When commuting, nobody really ‘wins’


Riders on the Franconia-Springfield platform wait for a train at 8:20 a.m. Wednesday. It would get much more crowded before the train arrived at 8:28. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

[Programming note: Join me at noon for an online discussion with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.]

When Mark Berman and I do our “Which Way?” features, testing routes to work suggested by commuters, we don’t consider it a race, and we don’t say who “won.” Whether one of our routes works best for other commuters is a personal decision, and who gets to the destination first is only one factor in making such decisions.

I think travelers know this, because many will comment by adding up the costs of a drive or a transit ride. Others will note conditions that either add to or subtract from the stress of the trip. A Metrorail ride might involve a wait on a cold platform, but it offers a rider a chance to read or get some work done. A drive is more of a hands-on experience. The drivers must focus on the road. But the trip might also offer more privacy, and a chance to be alone with your thoughts — and music.

Mark drove all the way to downtown D.C. from the Kingstowne area, while I drove to Franconia-Springfield station and took the Blue Line, but we did share one experience: We each thought the trip took a really long time, and we were sure the other guy would get there first. Maybe that’s the heart of the shared experience of commuting: anxiety.

Some commenters, though, are divided by transportation ideology: It’s better on principle to take either transit or to drive. Or they argue about who is subsidizing who.

Others offer practical suggestions. or share their own experiences. Here are some examples from the comments on our story.

YTymish wrote: “I live in Arlington and work downtown. Without traffic I can be at work in less than 15 minutes. During rush hour driving is 35 – 50 minutes. If I get in before 10 AM parking is $11. So gas and parking adds up to about $15/day max but doesn’t include wear and tear. Otherwise I can take a bus into town for $3.20/ day round trip or bus and subway for about $7.00/day round trip. Bus takes 40 – 70 min and bus metro not much different..So I can save $200+/month taking public transportation.”

scb77 wrote: “If you’re going up Van Dorn with the goal of getting 395, don’t bother with Duke Street. That’s exactly where the congestion hits. Keep going up Dan Dorn until it ends at King Street. The entrance ramp becomes a fourth lane and you can sail up 395 at least until the backup for 14th street begins around Columbia Pike. I get off on 27 and come in over the Memorial Bridge. I am traveling at the same time this experiment begins, and I arrive by 7:20, 7:25 am at my office at 18th & K. I’ve found that as long as I’m on Van Dorn past 495 by 7 am, things are fairly smooth.”

pswift00 wrote: “Don’t waste your time on the 14th St. bridge. Hit 110 and go across the memorial bridge instead. Saves a solid 5 minutes minimum.”

Pat Henry wrote: “Never leave home without the Waze app up and running.” [Travelers have commented on various stories that they like using the Waze wayfinding service.]

This experiment involved two people traveling from one point to another on one morning. The best part of the experience is the discussion it provokes. Our aids to navigation were Google Maps and Metro’s online Trip Planner.

Frequent commenter 1995hoo asked if I might have been better off taking a Rush Plus Yellow Line train from Franconia-Springfield and then transferring to the Blue or Orange Lines at L’Enfant Plaza to complete the rail trip to McPherson Square. When I was preparing, I thought I could do one of three things: Take the Blue Line all the way to McPherson Square, take a Rush Plus Yellow Line train and transfer, or ride the Blue Line to King Street and transfer there to a regular Yellow Line train, then transfer again at L’Enfant Plaza.

But when I checked Trip Planner for the schedule from Franconia-Springfield between 8 and 8:30 a.m., all the recommendations were to ride the Blue Line all the way. For that reason, and the fact that the Blue Line train was the first to arrive at Franconia-Springfield, I chose to ride the Blue Line all the way. I think the Blue Line/Rush Plus Yellow Line would have been a closer call if my destination had been farther east than McPherson Square. For example, if I’d been going to Federal Triangle and a Rush Plus Yellow Line train were the first on the Franconia-Springfield platform, it might have made sense.

As Blue Line riders know, the one-seat ride is much more tempting than a transfer.

Among my other options was to drive from our starting point near the junction of Franconia Road and South Van Dorn Street to the Van Dorn Street station on the Blue Line or the Huntington station on the Yellow Line. The Van Dorn Street station was closer than Franconia-Springfield, but I was worried about parking availability around 8 a.m. Driving to Huntington at that hour looked like a time-waster.

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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