New to the D.C. area: What you need to know to get around

Chris Danger/TWP

People from across the country occasionally write to me about an exciting new employment opportunity and ask where in the Washington area they should live for the best commute. Welcome to our nightmare, I tell them. The nation’s capital might be the land of opportunity for jobs, but it’s the land of discontent for commuting to those jobs. These are 10 questions that newcomers frequently ask as they prepare to navigate our congested roads and transit routes.

1. I’ve heard that the Washington area has the worst traffic in the country. What’s the basis for that?

(Bill O'Leary/TWP) - A view of New York Avenue looking west from Florida Avenue in Washington, D.C.

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A 2011 report by the Texas Transportation Institute, which tries to quantify commuter misery nationwide, ranked the Washington region at or near the top in several measures of congestion. We’ve been hovering around the peak for many years, but that doesn’t scare people away. A key reason behind the high ranking is the relative strength of the local economy. Jobs, entertainment and cultural opportunities are magnets for travelers.

2. Are travel conditions uniformly awful?

No. As a region, we look bad, but your travel experience will vary depending on where you chose to work and live. Don’t put unnecessary distance between the two. Don’t let the Potomac or Anacostia rivers come between you and your job. Don’t select a residence that offers only one route to work. Do look for a residence with access to both roads and transit. Do find a neighborhood with sidewalks.

3. What’s the worst thing about commuting in the Washington area?

Washingtonians learn to live with the slow trips. What really drives them nuts is the uncertainty of any given trip. They can’t count on a trip taking the same amount of time today as it did yesterday. There are so many vehicles competing to travel in so few lanes that a minor disruption — a fender bender — can congeal traffic for miles and add serious time to any trip. The farther apart your start and end points, the more buffer time you must build in to avoid being late.

4. What traffic bottlenecks are notorious?

All the Potomac and Anacostia river crossings but particularly the 14th Street bridge. Also bad are Interstate 395, the northern arc of the Capital Beltway between College Park and Silver Spring, the junction of the Beltway and Interstate 270, eastbound Interstate 66 at the Beltway, the eastbound Dulles Toll Road at the Beltway and the Beltway at Telegraph Road.

But those are just the top tier of delay-prone highways. During rush hour, you could be stuck on Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road, New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, Suitland Parkway, Arlington Boulevard, Washington Boulevard, George Washington Parkway, Chain Bridge Road and Leesburg Pike — to name just a few common trouble spots.

Before settling on a residence, test the commute under weekday conditions.

5. What if I reverse commute?

D.C. commuting used to be about going into the District in the morning and returning to the suburbs at night. Those days are long gone. The 14th Street bridge is jammed in both directions at rush hour because drivers use it not only as a D.C. commuter route, but also for commuters between Maryland and Virginia.

I-270 and the Dulles Toll Road are high-employment corridors far from the D.C. region’s core. Suburban communities such as Tysons Corner and Rockville are major centers for employment, shopping and entertainment. The federal base realignments are shipping thousands of jobs to suburban locations, such as Fort Belvoir and Alexandria’s Mark Center, that lack the transportation services to absorb them.

6. Will I pay tolls?

Keep your E-ZPass . For many years, the region’s tolls were limited to the Dulles Toll Road in Virginia and some major bridges and tunnels in Maryland, but that is changing. North of the Beltway in Maryland, an east-west toll road called the Intercounty Connector opened in 2011. Virginia plans to open high-occupancy toll lanes on the west side of the Beltway and on Interstate 95. They will be free for vehicles with at least three people aboard, and others will pay a variable toll.

All users of those new Virginia lanes, except motorcyclists, will need to have an E-ZPass. Those planning to carpool will need an E-ZPass Flex, a switchable transponder with a carpool setting.

7. What does ‘HOV’ mean?

It stands for High Occupancy Vehicle. You will see that designation on signs marking carpool lanes in Maryland and Virginia. Diamond shapes on the pavement mark those lanes.

The rules vary. For example, on I-270 and Route 50 in Maryland, at least two people must be in a car to use the lanes. But the I-270 carpool requirement is for weekday rush hours only, while the Route 50 requirement is in effect 24 hours a day.

In Virginia, the HOV lanes are rush-hour only. On I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road, at least two people must be in a car. On I-95, the minimum is three people.

8. Am I better off taking transit?

The answer used to be “absolutely,” because the Washington region has one of the nation’s most extensive transit systems. But our primary transit asset, Metrorail, is now very crowded — especially on the western sides of the Orange and Red lines — and the equipment is showing its age. Metro’s rehab program is intensive and almost always disrupts the weekend rail service.

If you’re lucky enough to find a working escalator, remember to stand to the right so others can walk by you on the left. When riding the trains, notice that the Metrorail doors are not like elevator doors. They don’t bounce back when pushed; they either keep closing or break, forcing the operator to take the train out of service.

If you become a frequent rider of Metrorail, Metrobus or the suburban bus systems, buy a plastic SmarTrip card for $5 and add fare value to it at a station vending machine, aboard a bus or online.

Other transit alternatives to driving include the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains and Maryland’s MARC trains.

9. What could cut my costs?

Many employers participate in programs designed to limit the number of solo drivers at rush hour. Federal workers can receive a monthly transit benefit that pays for Metro rides and for parking at Metro stations. Other workers can take advantage of a pre-tax deduction from their salaries to pay for transit use. Programs such as NuRide and ’Pool Rewards offer incentives to workers who avoid solo driving. Services such as Commuter Connections help link up people who want to share rides.

To save money on commuting, it’s not necessary to radically alter your lifestyle. Try telecommuting several days a month. Leave the car at home one day and walk to a Metrorail station or a Metrobus stop. Join the Capital Bikeshare program — you can do it for one day — and cycle from bike station to bike station.

10. After I’m settled, will commutes improve?

They’re more likely to get worse. With the exception of the high-occupancy toll lanes and Metro’s Silver Line across Northern Virginia and the rebuilding of the 11th Street bridge in the District, there are few grand-scale projects underway or in development. Some prominent projects, such as Maryland’s Purple Line transitway, which will connect Bethesda to New Carrollton, are as yet unfunded for construction.

Even if you take my advice and live near work, consider how long you might keep that job. One of the benefits and curses of a decent job market is that Washingtonians change workplaces for new opportunities. They don’t move every time they switch jobs, and the jobs may be less accessible.

Dave Wiskochil of Franconia put it to me this way: “Since 1976, I have worked in Rosslyn, Essex, Md., Scaggsville, Tysons, Springfield, Crystal City, Pax River, Alexandria, Philadelphia, Northwest Washington, Southwest Washington, Crystal City, Southwest Washington, Tysons, Southeast Washington and Southwest Washington.”

At such rates, he said, “It doesn’t make sense to unpack.”

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