Driving in Nashville

Long exposure of a Nashville highway at night with the skyline in the background

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While Nashville has a reputation for being a down-home, accommodating city many first-time visitors are completely caught off guard by the amount of traffic the city has. It is not uncommon to experience traffic jams, snarls, and slowdowns, particularly during morning and afternoon rush hours. This is especially true since the city has grown so rapidly in recent years, bringing an influx of people to the already crowded and chaotic streets.

Fortunately for both locals and visitors, the Music City has a solid infrastructure in place that can help reduce the frustrations of navigating the area by car. That usually means that there are alternative routes to your destination which can end up saving you time and frustration. If you're planning on visiting Nashville in the near future, here's what you need to know when it comes to traffic and driving while there.

Rules of the Road

Driving in Nashville isn't vastly different from driving in other parts of the U.S., with most of the same rules and regulations applying. Still, as with most places, there are a few local quirks and expectations that you should be aware of before hitting the streets.

  • HOV Lanes: As with many cities, Nashville has HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes on most of its major highways and interstates. These lanes don't tend to get all that congested during rush hour, allowing those cars with two or more occupants to speed along at a faster rate. The lanes are also open to motorcycles and hybrid/electric vehicles too. These rules apply from 7 a.m. - 9 a.m. on inbound lanes and 4 p.m. - 6 p.m. on outbound lanes. At all other times, the HOV lanes can be used by any vehicle on the road.
  • Seat Belts: The driver of any vehicle, as well as passengers in the front seat, must wear their seatbelts at all times. Backseat passengers must also wear seatbelts if they are under the age of 17 or the driver has a learners permit. Additionally, all children under the age of 1 years old, and weighing less than 20 pounds, must be a forward-facing child seat. Those who are under 8, or are shorter than 59 inches tall, must have a booster seat, while all kids under 17 must wear a seat belt at all times.
  • Cell Phones: The state of Tennessee has banned all drivers from holding a cell phone at any time while driving. Anyone caught driving and using a mobile device can be subject to a $200 fine. Drivers can use earpieces, headphone devices or a device worn on a wrist — such as a smartwatch — to conduct a voice-based communication. Dashboard mounts are still allowed as well for those who like to use their phones to navigate.
  • Radar Detectors: Drivers in passenger vehicles are allowed to use radar detectors, although these devices are prohibited in commercial vehicles.
  • Yielding: As always, yield to emergency and police vehicles with flashing lights on. Drivers should also yield to pedestrians at all times and should alway stop for school buses who have flashing lights.
  • Bike Lanes: Nashville has a growing number of bike lanes and drivers are required to keep their car out of those lanes at all times.
  • Littering: As with most states, throwing trash out the window of your vehicle while driving is a punishable offense. In Tennessee, the fine can range from $50 to $3000 depending on the nature of the drive. That includes accidental littering as well, so be careful where you place your trash at all times.
  • Accidents: Drivers involved in accidents in Tennessee are required to stop and pull off of the side road if possible. Once a safe zone has been created, the drivers involved in the crash should exchange insurance and contact information. If there are injuries or a lot of damage to the involved vehicles, call the police and wait at or near the scene of the accident for law enforcement to arrive.
  • Driving Under the Influence A driver in Tennessee is considered impaired if he or she gets behind the wheel with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 percent or higher. Any person operating a motor vehicle while under the influence is subject to a fine of between $350-1500 and must serve a minimum of 48 hours in jail, even for first time offenders. Those who are repeat offenders or have a BAC of .20 percent or higher, face stiffer fines and penalties. Anyone under the age of 21 who is caught drinking and driving will also automatically lose their license for at least a year, face a $250 fine, and could be required to do community service.
Nashville, TN traffic
Steve Whiston - Fallen Log Photography/Getty Images

Routes and Traffic

As mentioned, Nashville traffic can be extremely bad at times, particularly during rush hour. But, unexpected delays can happen just about any time of day, with accidents, road construction, and debris all causing major slow-downs. Because of this, it is always a good idea to use your smartphone for navigation when making your way around town, even if you know exactly where you're going. The traffic indicators built into Google Maps and Apple Maps always try to route you along the fastest path to your destination and can often provide alternate routes to avoid the areas with the biggest issues.

Thankfully, there are always a number of alternate roads to take when driving through Nashville, although sticking to the major highways are usually your best options. The city happens to fall at the junction of Interstates 24, 40, and 65, each of which runs parallel to one another at various times. The result is a series of circular routes that surround different sections of Nashville and its suburbs, providing access to just about any part of town even when certain roads are closed or snarled with traffic.

Leaving the highways behind and driving the city streets in Nashville is always an option as well, and sometimes your navigation apps will send you in that direction. Generally speaking however, these surface-level streets aren't as efficient as sticking to the highways, which even when busy still offer the fastest drive-time for getting to the various scattered sections of the city.

Parking in Nashville

As with most major metropolitan areas, finding free parking in Nashville can be a challenge. There are some areas of the downtown area that are off the beaten path where you can park for free, but they often require a bit of walking to reach the points of interest that you're looking for. At especially busy times, finding open parking spots that are free can be next to impossible, requiring the right mix of timing and luck.

On the other hand, there are plenty of paid parking lots and parking ramps in downtown Nashville that are located much closer to the action. Prices for those lots vary based on what is happening that day. If there aren't a lot of events going on it is possible to park for as little as $10 for a full day. But that price can spike up significantly when there is a major concert or sporting event take place and demand starts to outstrip supply. The bottom line is, you're probably going to have to pay to park, the only question is how much will it cost?

Metered parking is also an option in certain areas of the downtown. Those spots can be a challenge to find at times, but they are a less expensive alternative to parking in a ramp. This is especially true if you're only going to be in the area for a relatively short period of time. Just be sure to watch the clock. If your meter runs out of time you could end up with a hefty parking fine.

Should You Rent a Car in Nashville?

Renting a car in Nashville is a good way to get around, providing an easy way to access various parts of the city. While the Nashville bus system is adequate, it doesn't always offer the flexibility and reach that some travelers are looking for. Renting a car really opens up the possibilities for things you can see and do throughout the Music City and the surrounding area. Just be sure you're well aware of the traffic and parking situation throughout the city before you set out.

It should be noted, at the time that this article is being written, Nashville has banned all electric scooter rental companies from operating within the city. That means a car will come in handy when trying to cover more territory. It also means that you shouldn't expect to find scooters that you can use when exploring different parts of the city. Privately owned scooters are still allowed however, should an owner elect to bring one along.