All you have to do is mention 495, The Beltway and there are drivers who will immediately tell you how much they hate it. There are people who will go out of their way to avoid driving this road. Understanding how it works and following some simple advice can make driving this road a much better experience.
I have recently been through teaching my 2 teenage daughters to drive. You cannot send a teenager--or even someone new to the area--out on to Washington metropolitan roads without being sure that they, 1) understand the concept of The Beltway and, 2) have driven on The Beltway. One reason for this is that GPS systems will often send you on the Beltway...my oldest had her first unaccompanied Beltway driving experience because our GPS sent her home that way from a friend's house. I was thankful that we had taken the time to teach her to drive on this road.
The Beltway is really a pretty simple concept. It is a circular road which circles the District of Columbia. The upper half of it is in Maryland and lower half of it is in Virginia. It is intersected by the Potomac River in two places on opposite sides of the circle. These intersections are crossed by the American Legion Bridge and the Wilson Bridge.
I think of the Beltway as a 'wagon wheel.' There are the two loops (Inner and Outer) which are intersected all around by major and minor roads. If you can picture this from an aerial view, Maryland is the upper half of the wagon wheel and Virginia is the lower half. The wheel is divided by the Potomac River running through it.
The Inner Loop is portion of the beltway closest to DC (the inner loop of the double circle). The Outer Loop is, of course, the outer loop of the double circle, and the portion that is closest to the 'outer suburbs.' These phrases are extremely important as that is how traffic problems are reported in our area. You will also hear the terms, 'Inside the Beltway' and 'Outside the Beltway' to refer to different portions of the DC Metro Suburbs.
I am certainly not an artist (as you are about to see), but I thought a simple graphic would really help you to visualize this:
I left off all but the most major of roads (Please don't use this as a driving map!). It is intended only to help you to visualize the Beltway from an aerial perspective.
One of the most confusing things about the Beltway is that for people traveling up and down the East Coast on 95, part of their trip will be on the Beltway. 95 North in Springfield ends at the Beltway, traffic continues on the Beltway to cross the Wilson Bridge and then travels back on to 95 about 1/4 of the way around the Beltway in Maryland.
Having just taught my daughters to drive this road, I would also like to add a couple of driving hints for the Beltway.
- It feels a little bit like a Speedway when you drive this road. After merging, do not stay in the right lane as there are almost constant exits and entrances along the entire circle.
- Do not drive in the left lane unless you are planning to go pretty fast (which I am NOT advocating). There are several left exits of which I am aware. Watch the signs for this information. The one for Route 66 going between Springfield and Bethesda is a left exit, but there is also a second right hand exit if you can't, or don't want to, get over to the left.
- There is a lot of fast lane changing that goes on. If this makes you uncomfortable, pick your (middle) lane and stick with it.
- Because the Beltway is a circle, it is rarely referenced using North,South,East and West descriptions--the direction is constantly changing. Towns, bridges and exits are the most common ways of describing specific locations.
- Please, please, please make driving on this road a requirement for all new drivers...inexperience causes a lot of problems on this road with heavy traffic, lots of lane changing and the need to make exits.
- NEVER get out of your car if you break down. Pull off the road, call and wait for help. The shoulders are very tight and the conditions for pedestrians are hazardous.
Hopefully, this will help you to get an understanding of the Beltway. For people in the D.C. Metropolitan Suburbs, the Beltway is in an integral part of our transportation system. Understanding it will make your time in this area much easier.