 and #2 Capital Beltway I-495 is 64 miles long. Many tourist destinations are accessible by metro subway system and many others are a short bus ride or a taxi ride.
#1 - best choice - if you are arriving at Union Station (by train, bus, metro or car) you are in luck, you are within walking distance of several destinations and tourist attractions. You can also walk to the red ine of the metro system, you can also walk to the DCCirculator, buses, shopping, dining etc. You can easily hail a cab or pick up a zip-car or a flexi car.
#2 choice - if you are arriving at National Reagan Airport you can walk to the yellow and blue lines of the metro system. Alternatively, take a taxi or take a zip-car or a super shuttle.
Outside the loop #3 and #4
#3 choice - If you are arriving at Baltimore Washington International Airport, then you will need to reach Greenbelt metro station (using metro bus or taxi or rental car) , alternatively, you could take the shuttle to Amtrak train to Union station, rent a car, take the super shuttle take a zip-car
#4 choice - From Dulles International Airport - you could take the Washington Flyer bus to West Falls Church metro station from whence you can take the orange line of the metro system. Alternatively you could take the super-shuttle or take a zip-car.
When to use a car - if you are not within walking distance of the metro system and if your destination is not accessible by metro system, you might consider using a car. Beware the traffic can be a nightmare and in some places parking is difficult. You might consider a car if you have a disbaled person in your group, parking is easier if you have a valid permit for handiapped parking.
Traversing across the city by car or taxi can take 3 hours if traffic is bad or 1 1/2 if there is no traffic. A taxi ride to the outskirts of the city can easily cost $60.00 or more
I remember a New Yorker telling me that he had parked in front of the Washington Memorial for the 4th of July celebration. Anyone who has been in this town knows that is a tall tale (though it may have been true many,many years ago).
For the visitor- you will have to make a lot of quick exits from the highway. There is very limited on- street parking (particularly near tourist sites) and downtown DC has a multitude of one-way streets that seems to follow no logic. Parking in a garage will be quite expensive (especially during the week.)
Long and short of it, please take the Metro if you are going to see the common sights in DC. You will save yourself a lot of money and aggravation.
Automobile safety did not have the major emphasis in those days that it presently does. Consequently, for the long road trip in our 2-door Duster, I built a wooden platform for the back seat area that brought the floor up level with the seat. The whole back seat area was then covered with blankets, sleeping bags and pillows where our two girls could roll around and sleep at their leisure. Of course, we did not even have seat belts ourselves so this did not seem too outlandish at the time!
Seriously, parking is a major problem here, especially during cherry blossom season. Driving can be frightening. Remember, you are dealing with A LOT of tourists either gawking or looking for parking spaces OR if they're on foot, darting in front of your car.
D.C. is also divided into NW, SE, SW, et cetera and you can get seriously lost if, say, you are looking for an address of 50 SW and you're actually in 50 SE.
Parking on the streets is limited. Handicapped people cannot rely on their license plates or signs -- but must request a special permit from the city. Parking garages charge horrendous amounts -- a typical parking lot cost to go see a Capitols game is $20. A street may be fine to park on during the day but at rush hour, your car can get towed away.
And here's a good one -- it doesn't happen too often, I don't think -- but it does happen. If the President decides he's going to be somewhere all of a sudden and your car is parked near to where he is at, the Secret Service can up and tow it to another street. The catch is you have to try and find it, because they don't leave clues!
Add to that, the occasional protests that can shut down streets and you see why you should really should try to figure out our Metro system instead of driving
If you drive in Washington, parking is an issue. We wanted to visit the Supreme Court and were looking for someplace to park when a helpful policeman told me that probably the closest was the parking deck at Union Station. It is not cheap (nothing in Washington seems to be) but quite convenient. It is in easy walking distance to the Supreme Court (about a mile). Also, the Capitol building is not much further and that puts you on the mall. I think we were gone between 3 and 4 hours and the fee was $9. It would have been more but there are parking validation machines as you approach the parking area and I used one. I don’t recommend driving in Washington it is a great place to walk and the public transportation is pretty good but this is a good place and Union Station is worth exploring while you are there. A grand great hall, lots of shops and restaurants.
There are limited parking at the memorial. Other nearby with limited parking: Washington Monument and Tidal Basin at Jefferson Memorial (park near the pedal boat rental at the Tidal Basin) A better bet would be at National Mall near the museums. You are allowed 3 hours parking. Usually no problems if you arrive early. You can also put your your in a parking lot for $10 a day for cars (cheapest I found) at a lot right off 14th street bridge, across from the US Engraving & Printing Bureau. (You have to go around the block to get into the lot). Enjoy your visit!
There was a big parking lot next to the Eisenhover Avenue Metro Station, it was next to an AMC theater, we used this to park our car through the day as we traveled by metro and it was free of charge! A helpful attendant at the Metro Station gave us this tip.
Yes, parking is free around the Mall. Be there before 9 am you will find a plenty of spots there. I parked easily by the Capitol and by the Natiuonal Gallery. For early birds only.
Signs restict you to 3hrs, but I would consider is as a gentlemen agreement rather then a law. Please advice.
You need great luck to park there after 10am.