I have no actual data to back this up. Only anecdotal and empirical data. (Oh, and data from the Pike, which claims it's second to the Friday before mother's day in May, but I think that might be just for the Pike without the added benefit of every road north and south of the state, too. How prescient that this article comes out right after I post this.) But here's what happens, and here's how to avoid it.
Boston sees a lot of bad traffic. In the winter, when everyone is in town and weather hits, the entire system can grind to a halt. (The worst I know of was in December 2007 when a storm hit Boston around noontime. Snow fell heavily from the onset with temperatures in the mid-20s, so roads iced over. So many people left work early to beat the weather home that the roads filled up completely and plows couldn't keep them clean. So the entire network ground to a halt until snow let up late in the evening.) But you can't really plan for that. In the summer, Boston sees epic traffic jams headed out of the city to and from vacation spots, especially getting on and off of Cape Cod (the eight hour, 25-mile backup this July 4 this year was particularly bad), although other bottlenecks in New Hampshire and Western Mass can be painstakingly slow.
But the Friday before Columbus Day Weekend is the worst. Here's why:
- It's the Friday before a long weekend. So in addition to Friday traffic, you have the masses headed on vacation, too.
- But it's a normal Friday. Of all the three-day weekends in the calendar, it's the only one that almost no one extends. So there aren't many people who get away a day early to ease the traffic.
- It's the last nice weekend of the year, for foliage and, often for weather. It's still a pleasant time to go to Cape Cod, or the Berkshires, or Northern New England before the leaves fall and the temperatures plummet.
- Not many people stay in town for the weekend. On Patriots Day (Marathon), July 4 (Fireworks), Labor Day, MLK Day and Memorial Day there are parades and ceremonies and the like that people attend locally. No one is celebrating Columbus anymore.
- Oh, yeah: everyone from New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island wants to get to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. So guess where they all go? Massachusetts.
Personally, I've sat for two hours to go 10 miles on 128 on this wonderful day. I've also had a four hour drive from Springfield to Boston on the Turnpike. And my uncle had a three-hour trip from Providence to Boston, which culminated with him blindly following directions off of the Southeast Expressway on to Mass Ave when informed the Expressway wasn't moving.
These weren't due to accidents, but to volume. The system operates at-or-near capacity on a normal day. Add the factors above, and it is pushed way over capacity. Once that happens, everything stops.
But there are some suggestions. First of all, go where you are going later. We have wonderful apps and data and the ability to look at a computer screen and find out how long a trip is going to take. Take a look at Google Maps, or at MassDOT's traffic map or data stream, and wait it out. As long as you plan to wait it out, you can sit by the river or go for a run and wait until the coast is clear (which should happen by 7 or 8 p.m.). Second, consider back roads, especially further from the city. Much of the congestion comes tourist-types descending on to main highways. People who don't normally drive the roads don't know about parallel options, and people who are unprepared for their onslaught get caught up in the hubbub. So if the Pike is a royal mess, try Route 9. If 93 is a parking lot, come through the city.
The saying goes "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." But that's stupid. If you can't beat 'em, either wait patiently, or find a route where they aren't. Because if you don't, you too will get to enjoy the Worst Traffic Day of the Year!