Some cities are infamous for bad driving: Los Angeles is too congested, San Francisco is too hilly and foggy. And these cities are (deservedly) notorious for their drivers. But there’s a sleeper in this race to the bottom. It’s the place where thousands of people from all over the world bring their bad driving habits: Washington, DC.
Steeped in history (and good microbreweries), our nation’s capital is understandably a tourist mecca. And I’m here to offer you visitors (and heck, even you locals) a friendly piece of advice: don’t add another car to those already congested roads! There’s excellent public transportation, bike shares, and (sigh) even Segways.
Want to know how serious I am about this? Check out why DC ranks #1 on my list of worst cities for drivers.
No DC rant would be complete without tourists. Starting with the National Cherry Blossom Festival in March, the sightseeing hordes descend. Clad in T-shirts distinguishing them as members of the FBI or Witness Protection Program, they trudge along the National Mall from museum to museum, asking locals, “Is that the White House?” They clog Starbucks, they wait in line (for hours!) just to eat a Georgetown Cupcake. They pilot Segways clumsily around the Mall, offering comedic relief to all.
Fortunately, most tourists don’t actually drive in DC. But those who do have to park … and that means parking spots on the Mall can be scarce during Capitol staffers’ softball and kickball leagues (aka drinking clubs), raising the ire of many a bro.
Commuters flood the District on weekdays, nearly doubling its population for 8 hours and eliminating any chance of parking anywhere. Everyone knows Virginians drive too slowly! Marylanders too erratically! And blood pressure levels only skyrocket during those long drives home after a day spent running the country (or, depending on your viewpoint, ruining it).
But the worst drivers in Washington aren’t tourists or suburbanites. They’re not congressmen or lobbyists. They’re not even Capitol Hill interns. No — they’re diplomats. The tell-tale “DIPLOMAT” license plate — a symbol of consequence-free (and often careless) driving — strikes fear and rage into the heart of Washingtonians. Granted, I have absolutely no stats on this. But ask locals whom to avoid on the road, and often they’ll reply, “diplomats” (and usually offer some colorful language to boot).
The big guy
Then there’s the president. As if dodging diplomats, reckless cabbies, and clueless tourists isn’t bad enough, you even have to watch out for the leader of the free world. He is always in such a hurry, and the drivers of his 20+ blackout-tinted SUVs and limos aren’t big on yielding to pedestrians. Which one is carrying the nuclear football? I don’t want to find out.
DC is so 19th century
The city is built around broad, diagonal avenues that provide great sight lines of icons like the Washington Monument, the Capitol, and the White House. It’s gorgeous. But as brilliant as city designer Pierre L’Enfant was, he apparently wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the car. Cram a hundred of these space-hoggers into a DC traffic circle and you get one giant (and round) parking lot. (Speaking of round parking lots, have you ever driven on the Beltway?)
But the most calamitous of all DC circles — an entire neighborhood that should be completely avoided during rush hour — is Dupont Circle. Even Hollywood knows that. In The American President, the big-screen precursor to the small screen’s The West Wing (which is required viewing for all Washingtonians), Sydney asks the president to declare Dupont a federal disaster area. Drive through it at 5:30 p.m. and you’ll see that it doesn’t need a formal declaration to be considered a disaster.
Park it and leave it
Despite all this, I stayed accident-free during my 4 years in DC. I attribute that partly to my superior driving skills, but mostly to driving only when absolutely necessary (to get to Costco, of course).
Thankfully, more Washingtonians are choosing to ride public transportation, walk, or, increasingly, to bike — either on their own 2-wheeler or via the biggest bike-sharing program in the country, Capital Bikeshare.
And who can blame them?