Arlington driver’s 10-minute commute solution shows D.C.’s traffic problems


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A traveler asked in my March 11 online discussion about the congestion on the southbound George Washington Parkway near the 14th Street bridge during the morning rush. I said I thought this stemmed from the difficult merge as drivers from the heavily traveled parkway try to join those on even more heavily traveled Interstate 395 at the bridge.

Another traveler wrote to share his view of this morning mess and, in the process, illustrate commuting issues that are common across the Washington region.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I make this drive every morning, and the original poster is right. The backup on the parkway can be quite bad. About a year ago, I started working 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to avoid the worst of it. But most Mondays, even that isn’t early enough.

You were right about the traffic volume on I-395N being to blame. The ramp from the parkway is the last of five or six lane merges between just before Washington Boulevard and the bridge.

The problem is exacerbated by the northbound parkway traffic coming from Alexandria. Even though those commuters have their own lane getting on to the bridge, a large percentage need to move immediately from the far right lane, either to get to 14th Street or to avoid being trapped in the right lane on the Southeast-Southwest Freeway.

Getting to work at 7 a.m. isn’t my first choice, but it’s better than having my usual 10-minute commute become 20 to 30 minutes, or longer. That was quite common when I got to work at 8:30.

The early shift also helps in the afternoon, although 3 p.m. isn’t really early enough anymore. Still, it’s better than 4:30. But because of the right-lane exit-only to the Park Service on one side and the high-occupancy vehicle lane on the other, four lanes of traffic gets squeezed into two lanes trying to get on the bridge.

Once I’m on the bridge, I’m home in five minutes, since the Humpback Bridge project was completed last year. Unless there’s an accident.

Before I started driving, about six years ago, my commute via bus to Metrorail took at least an hour each way, as opposed to the drive of about 10 minutes. I can’t even get to a Metro station in less than 15 minutes. When my office was at L’Enfant Plaza, I rented a parking space in Clarendon. But once the office moved to Navy Yard, the transfer to the Green Line just added too much time. I park in one of the Nationals’ lots on Third Street SE; $8 a day is a bargain in the city. When there’s a day game, I just telecommute.

– Dennis Coyle, Arlington County

DG: This is textbook. Coyle provides a detailed account of the frustrations and difficult choices that Washington commuters routinely face. Here are a few:

Buffer time. Coyle notes that a drive that usually would take about 10 minutes could be extended to two or three times that length, depending on traffic conditions. Then there are occasional delays for accidents.

Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute who do the national study on urban congestion came up with a new measure for this delay time. They call it the Planning Time Index. It’s how much time they think a driver in a particular urban area would need to add to normal driving time to make sure he or she arrives on time 19 out of 20 times.

The Washington region led the nation in the amount of buffer time drivers should add, because our commutes can vary so radically from day to day in traffic conditions beyond our control.

Traffic weaves. The situation he described for drivers at the 14th Street bridge, over the Potomac River, is the same one confronting drivers who merge onto the 11th Street bridge, over the Anacostia River. Many immediately have to work their way across several lanes of heavy traffic on the bridge so they can continue to their destinations.

Ripple effects. You might be in a rush-hour jam that stems not from conditions on your roadway but rather from backup on a connecting route. A few years ago, Virginia eased a Capital Beltway bottleneck by widening the ramp from the outer loop to the Dulles Toll Road.

Job changes. Coyle’s office moved, changing his commuting conditions. Many commuters find a place to live that’s convenient to their workplace. Then they change jobs. This is common, thanks to the vibrant local economy, and commuters always point that out when we get into a discussion of living near where you work.

Road work. Commuters such as Coyle endured delays in several years of reconstruction on the parkway’s Humpback Bridge. The region’s road work program for next year is about to spring into full bloom.

Traffic vs. transit. The Washington region has one of the most robust transit systems in the nation. But for many commuters, it’s still not convenient. They make a calculation about travel time and travel costs and wind up deciding they are better off driving.

Telecommuting. If there’s anything in here that sounds like a solution to some of our problems, it’s Coyle’s mention of telecommuting when the Nationals have a day game. Even if commuters worked from home just a few days a month, it would significantly lessen the rush-hour stress on our highways and on our transit system — and on our commuters.

I think that’s a pretty good list of regional issues stemming from one person’s 10-minute commute, but I probably left some out. Write in and tell me what problems — or opportunities — I missed in this illustration.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Robert Thomson · March 29, 2013