Hoping to beat the traffic to the Cape this holiday weekend? If you’re planning to leave Thursday afternoon, it will probably be too late.
“Six o’clock on Thursday, that’s probably the single worst time,” said Glenn Cannon, director of technical services at the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency that studies summer traffic patterns to and from the vacation getaway.
No matter the day, summer traffic on Cape Cod is rarely a breeze and getting stuck in miles-long backups is something of a New England rite of passage. But weekend traffic now often starts earlier — and lasts longer — than many travelers realize.
Cape-bound traffic typically ramps up on Thursday and gets worse on Friday before peaking on Saturday, when most rental properties turn over. Traffic leaving the Cape — usually thought of as a Sunday afternoon nightmare — often carries over into Monday, Cannon said.
With Independence Day falling on a Tuesday this year, extending the holiday weekend, Cape Cod traffic could reach epic proportions.
“I think it has a chance to be historic,” Cannon said. “July 5, we could experience record numbers of back-ups on Cape Cod.”
AAA agrees, predicting this will rank as the busiest July 4 travel weekend ever, with more than 44 million Americans traveling 50 miles or more from home.
That includes 1.16 million in Massachusetts, spurred by low gas prices, a strong economy, and the promise of an extra-long weekend.
Many drivers will leave on Thursday, eager to get a jumpstart on their vacation and the traffic standing in their way. But when too many people leave early, it isn’t early anymore, specialists warn.
“Many drivers are trying to get a jump on that holiday weekend, trying to beat that congestion,” said AAA Northeast spokeswoman Mary Maguire. “As a result, we see a lot of congestion on Thursday.”
Maguire recommended that travelers try to hit the road in the early morning and otherwise use traffic-monitoring apps to minimize delays, especially if their departure time is flexible. But since few people will want to cut their vacation short, even to avoid miles of gridlock, the trip home will be a grind.
“My bigger concern is those who are returning on Tuesday, because I don’t think people have quite as many options on the return side as they do on the departure side,” she said.
Not that Cape Cod businesses are complaining. Doesn’t another beach day beat a bumper-
to-bumper crawl along Route 6?
“Ideally, the longer we can stretch that out, the better,” said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “People always seem to be in a real hurry to get here and a real hurry to go home. We try to tell them to leave later in the day or the next day entirely.”
To accommodate the holiday traffic, the state Department of Transportation will postpone scheduled road work starting on noon Friday until Wednesday, according to spokesman Patrick Marvin. The department also plans to open the Southeast Expressway’s high occupancy vehicle lane leaving Boston early on Thursday and Friday.
Thursday afternoon traffic can be especially treacherous, Cannon said, because drivers are more likely to leave in droves as soon as they can call it a week. Many people will take Friday off, staggering the exodus. (This, Cannon stressed, is just a theory, not proven either way by data.)
On a typical summer week, traffic over the two bridges to Cape Cod — the Bourne and the Sagamore — bottoms out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at an estimated 110,000 cars traveling in both directions, according to the Cape Cod Commission. That climbs to about 120,000 on Thursdays, inches up to 121,000 on Fridays, then peaks on Saturdays at around 130,000 vehicles.
Sundays are nearly as bad, with about 120,000 vehicles crossing the bridges on the major departure day. And congestion eases only slightly on Mondays, as people avoid the work world for one more day.
The seasonal CapeFlyer train line, which typically runs Fridays through Sundays in the summer, is planning to add service between Boston and Hyannis next Monday and Tuesday, according to Thomas Cahir, administrator of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, which operates CapeFlyer in partnership with the MBTA.
Heading north for the holiday weekend? Traffic at the Hampton Toll Plaza, which leads to coastal New Hampshire and Maine, also picks up on Thursdays. But it’s still an easier trip than on Fridays, which are far and away the busiest travel days, according to the state’s Transportation Department.
So if you want to leave Thursday from Boston, north appears to be your best bet. At least until the secret gets out.