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A car is often a drawback in Washington, D.C. Traffic is awful, especially at rush hour, and driving is often confusing, with many lanes and some entire streets changing direction suddenly during rush hour. Even longtime residents carry maps in their cars to help navigate confusing traffic circles and randomly arranged one-way streets. Most traffic lights stand at the side of intersections (instead of hanging suspended over them), and the streets are dotted with giant potholes. The city's most popular sights are all within a short walk of a Metro station, so do yourself a favor and leave your car at the hotel. If you're visiting sights in Maryland or Virginia or need a car because of reduced mobility, time your trip to avoid D.C. rush hours, 7 am-10 am and 3 pm-7 pm.
With Zipcar, an urban car-rental membership service, you can rent a car for a couple of hours or a couple of days from convenient Downtown parking lots. An annual fee of $60, plus $8-$11.25 per hour or $74-$83 a day (plus membership fees) buys you gas, insurance, parking, and satellite radio. Reserve online or by phone.
zipcar (866/494–7227. www.zipcar.com.)
Gas is more expensive in the District than it is in Maryland or Virginia, and gas stations can be hard to find, especially around Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall. Your best bets are the BP station at the corner of 18th and S streets NW, the Mobil station at the corner of 15th and U streets NW, the Exxon station at 2150 M Street NW, and the Mobil station at the corner of 22nd and P streets NW. The no-name station at Wisconsin and Q in Georgetown has the cheapest gas in Northwest D.C.—cash only.
Lay of the Land
Interstate 95 skirts D.C. as part of the Beltway, the six- to eight-lane highway that encircles the city. The eastern half of the Beltway is labeled both I-95 and I-495; the western half is just I-495. If you're coming from the south, take I-95 to I-395 and cross the 14th Street Bridge to 14th Street in the District. From the north, stay on I-95 South. Take the exit to Washington, which will place you onto the Baltimore-Washington (B-W) Parkway heading south. The B-W Parkway will turn into New York Avenue, taking you into Downtown Washington, D.C.
Interstate 66 approaches the city from the southwest. You can get Downtown by taking I-66 across the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge to Constitution Avenue.
Interstate 270 approaches Washington, D.C., from the northwest before hitting I-495. To reach Downtown, take I-495 East to Connecticut Avenue South, toward Chevy Chase.
Parking in D.C. is a question of supply and demand—little of the former, too much of the latter. The police are quick to ticket, tow away, or boot any vehicle parked illegally, so check complicated parking signs and feed the meter before you go. If you find you've been towed from a city street, call 311 or 202/737–4404 or log on to www.dmv.dc.gov. Be sure you know the license-plate number, make, model, and color of the car before you call.
Most of the outlying, suburban Metro stations have parking lots, though these fill quickly with city-bound commuters. If you plan to park in one of these lots, arrive early.
Private parking lots Downtown often charge around $5-$10 an hour and $25-$40 a day. There's free, three-hour parking around the Mall on Jefferson and Madison drives, though these spots are almost always filled. There is no parking near the Lincoln or Roosevelt memorials. The closest free parking is in three lots in East Potomac Park, south of the 14th Street Bridge.
If you're staying in D.C., skip it. Public transportation in the city is convenient and affordable, and driving here is no fun.
However, if you're staying in Virginia or Maryland and your hotel doesn't have a shuttle into D.C. and isn't within walking distance of Metro, then a car may be your best transportation option.
Daily rental rates in Washington, D.C., begin at about $40 during the week and about $22 on weekends for an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include airport facility fees or the tax on car rentals.
In Washington, D.C., many agencies require you to be at least 25 to rent a car. However, younger employees of major corporations and military or government personnel on official business should check with rental companies and their employers for exceptions.
Major Rental Agencies
Alamo (877/222–9075. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/331–1212. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/527–0700. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654–3131. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (877/222–9058. www.nationalcar.com.)
Dial 911 to report accidents on the road and to reach police, the highway patrol, or the fire department. For police nonemergencies, dial 311.
U.S. Park Police (202/610–7500.)
Rules of the Road
In D.C. you may turn right at a red light after stopping if there's no oncoming traffic. When in doubt, wait for the green. Be alert for one-way streets, "no left turn" intersections, and blocks closed to car traffic. The use of handheld mobile phones while operating a vehicle is illegal in Washington, D.C. Drivers can also be cited for "failure to pay full time and attention while operating a motor vehicle." The speed limit in D.C. is 25 mph except on the Whitehurst Freeway.
Radar detectors are illegal in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
During the hours of 6-9 am (inbound) and 3:30-6 pm (outbound), HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes on I-395 and I-95 are reserved for cars with three or more people. From 6:30 to 9 am (inbound) and 4 to 6:30 pm (outbound), all the lanes of I-66 inside the Beltway are reserved for cars carrying two or more, as are some of the lanes on the Dulles Toll Road and on I-270.
Always strap children under a year old or under 20 pounds into approved rear-facing child-safety seats in the backseat. In Washington, D.C., children weighing 20-40 pounds must also ride in a car seat in the back, although it may face the front. Children cannot sit in the front seat of a car until they are at least four years old and weigh more than 80 pounds.
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