major snowstorm of 2011 was a disaster for commuters.
They call it the "worst rush hour of all time" in the
Washington DC metropolitan area. I call
it the worst driving experience I have ever had in my life. Three out of four members of my family were
unwilling participants/involved in the commute-to-remember! Years away, when people talk about this
rush-hour commute, I am sure I still remember exactly what happened. Here are my recollection and opinions of the
commute home on this dreadful day:
2011 4:05 PM
mates, Chinh and Hiep, and I left my work at 12 Street SW, Washington DC, heading to highway I-66 West (via
I-395 South and the Pentagon.) Snow had been falling but
none stuck to the road yet; however, traffic was real heavy. Based on 22-year of experience working in
DC, Chinh estimated that it might take us 2.5 hours to get home. Our normal travel time is 45 minutes because we can use the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane in rush hour. Let’s see if he was right!
2011 5:50 PM
It had been almost 2 hours since our departure for home but we were able to go for just
a few miles. I called my wife to tell her
that I was on the way home but it was going to be another 2 hours at least. She told me that my daughter left her work
in Tysons Corners at 3:30PM but she was still somewhere on Route 123. My son was also coming home from George Mason University in Fairfax; he left there around 4PM.
About half an hour later, we came upon a cab, which had spun to its left,
putting it in a small incline, blocking two lanes of traffic. The driver tried to rectify it but it went
nowhere as the tires had no traction.
We had to veer around the cab to get moving and had a good clearance for
about a good couple miles. I have a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) so driving on the snow and partly on the side of the road was no problem.
The second half of the ordeal started as soon as we get to the Vienna metro
station where we faced an onslaught of metro-riders, now driving their own
cars, trying to merge onto I-66 West.
reached the exits to Fair Oaks mall and thought the end was near. We were on the HOV-lane and traffic was moving slowly but
steadily. We would take the HOV-lane
exit #55 to Stringfellow Road 1.5 miles ahead then Hiep and I just had to
drive about 2 miles in local roads to get home. [Chinh still had to drive another 5-6 miles to his house though,
and we didn’t realize at that time that his commute was far from being
over.] Our drop-off location was so close but was now so far to reach because we could not take our normal exit. We saw the gates to the
HOV exit ram at the Monument Drive (the HOV-exit before ours) had been closed at
7:30PM so we had no choice but to move over to the right lane to take the
regular 55B exit to Fair Lakes in order to get to the parking lot. We
spent an hour there to get to nowhere because the exit ram was now look like a parking lot. We finally decided to move on to the next exit (53A/B), and found another
At about the
same time, my wife called to check on my progress. She told me that my daughter was not too far behind me as she was
trying to take Exit 55B. My son was on
29-South right around the Harley-Davidson dealership in Fairfax, trying to fight through
traffic, too. Soon after, my
daughter called and asked me for suggestions.
Having spent an hour trying to take exit 55B and now also getting stuck
trying to get off at exit 53 in front of her, I told her to stay where she
was for a while more before making any move.
Having been on the road for 5 hours and home was just less than 10 minutes away but she couldn't move her car, she sounded upset and decided to stay
put. I asked her if she had enough gas in her car and she said she did. I was hoping that at least one of
us would have a chance to get home before the other, rather than both being
stuck in one place.
drink a lot of water. And true to my
astrological sign, Aquarius, I always carry a case of bottled water in my
car. I hadn't had any drink of water
in the last 4.5 hours for fear of having to go to the bathroom. As we line up in the exit lanes at Exit 53 we
started drinking a little bit because we thought we should be home soon. But little did we know that it would be
another 1.5 hours before we finally reached the parking lot where my friends
parked their cars. As we came to a
standstill for a while, we saw a few guys got out of their cars to relieve
themselves on the side of the road. I
don't blame them at all, but just wondered who/what they were aiming their
frustration at for this mess (hopefully not at their tires because they needed
their tires to have good traction to get them home in this treacherous
There were two
lines of cars which we thought were ready to take exit 53A and 53B - the left
lane for exit 53A (Route 28 South) and the right lane exit 53B (Route 28 North.) Hiep asked me to take exit 53A to
hopefully get home sooner to his elderly mother who had been alone in the last 5
hours, so we stayed on the left lane.
But looking far ahead I saw some cars had to go around a disabled car,
so I drove past quite a number of cars to make the same move and advanced
closer to the exit. I also saw that
there had been no movement on the bridge over I-66 which exit 53A would lead us
to Route 28 South. We wondered out loud what the hell
could have been the problem at the front of the line! [I later found out that the 53A exit we originally planned to take had been closed due to disabled vehicle(s), so the exit ram was no longer an exit any more.]
