Everything You Need To Know About Driving in Washington D.C.

D.C. is one of the worst cities in America to drive in, but there are clever ways to avoid its infamous congestion.
Written by Cameron Thiessen
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
Driving in Washington, D.C., includes rush-hour traffic, a ton of tourists, and expensive parking—but the benefits may outweigh the drawbacks for some people. 
  • D.C. is one of the worst places to drive, especially during rush hour or near monuments.
  • Roads are laid out in a quadrant grid system which can help you stay oriented.
  • Parking is expensive, even on the street or in parking garages.
  • Follow local traffic laws to avoid tickets—don’t get distracted by the West Wing!

What is driving in D.C. like?

Fact: D.C. is the 9th worst city in America to drive in.
Despite the fact that the District of Columbia is considered the ultimate historical destination in America, it is certainly not the greatest place in the U.S. to find yourself stuck in rush hour traffic. That’s due to out-of-state commuters from
, flocks of tourists, and insanely difficult parking.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to take on the capital’s downtown traffic.
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D.C. roads are set up in a grid with numbers and letters

The roads in the D.C. area are set in a system of broad diagonal avenues crossing over the foundational street grid. 
Appearance: D.C.’s avenues are picturesque, wide, and lined with trees, weaving around the many historical sights and public areas downtown. 
Navigation: The grid runs north-south and east-west with the Capitol as the starting point. Keep your eye out for the quadrant naming system (SE, SW, NW, NE), and note that there are two sets of each branching in either direction from the Capitol.
  • Numbered streets: Any street with a number runs north-south.
  • Lettered streets: Any street that is lettered runs east-west. 
If you familiarize yourself with how D.C.’s grid system works before embarking, you won’t be taken by surprise or get lost.

Parking is hard to find, and it can be quite expensive

Whether you’re a daily commuter or on a Virginia-area road trip, if you have to park in D.C., you’ll likely be looking at one of three options:
  • A space in a parking garage 
  • A spot on the street
  • Valet services 
Finding vacant parking can be very difficult, especially near the monuments. The parking downtown will fill up quickly, especially before special events, so make sure to plan your parking situation ahead of time.
Cost of street parking in D.C.: Prepare to pay between $4.60 and $5.10 per hour to park on the street in D.C.
Cost of a parking garage in D.C.: A parking garage will likely cost you between $10 and $30, depending on how long you need to park. 
Some companies, such as
Laz Parking
Colonial Parking
, offer valet services at various parking lots around the city. 
If you do end up parking on the street, make sure you’re paying extra close attention to the posted signs. You don’t want to wind up with a hefty parking ticket on your windshield!
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The weather around D.C. affects traffic, parking, and road safety

When it comes to weather, D.C.’s got it all—warm summers and snowy winters. Here are some of the things you might run into while driving in D.C., depending on the season:
  • Summer driving in D.C.: As the weather heats up, droves of tourists take to the roads on top of the large numbers of commuters already in the city. When the roads are already at their most congested, one little accident or a big event at the White House can cause intense traffic jams.
  • Winter driving in D.C.: If you expect to spend any time driving in D.C. during the winter, make sure your
    car is equipped
    with non-freezing window washer fluid and a brush to clear snow and ice from your windows. It’s very common for temperatures to go below freezing, and you can expect snow, ice, and darker skies. 

Traffic and other transportation options in D.C.

D.C.’s downtown streets are set up in a grid overlaid with diagonal avenues. This system is fairly straightforward to navigate—but congestion and stand-still traffic are still extremely common. 
Here are the worst times to drive in D.C.:
  • Morning rush (6:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.): If you’re trying to get into the city, avoid rush hour, especially on highways.
  • Evening rush (3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.): Seriously, just don’t drive during rush hour in D.C. if you want to avoid headaches and
    costs of accidents
  • Rush hour is the worst on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
In terms of the best times to drive in Washington D.C., any time well before or after rush hour is your best bet. 
Pro tip: Make sure you’re aware of any events that might be going on in the areas where you might be driving—there’s always something going on in D.C.! You can tune into
(103.5 FM) for traffic updates in Washington D.C.

Should I rent a car in Washington D.C.?

Renting a car in a city like Washington D.C. can definitely have its benefits, but it can also end up being just another added stress—especially if you have to pick up the car in another town like Alexandria or Arlington.
Pro: Get yourself from point A to B as comfortably and directly as possible.
Con: Deal with weekday traffic congestion and struggle to find open city parking spots.
Con: Negotiate with insurance companies about coverage for your rental vehicle.
The best way to get around D.C. is to use its efficient and safe public transportation provided by the
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)
. From Union Station and Georgetown to the Smithsonian and the National Mall, it’s easy to reach major destinations around DC via public transit.
Public trains: If you don’t want to spend your time stuck in traffic—or if you don’t have a driver’s license—the Metrorail trains can get you to most main areas of the city.
Public buses: The D.C. bus system is world-renowned, making buses perfect for hopping on and off to explore different parts of the city—all with a nice view out the window.

Follow local driving laws in Washington D.C. to avoid tickets

Familiarize yourself with the local traffic laws and speed limits before you drive in the nation’s capital:
  • No handheld phones: It’s
    illegal to use a handheld phone
    while driving in D.C. Hands-free and voice-activated features are fine to use, however.
  • Construction zone yielding: When driving through a construction zone, you must slow down, yield to workers and work vehicles, and move into the far lane if safe to do so.
  • Yield to emergency vehicles: If an emergency vehicle is approaching, you must pull over or slow down safely to allow the emergency vehicle to go by. You are not allowed to take photos or use a cell phone within 500 feet of where emergency personnel are working.
  • Beware traffic safety devices: Red light cameras and speeding devices are in effect throughout D.C.
Keep an eye out for one-way streets and tricky intersections, too.

The crime rate in Washington D.C. affects car insurance rates

The crime rate around D.C. could have an impact on your driving experience as well as your
car insurance
The good news: In general, D.C. has a lower crime rate than the national average rate as of 2020. 
The bad news: Washington D.C. has high rates of motor vehicle theft. The odds of getting your car stolen are 1 in 203 if you’re a D.C. resident.
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