Public transportation can leave Tysons workers in a bind

October 25, 2011

When his shift at a Tysons Corner hotel ends about 11 p.m., Tavis Saunders dashes across busy Route 7 to catch one of the last buses heading to the West Falls Church Metro station.

On weeknights, the cars come in sprints, maybe six or seven at a time. On the weekends, there is even more traffic, and Saunders waits patiently before crossing the six-lane highway.

“I’ll make sure no one’s coming before I cross the street,” said Saunders, 24, who works as a dishwasher and kitchen helper at the Marriott. “It can get a little dangerous.”

The daily grind of using public transportation in Tysons, a place where most people drive, is something all too familiar to Saunders and many other employees, especially those in the retail and service industries. Many workers are paid by the hour and can’t afford being late to work because they miss a bus. And their shifts often end late at night, just before buses and trains stop running.

Walking to and from transit stops is equally challenging in Tysons. The area is a disconnected jumble of buildings separated by wide roads. There are few crosswalks and many incomplete sidewalks.

Tysons is two years away from the completion of a $2.8 billion Metrorail extension, which has brought promises of an urban future. But that transformation will take decades. For now, even some of those who live and work in Tysons avoid walking.

Brittany Everett, 20, takes the bus from her home to her job at the Finish Line athletic store at nearby Tysons Corner Center. When she started working there, Everett tried walking to the mall a few times, but “I was miserable,” she said.

Tysons Corner’s dependence on the automobile is mainly why only 5 percent of the 100,000 people who work there commute using public transportation, according to Fairfax County estimates.

It’s also why Saunders, who lives in Temple Hills, hesitated to accept his job there this summer.

“I didn’t know how I was going to get here,” Saunders said. He visited Metro’s Web site and mapped out a long — and sometimes challenging — commute.

His shift begins at 3 p.m. But his day begins more than two hours earlier, when he takes a bus from his apartment to the Naylor Road Metro station. From there, he rides the Green Line to L’Enfant Plaza and then the Orange Line to West Falls Church. Then it’s a bus ride to the Marriott. It makes several stops along Route 7, but it usually gets Saunders to work before 2:30 p.m., giving him enough time to have lunch and relax before his shift begins.

Recent maintenance work on the Orange Line slowed his arrival to West Falls Church. Once there, he skipped the bus and took a cab to work.

“I was late, like, three times that week,” Saunders said.

Sometimes, the job itself can cause delays.

Roza Bayu, a server at the Silver Diner in Tysons, gets off about 3 p.m. and takes a Metro bus to a part-time job in Arlington County. But on busy days, Bayu is often still rolling silverware when the bus pulls up across the street. To avoid being late for her second job, she has her husband, a taxi driver, pick her up.

“I disturb him a lot,” said Bayu, 28. “I feel bad.”

Bayu’s husband takes her to work every morning — before buses are running. In the afternoons, she usually takes a bus home to Alexandria. But since Bayu started the part-time job at an Arlington hotel last year, she has struggled using the bus to get there from Tysons.

“It’s just time to get a car,” she said. “I don’t want to call my husband every time I miss the bus.”

It helps that some employers often work around the schedules of employees who use public transportation.

Saunders’s shift at the Marriott doesn’t actually end until 11:30 p.m., but his boss lets him leave early, before the buses and trains stop running. Saunders makes up for that by working later on the days he carpools home with a co-worker.

At Tysons Corner Center, many employees of the small guest-relations team rely on public transportation, so managers let them pick their hours, said Elizabeth Natwick, the mall’s senior marketing manager.

“We do have very flexible schedules with them,” she said. “It just makes for a happier employee experience.”

Toward the end of his shift at the Marriott one night, Saunders took out the trash and lit a cigarette. He sat down for a break, his eyes weary after a long day. In a few hours, he would have to dart across Route 7 to catch a bus to the West Falls Church station.

Saunders said he’s thought about transferring to a Marriott closer to his home. He’s also started saving for a car.

“If I had a vehicle, I wouldn’t lose two hours” a day traveling to work, he said. “It would only take me 30 minutes.”

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