All of a
sudden we saw a caravan of cars being lead by a big SUV and a plow truck driving
on what looked to be the side of the road because no cars had been on it for a
while. Then we didn't see any backup on
that right lane, so those cars must have been able to clear whatever that was the blockage. That meant they were able to take exit #53B. So, I told
Hiep and Chinh that we should change our plan and try to do the same, and I know the area so well we
could have a couple options to get to where we wanted to be. But we needed to cross over another lane of
traffic to get to that lane of "highway to heaven." Chinh and Hiep agreed and both opened their
windows to help me move the car over as soon as there was an opening. We soon found out that in fact that was the
lane for exit 53B. Then there was
yet another roadblock in front of us which forced me to take the left fork of
the exit to go around the disabled car to get onto 28-North (towards Dulles Airport) to head home. Never have I felt so relieved knowing I was
close to home. We got to the parking
lot around 09:50PM for Chinh to pick up his car to drive home and I drove Hiep
to his home and to get gas for my car as well. I had half a tank of gas in my car at the start of the day but it was almost empty by then. We found out the next day that Chinh spent another 2.5 hours on the road (which normally takes
him 15 minutes) before reaching home.
reached home after 6.5 hours on the road to travel about 28 miles.
My wife told me that our neighborhood lost electricity for a few hours
and it had just been restored about 15 minutes earlier. I spent the next 1.5 hours after eating a quick dinner to
clean half of the driveway for my kids to park their cars when they got home. My daughter came home around January 27,
2011 12:30AM; her total travel time: 9 hours to go 17 miles.
And my son, who had the shortest commute of less than 10 miles, came home last at January 27,
2011 01:30AM after 9.5 hours.
Here are my
observations/feelings about this experience:
- Communication: During this whole
ordeal, my wife acted as the “Central Commander” and called me and our
children to find out about each person's where about then relayed the
information to the others (and also to give the kids words of
encouragement.) I found this to be very helpful. Through the
information my wife provided I quickly figured out the overall situation -
a total gridlock in the entire region. But at least
after each of her calls, I knew up to that point that my kids were still
in their car safely, with the hope that they both would get home
soon. On the other hand, there was
virtually no communication from the local/state government. When we were near exit 55A/B, the
message board they put on the side of the highway still showed its normal
daily message: "Delay to Exit 47". In this day and age of advanced technology, that really was
a shame! When I got home, I turned
on Verizon Traffic report on TV and found out that Exit 53A (28 South)
which we originally plan to take had been closed due to a disable
vehicle(s). I don't remember
hearing any thing about it on radio stations after we turned off the
- The stupidity of the Virginia Department of
Transportation or whoever decided to close the I-66West exits to Monument
Drive and Stringfellow Road at 7:30PM as normal.
Hello, this was not your "normal" rush hour, so leave those damn exits
open to give people another option to get home, you idiots! It later proved that the rush hour
period did not end until the wee hours of the following day. What is normally a 2-minute drive for
us to get from I-66 HOV exit to Stringfellow Rd to our parking log turned
out to be almost two hours later.
- I think the main culprit of this
whole mess was that all exit rams were blocked by
abandoned/disabled cars (e.g., out of gas.) What I found incredulous is people at the top of the backup
line did not seem to act, either because they were too tired and were
waiting for help to come to move the stuck/disabled/abandoned car in front
of them, or to just get around that disabled car and moved on. Those who were at the back of the line
had no idea what the real problem was and thus just sat there and waited
and waited. What was also
aggravating to me was that I saw no police presence near exits 53A/B and
55A/B. The state troopers who
normally position themselves at exits 55A/B to catch speeders and/or HOV-lane
violation were nowhere to be found.
I surmised that they probably got "stuck" in their warm
and comfortable office/barrack due to inclement weather! I would have come up to them and asked
them to open the gate to the HOV-exit ram to Stringfellow Rd. I am sure other drivers would have done the same.
- Many drivers were ill prepared for
winter driving condition. Many
cars got stuck because their tires had no traction; those should be off
the road to begin with. I used to
live in upstate New York (Albany) where snow falls as early as Columbus
Day (mid October) and you will be ticketed if you don’t have snow tires on
your car by then.
- Having company in the car is also a big
moral booster and helps keep your state of mind in check. I am glad that I had Chinh and Hiep to
share this experience with. We
went through 5 CDs of good music and discussed various topics, from
cooking to female singers' style and beauty and "claiming" our favorite
singer(s), which really helped pass the time. On the contrary, my daughter was alone in her car. When I talked to her around 8:30PM,
having spent 5 hours on the road she felt dejected and didn't want to consider
making the move to the next exit.
But she later told me that she had her hope up when I called and told her how I got out of the traffic mess; she decided to follow the path I
took and finally got home, but almost 2 hours later.
- Finally, I hope that this is a
learning experience for the local/state government so they’d better
prepare/plan for potential disasters in the future. Imagine what a chaotic setting it would be in a real evacuation when there are panic and crying children on the road!