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Cape Cod Traffic and Our Tips for Avoiding It

Cape Cod traffic congestion during peak season is legendary. So we're about to share with you some TOP SECRET locals-only short-cuts that will help you deal with some of the worst of it.

Be warned, though. After we've shared these secrets with you, we're probably going to have to kill you to prevent you from sharing them with anyone else.Smile So as long as you're okay with that, here goes.

First, a little background: Cape Cod traffic stinks for two pretty obvious reasons. First is that a great many people like to visit during what is, after all, a fairly condensed peak tourist season. So one good way to avoid Cape Cod traffic is to visit during the off-season. Pretty simple, huh? (We won't actually have to kill you for sharing that one with you)

The second reason is that, although Cape Cod is often referred to as a peninsula, it is actually an island, albeit a man-made one, since it has been impossible to get to Cape Cod without crossing water since 1917.

That is when the Cape Cod Canal was completed, splitting the Cape from the rest of southeastern Massachusetts and allowing ships to pass from Buzzards Bay to the south to Cape Cod Bay to the north without having to navigate the treacherous waters "round the outside".

Cape Cod Traffic
The Bourne Bridge

That probably seemed like a really good idea at the time, since ships and boats out-numbered cars and trucks back then by a pretty significant degree.

But now, for the vast majority of visitors, the canal limits access to and from the Cape to one of two road bridges, the Sagamore Bridge at the eastern end of the canal and the Bourne Bridge at the western end.

The bottlenecks caused by these bridges do lead to traffic congestion but the twin bridges themselves are quite splendid and offer a spectacular "gateway to the Cape" for those visiting by car.

But neither of them looks quite so spectacular when you've been sitting in a six mile tailback waiting to cross them, so here are a few tips to help avoid that situation.

Sagamore Beats Bourne (Most of the Time)

The first thing to remember is that these days, generally speaking, the Sagamore Bridge has shorter tailbacks than the Bourne Bridge. It wasn't always that way, but a few years ago the dreaded Sagamore Rotary, which used to “guard” the bridge on the mainland side, was replaced with the Sagamore Flyover.

This certainly hasn't eliminated Cape Cod traffic congestion at the Sagamore Bridge. (And statisticians will tell you that the Sagamore Bridge still sees 25% more cars per year than Bourne, but you know what they say about statistics). It has, hovever, improved things somewhat.

So what used to be a four or five-mile tailback on a Friday evening, is now likely to be a mere couple of miles. (See Traffic Tip #1 below for why that's a significant difference).

Cape Cod Traffic Tip #1 – Come off at Exit 2

Assuming there's "only" a two to three-mile tailback at the Sagamore Bridge, you can avoid a lot of Cape Cod traffic by coming off at Exit 2, which is about three miles before you come to the bridge.

Take a right at the end of the ramp and go underneath the highway. Take a right again at the end of that road (the golf course will be on your right) and drive along State Road. When the road forks, keep to the right and take yet another right at the end. Go under the highway again and take a left at the next light to get onto the Sagamore Bridge.

Cape Cod Traffic Tip #2 – Come off at the Other Exit 2

The same thing can be done at the Bourne Bridge. It's a little more involved but this one really does shave a few miles off your journey, as well as saving you time sitting in traffic.

Come off at Exit 2 of Route 25 but note that this is different from Exit 2 off 495. It's easy to miss the point at which 495 changes into Route 25. There's a small sign to announce the fact, and the exit numbers start going up again, having gone all the way down to 1. So Exit 2 off Route 25 is two exits beyond Exit 2 off 495.

You're looking for a sign for Wareham and Onset.

Take a right at the top of the ramp and go straight through three sets of lights. WATCH YOUR SPEED here. The limit is 35mph and the area is a notorious place for speed traps. The third light will bring you onto Cranberry Highway, which is a 3 mile stretch of road with discount stores, motels and fast food joints on either side.

After about 3 miles, cross the small bridge over Buttermilk Bay into Bourne (the railway bridge over the Cape Cod Canal will be on your right) and take the first exit off the rotary onto Main Street Buzzards Bay. At the end of Main Street is another rotary, and from there you can either follow the Scenic Highway to Sagamore, or swing up onto the Bourne Bridge right above you if you're going to Falmouth.

Cape Cod Traffic Tip #3 – Stay Right Approaching the Sagamore Bridge

As you travel down Route 3 from Boston, the (fairly) new set up of the Sagamore flyover will split the traffic with the left lane heading over the bridge on Route 6 and the right lane heading towards Buzzards Bay along the "mainland" side of the Canal.

In the last mile or two before you reach the Sagamore Bridge, there will be several signs telling to keep left if you want to cross to Cape Cod. Ignore them all and stay right. Leave it to the very last moment to cross over to the left lane.

