DC Traffic Guide

A helpful guide to the pleasures of navigating our nation's capital by car, bike, or foot.

Jim Treacher, whose own horrific experience with being struck by a car whilst walking in DC is well chronicled, says that, “Being a pedestrian in DC is like living inside a game of Grand Theft Auto played by a drunk 14-year-old with anger issues.”  He believes that “You can get mowed down at any time, and don’t expect much help from the police.”

His evidence on the latter score is anecdotal and thin:  His case and one other of a struck pedestrian getting ticketed by police for crossing the street illegally, despite both claiming they were crossing with the light.

There’s not much doubt that DC is a city where traffic is dangerous, generally.   And, owing to lesser degrees of protection, pedestrians and bikers are especially prone to serious injury or death from collision.

I’ve never biked in DC, nor do I expect to in the future.   But I have driven and walked and had the opportunity to observe the behaviors of drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians from different perspectives over the last eight years or so.  And it’s not pretty.

DC drivers are raging assholes.

The city’s infrastructure is woefully inadequate for its population, much less for the thousands of people who commute in from Virginia and Maryland by car each day.   As a result, there’s gridlock, stop-and-go traffic, bottlenecks, and frustration.

DC drivers have reacted to this by adopting an incredibly aggressive style that persists even during those rare occasions when there’s little traffic.   They’ll cut you off without signaling, daring you to run into them, at any moment.  They’ll drive in the wrong lane to get to the head of a queue and then make everybody behind them slam their brakes and wait until they can force their way in.  They’ll block the box during lights, adding to the pile-up and frustration.

DC bicyclists are complete assholes.

While DC is finally getting into the 1980s and building bike lanes, there are far too few of them given the number of people trying to get around by bicycle.

DC’s bicyclists have reacted to this by adopting the idea that they have to ride somewhere, switching between the over-crowded roads, sidewalks, bus lanes, emergency lanes, and bike lanes on a whim.  Also, because they’re bicyclists, they feel they don’t have to obey any rules whatsoever.  So, they’ll weave in and out of traffic, daring cars to hit them.  They’ll run red lights.  They’ll pass cars trying to make right turns on their right side, even — indeed, especially — when there isn’t actually a lane to the right.  Or, better yet, they’ll suddenly decide to illegally ride on the sidewalk and become 35 mph pedestrians, creating hazard not only to actual pedestrians but also unexpectedly appearing in front of cars who are turning right on a green light and not expecting them.

DC pedestrians are oblivious assholes.

Most DC pedestrians, at least in the downtown areas I have occasion to frequent,  are the people who have parked their cars and bikes and are now getting around on foot.    Whether owing to the exercise relieving some of their pent up adrenaline  or to the real fear of getting hit by asshole drivers and bikers, they’re actually much calmer and more prone to follow the law than they are in their vehicles.

But they’re now distracted by whatever business brought them to their current location and have seemingly forgotten about what it’s like to drive in this crazy town.   So, they’re yapping on their phones, texting, listening to their iPods, or some combination of those things as they tootle along.

They’ll tend to stop at lighted intersections, although they’ll ignore a Don’t Walk sign if there’s at least a 70% chance of getting across the road without being struck.   Once they do enter the road, though, they’ll lollygag whilst engaged in their aforementioned electronic diversions, oblivious to the cars trying to make right turns on green.

The exception to the above rule is pedestrians who ride the Metro buses.  Perhaps feeling particularly angry at the world — or, indeed, suicidal — because they have to ride the bus, they’re absolutely oblivious to the concept of right-of-ways, lights, and so forth.  They  love to jump off the sidewalk into moving traffic, particularly on the access lanes.

Also, a  not insignificant number of DC pedestrians are too lazy to walk all the way to the corner to cross the street, so they’ll just wander out any old where.   While in enough of a hurry to do this, they’re not in enough of a hurry to actually hurry.  Nonetheless, running them over with your car is frowned upon.

DC bus drivers are crazy assholes.

I’ve saved the worst for last.   As bad as DC drivers are, they’re little old ladies on their way to a church picnic compared to the criminals employed to drive people around on buses.  This is especially true, of course, of the civil servants operating Metro buses but mostly true of tour bus drivers, too.

Because they’re on a schedule and because, as noted above, the people driving cars in DC are raging assholes, they’re screwed.  They have giant, unwieldy vehicles that have to get over to the right lane, back into the driving lane, back into the right lane, across to the far left lane, and make repeated turns in traffic that simply won’t allow that to happen naturally.  So, basically, they just drive as if there are no other cars on the road and force everyone else to swerve out of the way.

