A short monograph on Triangle traffic; or, my Wednesday-afternoon trip to the airport

July 31, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 31, 2017

I’d planned on taking a trip the week that ended on Saturday, July 22. But I hadn’t planned on leaving on Wednesday the 19th, and I hadn’t planned on flying. However, an urgent situation arose, and it seemed best that I book an evening flight.

That afternoon, I went to a barcade in downtown Raleigh. I did this partly to help myself unwind for a bit before my flight, but I also did this because evening rush-hour in the Research Triangle tends to be heaviest going east from Durham to Raleigh, and Raleigh-Durham International Airport is located about halfway between the two cities.

(Sidebar: A significant disparity between housing and jobs helps fuel traffic holdups in the region, as does a lack of rail-based mass transit. The city of Raleigh, which forms the Triangle’s eastern vertex, is the most populous in the region. But a significant proportion of Raleigh residents work either in Chapel Hill, the site of the University of North Carolina and its major teaching hospital facility, or in Durham, which is home to Duke University, to Duke’s major teaching hospital facility and to North Carolina Central University, a large historically black state university.

(Why don’t more people live closer to their jobs? In the Triangle, there are multiple explanations. Chapel Hill, the region’s westernmost vertex, has historically suffered from a dearth of housing, for reasons that apparently involve the town’s restrictive zoning.

(Durham has housing; in fact, it seems to be undergoing a housing boom, as residential apartment buildings and condominiums are going up in and around downtown at an ever-increasing pace. However, for many years, the city had a reputation as a dangerous and violent place, something that was not at helped by the Duke lacrosse fiasco. Another issue was that the Bull City’s downtown used to be almost entirely barren of dining and entertainment options, at least in the evening. That’s changed radically over the past decade, and a few years ago the City of Medicine supplanted Chapel Hill as a cool place to eat and drink on the west end of the Research Triangle.

(However, Durham faces a more entrenched challenge: It’s perceived as a bad place for families to raise kids. That’s largely because the Durham County public school system has a reputation as being inferior, at least in comparison to the area’s other public districts. At any rate, all this explains some of the region’s traffic patterns.)

Getting back to what I was saying: I have plenty of experience driving east from Durham during the evening rush, and I knew that unless I left for the airport at a ridiculously early hour, I’d spent an unpleasant amount of time sitting in my car.

Now, it’s not like there are never any evening rush backups on westbound lanes headed out of Raleigh, but the westbound lanes between the city limits and the airport tend to be relatively clear. Of course, there still can be jams for motorists heading out of the Oak City’s central district.

I got caught up in one of those, and I made some bad decisions about when to stay in my lane vs. when to try a different one. I think I even managed to miss a turn or two. Still, I got to the airport in plenty of time.

It didn’t take me long to ride the shuttle bus from the long-term parking lot to the main RDU terminal, and I passed through security without incident. Unfortunately, the rest of my time at the airport did not go entirely smoothly.

To be continued…

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