Locals enjoy August in Washington as town empties out

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Local,Rachel Baye

For Washingtonians who hate slogging through traffic, cramming onto Metro trains or waiting an hour for a table at a restaurant, August is the perfect month.

Congress' summer recess historically has turned the Washington area into a ghost town. Because it's an election year, politicos not on vacation are on the campaign trail and will head to their party conventions later this month.

Even area residents who don't work in politics take the opportunity to skip town, with the D.C. and county councils, the Metro board of directors and other government bodies taking recesses until after Labor Day. And with summer sports leagues finished, families head to the beach or other vacation spots for a final respite before school starts at the end of the month.

For those who remain behind, that means easy commutes, more available parking and shorter lines at restaurants. Temperatures are even starting to drop, with 90-degree days coming to an end, making August that much more pleasant.

Between 1981 and 2010, the average high temperature in the District was 88.4 degrees in July and 86.5 in August, said Jessica Rennells, a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

Gridlock starts easing in June as schools break for summer and parents change their routines.

Though the number of cars on the road fell by 0.6 percent -- from 34.05 million to 33.85 million -- between June and July 2011, the average traffic delay dropped from 25.1 minutes to 20.6 minutes, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

And in August, drivers can find major roads that aren't so crowded. The Capital Beltway and other major highways have fewer cars during traditional rush hours, as do major thoroughfares into the city.

"During the school year, [Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring] is always backed up at certain points, but a little bit after school [breaks for summer], it's like, 'Psssh, where'd everybody go?' " said Burtonsville resident Daria Irons.

And in August, the traffic is even lighter.

But come September, Washingtonians return to their nightmare commutes. "On Sept. 4, it is doomsday around here because for almost three months we have gotten accustomed to this leisurely commute to work," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. The Tuesday after Labor Day is known as "Terrible Traffic Tuesday."

Commuters who rely on the Metro are also in for more pleasant trips as fewer people cram the trains during rush hours.

"The commute in's a lot quicker, a lot easier," said Isabel Dorval, who lives in Northwest D.C. "I didn't always get on the Metro car that I needed to because there's such a high demand, but now it's fine."

Between July and August 2011, the number of riders during rush hours dropped about 7 percent, only to rise again come September, according to Metro spokesman Philip Stewart.

Fewer people riding the trains also means fewer cars parked at stations.

"Today I found parking at 9 o'clock, which never happens," said Fairfax resident Laura Barringer.

Amber Garner, who lives in Adams Morgan, has noticed her Metrobus is emptier.

At the office, the empty desks mean workers aren't inundated with emails.

"Usually I'm getting 20 to 30 emails a day that have nothing to do with me -- firmwide emails -- and it's all come down a bit," said Takoma Park resident Nick Carroll.

With much of the area away, August is a bad time to run a Washington restaurant but a good time to eat at one.

"It's definitely August," DC Coast Manager Jesse Hiney said after a particularly slow Friday. The K Street restaurant served fewer than 100 tables for lunch, about a third of its normal business, "which is crazy," Hiney said.

For Capitol Hill's Charlie Palmer Steak, Fridays and Saturdays are slower in August as Hill workers leave town on weekends, said Manager Todd Salvadore.

The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington hopes its annual Restaurant Week -- Monday to Sunday -- will help boost business.

But slow business for restaurants is an opportunity for Washingtonians remaining in town to eat out.

"Even the food trucks -- the lines are shorter," said Dorval.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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