News & Politics

Driving Somewhere for Memorial Day? Don’t Leave Thursday Afternoon!

Photograph by Flickr user Mike DelGuadio.

If your Memorial Day weekend plans involve driving to some beach town or countryside hideaway, finish reading this story, pack your bags, and maybe don’t wait to leave. Thursday afternoon is the worst time to travel for Memorial Day vacations, with some trips taking twice as long as low-traffic conditions, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Wednesday and Friday aren’t much better, but Thursday is far worse thanks to a few intersecting factors. First is that for most people, the Thursday before Memorial Day is just another workday, meaning that it has the usual afternoon rush-hour congestion. But throw into the mix the people taking off the Friday before a holiday, and the result is “unusually bad traffic.”

Memorial Day traffic

The Council of Government’s Transportation Planning Board looked at driving statistics on the three days before Memorial Day weekend from 2012 to 2015 and calculated area highways’ hourly Travel Time Index, or TTI. On Thursday afternoons, the TTI ranged between 1.5 and 2, meaning that on average, trips took 50 to 100 percent longer than when there is little or no traffic, and some highways experienced TTI factors closing in on 5, meaning a trip would take four times longer than ideal conditions.

On the 47-mile drive between DC and Fredericksburg on Interstates 395 and 95, for instance, the TTI peaked at 4.96 at 6 PM on the Thursday before Memorial Day in 2014. Northbound Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway had TTI factors above 3 between 3 and 5 PM on that same day.

Memorial Day traffic chart

Plotting out the hourly TTIs only provides the ability to make a rough guess of when to leave, though, as the data show that holiday-weekend traffic was far worse in 2014 than it was in 2015. The researchers admit there are many variables—car crashes, inclement weather, and road work are a few—making it difficult to predict when precisely traffic will be at its most extreme.

Thursday afternoons are often the worst, but not always. During some periods measured, Wednesday afternoon was an even tougher getaway, and Fridays aren’t great either, with the TTI regularly hitting 1.5 and above. But while traffic on the Thursday before Memorial Day is heaviest, it’s more prolonged on Friday. The Transportation Planning Board reports that the back-ups start about 11 AM and last until at least 6 PM.

Memorial Day traffic

The best time to leave then, the researchers conclude, is between 8 PM on Thursday and 11 AM on Friday. Driving through the middle of the night or crack of dawn isn’t the most appealing, sure, but it beats traveling in a glorified parking lot.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.