The leftover turkey is almost gone and many people are turning their attention to other holidays as 2016 comes to an end. But traffic researchers at the TPB have taken a quick look back to see how traffic conditions on area roadways played out in the days leading up to Thanksgiving Day. Their analysis points to the best and worst times for holiday getaway travelers to hit the road on their way out of town.
Tuesday before Thanksgiving still sees the biggest pre-holiday slowdowns
Average travel speeds on area freeways slowed to just 26 mph at around 6:00 P.M. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. That was about 12 mph lower than a normal Tuesday and the slowest average travel speed recorded all week.
That finding runs counter to a common perception that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving sees the worst traffic conditions leading up to the holiday. And it’s consistent with a pattern that the TPB has now observed for the four years it has studied—2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016. (Comparable data for 2013 were not available.)
The TPB’s traffic researchers theorize that early getaway traffic combines with regular afternoon commute traffic to magnify Tuesday slowdowns. A similar though less pronounced phenomenon appears to occur on the Monday before the holiday as well.
New this year: all-day rush-hour conditions on Wednesday
Although Tuesday dominated in terms of absolute drops in travel speeds, Wednesday was no easy day to travel, either. Average freeway speeds hovered in the 40-45 mph range from 8:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening—essentially making for all-day rush-hour conditions.
That is a somewhat new development. In the three others years the TPB studied, travel conditions only started to deteriorate around lunchtime, leaving an early-morning window for getaway travelers to hit the road.
The cause of this year’s day-long slowdown is not entirely clear, though the TPB’s researchers think that a major traffic incident on the Capital Beltway during the morning commute might be the main culprit. A tractor-trailer that overturned on the Beltway’s American Legion Bridge caused miles-long back-ups in both directions for several hours. The incident, the researchers say, could have been enough to bring down the average regional travel speed down during the morning hours Wednesday.
What to expect next year
It’s probably far too early for most travelers to start thinking about their holiday-related travel for next Thanksgiving, but the TPB’s researchers have a few key takeaways to keep in mind when the time comes.
One is that Tuesday consistently proves to have the worst slowdowns, usually occurring between about 4:00 and 7:00 P.M. Big slowdowns come on Wednesday, too, though they usually start earlier in the day and peak mid-afternoon. The best times to travel continue to be on Tuesday between 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M., or after about 6:00 P.M. on Wednesday.
One new caveat in this year’s analysis is that Wednesday traffic conditions are highly susceptible to fluctuations caused by major incidents, adding an extra degree of uncertainty to traveling on the day before the holiday.
GRAPHS FOR 2014-2016