A Local’s Guide to Driving in Harrisburg

An overhead view of the city of Harrisburg

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Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, has many attractions and entertainment opportunities to offer. Whether you’re visiting for fun, planning a move or just passing through, driving in Harrisburg isn’t a task to do unprepared. More often than not, the locals know what they’re doing. But out-of-towners may find themselves confused by Harrisburg’s maze of one-way streets, poor road conditions and non-traditional parking meters.

I would know… on my first day here I was honked at and flipped off when I didn’t realize it was a three-lane road instead of two. The lines had faded so much that they were impossible to see, and apparently, I was taking up too much space, according to the BMW behind me.

Take these three tips from a local to safely navigate a jaunt through the capital city:

1. Watch the Roads

Driving through Harrisburg is a challenging task, even for locals. Why? Because once off the main roads, Harrisburg is a confusing mix of alternating one-way streets and two-way streets. Many of the streets are worn, so the road markings are no longer visible, like in my story above.

In these conditions, it’s easy to get turned around. When driving in Harrisburg, it’s best to know exactly where your destination is before starting the car. While driving, pay close attention to signs and other drivers. Expect to run into ill-defined road markings. Taking the time to follow these steps will go a long way in getting safely to your destination.

Fortunately for visitors, city officials are studying ways to improve traffic flow and make the streets safer for pedestrians. Among the proposed fixes are projects to make 2nd Street two ways, adding a westbound lane to Division Street and increasing the number of crosswalks.

2. Beware of Potholes

For better or worse, Pennsylvania is (in)famous for its pothole problem. Potholes are formed in the winter when rain or snowmelt seeps into the ground underneath a road. When the water freezes, it expands, pushing the road up. As the water melts, the ground sinks to its normal level, while the road stays domed. Cars that drive over the dome crack it, causing it to fall into the hollow below, creating a pothole. This process is exacerbated by Pennsylvania’s tendency to alternate between freezing and warm temperatures during winter.

If you are planning to visit Harrisburg in the winter or early spring, be on the lookout not only for potholes but also for the road crews repairing them. Repairing potholes is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). Holes are temporally patched in the winter and then permanently fixed in the spring. These repairs are likely to cause some traffic congestion. If you see a work crew, be sure to drive slowly and follow all traffic directions they give you.

3. Be Ready for Street Cleaning Day

On a normal day, it’s pretty easy to find a parking place along the street.  However, when it’s street cleaning day, parking can get tricky. The city shuts down one side of the street twice a month so that they can remove trash, dirt, chemicals, oil, and more. This helps keep the city clean, attracts new businesses, and promotes tourism. However, it can be costly if you don’t pay attention to the signs.

Researching street cleaning may sound mundane, but it will save you from having to pay a $30 fee. Fortunately, there is an interactive map that makes finding the dates and times easy. Enter an address, and the map will tell you if/when the street is scheduled to be cleaned.

Speaking of parking, Harrisburg’s parking meters are more modern than most. These new meters do take coins, but can also take cards. When they were first installed, many residents struggled to learn how to properly operate the meters. To that end, Park Harrisburg has developed an instructional video and thorough FAQ to help residents and visitors alike properly use the meters.

4. There Will Be Accidents on the Major Highways

83. The Turnpike. 581. 11. 15. If you’re driving one of these roads daily, expect to get backed up about once a week due to a small accident, and once a month due to a major accident. I-81 is especially dangerous. If you want to be sad for the rest of the day, check out my post about the time I drove past a fatal accident a little bit south of Harrisburg on 81.

I’ve learned not to complain too much when these delays happen, but they can still be extremely annoying. There have been a few times when I’ve had to turn around and go home simply because there was no way to get through.

5. Traffic Patterns and Speed Limits

Accidents aren’t the only things that cause delays. Rush hour traffic can increase your commute as well. The morning rush hour isn’t too bad, but if you’re exiting the city between 4:30 pm and 6 pm, you’ll run into plenty of brake lights.

Another thing to be aware of is that people tend to go at least 10 to 20 mph over the speed limit on Front Street, Second Street, and other areas. I’ve never seen anyone pulled over though, so my not-so-expert advice is to go with the flow.

If you’re heading south though, be especially cautious in Carlisle. The speed limit drops from 65 to 55, and police are there just about every day just waiting to pick people off.

There you have it! Now you know three essential tips on navigating the streets of Harrisburg. Enjoy your stay!

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