They seemingly drive in packs, conspiring to make it impossible to navigate into the rightmost lane to make turns.

They not only make turns on red as if other vehicles and pedestrians aren’t there but, displaying remarkable innovation, also turn left on red, seemingly unaware the vehicles coming from the other direction have the right-of-way.

They particularly love to block the box during the 6-7:30 pm You Thought It Was Rush Hour Before free-for-all, which is a festival of horn honking and feats of derring-do, wherein frustrated drivers constantly change lanes despite the fact that nobody is going anywhere.  The red-amber-green light system is totally meaningless during this period, especially if you’re a Metro bus driver.

Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Humor, Policing, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. So basically, everyone in DC is an asshole.


  2. James Joyner says:

    Haven’t found any exceptions thus far.

  3. DC Loser says:

    This is the best read I’ve had today.  And you didn’t even address the clueless assholes that ride the metro, especially the F$%$ing tourists that don’t understand escalator etiquette! 

  4. James Joyner says:

    Yeah, well Metro is its own form of punishment.  But at least it’s a self-contained ecosystem.

  5. Metro is just a giant clusterf**k at this point. I remember when I moved here 20 years ago it was actually a fairly decent way to get around downtown. Now, thanks to increased passenger volume and a lack of investment, it’s just crap.

  6. tom p says:

    Sounds like a walk in the park….

    Compared to driving in Mexico.

  7. DC Loser says:

    To add insult to injury, you have to pay a premium ON TOP of the fare increase to have the privilege to be a sardine packed into unairconditioned trains during rush hour.  Metro sucks. 

  8. arcs says:

    I thought traffic around DC wasn’t too bad.

    Admittedly, I only spent a year in the area and I didn’t drive the beltway to or from work. I lived in Reston and worked in McLean. I drove a dirty 1/2 ton 4×4 with a few dings in it. What I found was that if you drove in a manner to give the perception that you didn’t care a whit if it had another ding, people would generally move out of your way when you signalled.

    Just don’t let them see you looking for clearance to go — two blinks then go and there would almost always be a hole for you.

    What kind of asshole did that make me?

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    This has unlocked deep memories for me.  Suppressed memories . . . things I wished, nay, needed to forget.
    My first commuter job was in Washington, DC.  I now realize it was a formative time, when I first developed my character as a driver.  Now I hate slow-assed pedestrians, and idiot bikers and cluelessly-aggressive drivers.  Unfortunately, I now live in California where the pedestrians and bikers think they’re some kind of protected class, rather than understanding that they live on sufferance.
    I loved driving in Italy:  the pedestrians were targets, the drivers were professional-level, and the lanes were wherever the hell we said they were.

  10. DC Loser says:

    The closeset you have to that here (similar to European driving style) in the US is New York City (Manhattan) and Boston. 

  11. One teeny nitpick: when in the world has it been insufficient to call a bicycle operator a “cyclist?” It’s not like tricycles are popular, much less unicycles. “Biker” or “motorcyclist” seems clear enough for the motorized versions, but “bicyclist” seems to be a regionalism I totally missed.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Jayvie:  I use cyclist and bicyclist interchangeably, although the latter is more clear since motorized cycles do exist.

  13. John Burgess says:

    Agreed, on all points. I’d only add that pedestrians seem to be aggressively clueless. They will step out into traffic with no regard for either the rules of the road or the laws of physics.
    An observation: DC (as NYC) attracts drivers from all around the country and a good part of the world. Each region has its own malignant driving habit (left turns from the right lane; pulling out into traffic without looking; running red lights; etc.). DC gets them all piled together, sharing the same roadways. It is inevitable that the roads will be chaotic.
    It’s not inevitable (except in that we’re talking DC here) that assholes prevail. People tend to be so full of themselves in DC that they’ve no compunction about double parking on Wisconsin Ave, during rush hour, while they just pop into Starbucks to get fueled for the drive back to Bethesda or Potomac.
    And a warning: for those who must travel in DC. If a sign says ‘One Way’, don’t believe it! Check the ‘safe side’ when you’re crossing a one way street. There’s always some tourist turned around and coming up the wrong way.
    BTW: a little-known fact… the speed limit in DC is 25 mph unless otherwise marked.

  14. Jim Treacher says:

    I’ll admit to a certain degree of bias…

  15. Jane says:

    This applies to Toronto too! Same cause, same outcome.