When traffic is heavy, the right lane moves much faster than the left and the way the flyover is set up, cutting into the left lane at the very last moment is easy to do without being obnoxious (a badge of honor for most Massachuestts drivers, anyway Smile)

Cape Cod Traffic Tip #4 – The Olde Bridge-Switch Maneuver

Let's say you're on 495 heading south and the traffic reports on the radio tell you there's a five-mile tailback at the Bourne Bridge and only a two-mile one at Sagamore.

Insiders' Tip

We often pull this same maneuver in reverse when heading to Gillette Stadium on a summer weekend to see the Revolution or a pre-season Patriots game.

If the Sagamore Bridge is fine, but the Canal roads leading to the Bourne Bridge are like parking lots, take Route 3 north to Exit 7 in Plymouth. From there take Route 44 west and that will take you all the way to Exit 6 of 495.

This is not a terribly unusual occurrence these days since the elimination of the dreaded Sagamore Rotary.

The question is, how do you switch bridges and arrange to cross the Sagamore Bridge when you're already well on your way to Bourne?

Try taking Exit 6 off 495 and taking Route 44 east to Plymouth. Until a few years ago, Route 44 was a quiet winding road that meandered through Middleboro, Carver and Plympton. Now it's a two-lane highway (most of the way) that will take you directly to Route 3 (exit 7) in about 15 minutes.

Now, if you're coming on 195 it's a little bit more of a detour, since you'll have to head northwest (away from the Cape) on 495 towards Middleboro. So you'll have to decide if a 20 mile detour to save a two or three mile tailback is worth it. (See traffic tip #2 above before you make that call)

The same maneuver can also work if you're driving down from Boston and heading, say, to Falmouth or Martha's Vineyard. Here, you're not really trying to avoid the traffic approaching the bridges (it'll quite possibly be worse at Bourne than at Sagamore).

Instead, you're trying to avoid the traffic along the side of the canal, which can sometimes be worse. If your ultimate destination is Falmouth, Bourne or Woods Hole, it often makes more sense to approach the Bourne Bridge from Routes 495 and 25, even if you're traveling down from Boston.

To do this, come down Route 3 to exit 7, head west to the Middleboro rotary on Route 44 and you'll soon find yourself approaching Bourne instead of Sagamore. Then see traffic tip #2 above to bypass the traffic approaching the Bourne Bridge.

Cape Cod Traffic Tip #5 – Rainy Days and Mondays

One sure fire way to get stuck in Cape Cod traffic is to wake up Sunday morning, see that the weather is kind of so-so, and decide to blow off the last day of your trip and get an early start on the journey home.

We can pretty much guarantee that every visitor will have had exactly the same idea, and you'll spend most of the day trying to get off the Cape.

We've already told you that Cape Cod weather is notoriously changeable anyway, so it's quite likely to clear up before luchtime. But even if the day is totally lost to bad weather, you'll be better off finding some other way to enjoy the last day of your trip indoors, rather than sitting in traffic trying to get home early.

Similarly, people who decide to stay one extra night, and avoid the Sunday traffic, need to be ready for an early start on Monday.

This used to be a really good strategy because not many people were able to do it. Nowadays, with the introduction of casual office dress codes, flexible work schedules and work-at-home careers, everyone seems to think it's a great idea to go into work on Monday straight from their weekend trip to the Cape.

And like all things relating to traffic congestion, if everyone thinks its a good idea, then it probably isn't.

We've missed many an important business meeting because we got stuck in traffic on the bridges at 7:00am on a summer Monday morning.

That's not to say that staying over Sunday is a bad idea, and we'd certainly love to have you. Just don't expect everything to be plain sailing Monday morning. Your idea is probably not as original as you think it is.

A Final Word of Advice – Have no Regrets

We can't count the number of times we've gone on some elaborate detour, thinking we were being smart, only to find when we get to the bridge that the traffic there wasn't that bad after all.

There have even been times when everyone else with local knowledge has taken the same detour, and the traffic on the alternate route was even worse than the main highway.

You can't let that bother you.

Cape Cod traffic is almost as unpredictable as the weather, and back-ups can happen without warning and clear almost as quickly.

The tips outlined above are meant to give you alternative routes that not everyone knows about. They don't always work, but frankly, we'd rather be moving than sitting in traffic, and we don't sweat too much if the scenic route (actually, most of these aren't all that scenic Smile) turns out to be longer than the original ride.

For Up-to-the-Minute Traffic Reports

  • Smartraveler Online can give you regular reports on the traffic status on the approach roads to each of the bridges.
  • You can also call for SmarTraveler traffic reports at (617) 374-1234 or key in *1 for a free call from any cell phone.
  • WBZ Boston (AM-1030) is probably the best radio station to listen to. They give updates every 20 minutes throughout the day and night.
  • WQRC Cape Cod (FM-99.9) is the local radio station that gives regular traffic reports during peak travel periods and in the event that something unusual (like an accident, or extreme weather) should occur.

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