The Ripple Effect, or why your commute sucked last night

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘erin m’

Last night’s horrific commutes ranged anywhere from 3-5 hours on the short end to 12-14 hours, we’re hearing, with most of those higher numbers west of the city.  Take a look at a couple screenies that Greater Greater Washington put up last night that show pretty much every road west of the Potomac River over capacity with no cars moving.

You can see the snowfall trends in the storm thanks to the Capital Weather Gang’s Submit-a-Report map, and it seems to have aligned a few trends that made things massively difficult for everyone to get around.  Read on for all the details.

1. The storm started earliest west of the city and moved east starting as early as 1:30pm, meaning that the plows weren’t in position to deal with the worst of the roads in time for…

2. The Federal Government closed at 3pm.  We drove through downtown yesterday right at the 3pm hour in the worst of the mixed icy precipitation and the start of the heavily falling snow.  West of the city, where a large proportion of Federal workers live, there was already 1-2″ of snow around that time, and suddenly the plows weren’t able to handle the influx of cars to effectively keep snow off the roads.

3. The ripple effect only made things worse.  Cars clogging the roads meant that plows couldn’t move through, which meant snow was piling up, which meant that the roads grew less and less passable for cars that were stuck there.  Abandoned vehicles made for obstacles that then needed to be slalomed by the plows, causing further delay.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘erin m’

You see where this was going.

I contend that had the Feds closed at 1, we would’ve seen a sane, if slightly longer than normal commute, but I think that had the Feds stayed open til 5, we would’ve seen a saner commute, as that would’ve given the plows and salt trucks a chance to better treat the roads in the face of the storm.

Am I offbase? Crazy? Say so in the comments.

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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9 thoughts on “The Ripple Effect, or why your commute sucked last night

  1. Not crazy – I think you’re just about right on. There’s another twist that probably made it worse as well, which is that whatever pre-treatment was done was washed away by the rain that preceded the change to snow and sleet in many areas. Thus, the snow was immediate accumulating and as you say the plows couldn’t get through because everywhere there was even a slight uphill there were cars (and more importantly commercial trucks and 18-wheelers) that simply couldn’t move. Cue the pile-up…

  2. Robert,

    You’re right, and I need to put that in my analysis, because the rain also meant the trucks couldn’t pre-treat at all, as it would wash away, which meant it left many idling in place (further clogging the shoulders) until such time as the roads started to actually freeze.

  3. I think your diagnosis is correct of the issue, but doubt a 5pm dismissal would not have helped. The truth of the matter is as soon as traffic gets bumper to bumper, the plows and road crews can not work effectively, and at that point, the roads go to heck. The only hope is that the traffic is light enough during a storm that the crews can continue to work. As you know, this area has a 5+ hour commute on a sunny day (early crew leaves around 3pm, late crews get home around 8 or later), so the only hope was to get the rush over (or mostly over) before the snow really hit. As Capital Weather forcasted yesterday, the snow was going to turn heavy and troublesome (I think crippling was the adjective they used in a tweet!/capitalweather/status/30284231225638912 ) almost immediately after 5pm. Unless people planned to wait at work until 7 or 8pm (or even later), I think 1pm (or earlier) would have been the best bet.

    This area has the worst traffic in the nation. Adding inch an hour snowfall rates during rush hour just will not work. It’s not the Fed’s fault that their employees choose to live 40 miles away, but at some point, it has to be understood as fact (or give me a subsidy so I can afford Arlington ;) ) and incorporated into their planning. Just because employees got off the property doesn’t abdicate them of the responsibility.

  4. Tom,
    While the pre-treatment wouldn’t have been as effective as it would have been on a dry road, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been effective. Were the local DOT’s being cheap instead of overly-cautious? When I drove home at 4:30, the raised 395S/SW Freeway inside the city was a mix of sleet and snow (with a little liquid). Salt & sand would have done wonders for that mess.

  5. The DC area lacked common sense yesterday.

    We ALL were completely aware that it was going to snow yesterday afternoon and if you didn’t it meant you had no radio, TV, internet, or lived under a rock for last three days.

    My co-workers and I looked at the radar/hourly report and using our past experiences with DC area traffic in rain. We all showed up at work early and left work at 2pm.
    If you were stuck in traffic yesterday because you waited, you deserved it. I was home next to my fireplace at 4pm.

  6. It’s not just the government. OPM told people to go home 2 hours early, which was 3 PM for most people, but some people in my office left by 1:30, and as far as I know people who left that early got home fine.

    The private sector/contractor workforce is by and large told “there’s no such thing as a snow day,” and a lot of them tried to tough it out, I think. Leading to horror stories of six hour trips or longer.

  7. the federal government did not close at 5pm. it closed 2 hours early. so, if you normally leave at 4, you leave at 2. leave at 5, leave at 3, etc etc. so…incorrect information = faulty argument. we dont all leave at the same time

  8. Yup, I’ve been asking around and anyone who left before 2:30 had a relatively normal commute home, maybe just slightly longer than usual, but anyone that didn’t leave before that crucial point got stuck in the mess. I left at 3:30, before the snow started, but didn’t get home until 11:30. I can’t imagine what it was like for people who live outside of the Beltway!

  9. Geb said: “If you were stuck in traffic yesterday because you waited, you deserved it. I was home next to my fireplace at 4pm.”

    Us government contractors can’t leave hours before our customers do, no matter how early we show up to work. That’s why it would have helped if the government employees were allowed to leave at noon– then the rest of us could have followed suit.