D.C. commuters can drive smarter, but most don’t try

Robert Thomson
Columnist June 29, 2013

Planning a trip around the Capital Beltway to Tysons on Thursday morning, I did something smart and something, let’s say, not so smart.

Since the breakfast-time event was on Jones Branch Drive, I decided to use the 495 Express Lanes’ new exit, which takes drivers willing to pay the 35-cent toll straight to Jones Branch Drive while the common folk are massing at the regular exit onto Route 123.

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. View Archive

So far, so good. But then I just got in the car and drove off, without checking a TV or radio traffic report, without checking an online traffic map or camera.

We’re just moving into summertime’s diminishing traffic volumes, so I got lucky. Traffic on the outer loop moved pretty well from Maryland into Virginia and there were no accidents to block lanes.

Are my decisions typical among the D.C. region’s drivers? Yes and no, according to a new Washington Post poll.

In this D.C. regional survey, 35 percent say they have traveled in the express lanes. Maryland residents such as me were about as likely as Virginians to have used them, while 29 percent of D.C. residents say they have given them a try.

While I was surprised to find the percentage as high as it was just seven months after the new-style toll lanes opened, the results did put me in the vanguard among drivers.

On the other hand, my lack of attention to the latest traffic news placed me among the majority of commuters in the poll. It found that 57 percent do not look for information about what’s going on along the roads or on Metro.

Younger commuters, those ages 18 to 29, are the least likely to check on the commute before heading out. Those 30 to 39 are most likely to do so. Older commuters are very close to the overall percentages of checkers and just-goers.

The poll was conducted June 19 to 23 among a random sample of 1,106 Washington area adults, using landline and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Using express lanes

These two behaviors — use of the express lanes and use of media to preview traffic conditions — have a relationship.

The express lanes employ variable tolling, a traffic management technique new in the D.C. region. The theory is that some drivers will pay a toll to avoid traffic congestion and gain a reliable commute.

But the amount of the toll varies depending on the traffic volume within the express lanes. As traffic increases, the toll goes up. Drivers then decide what’s more painful: Driving in the more congested regular lanes or paying the toll money. Some will decide that money is more precious than time and pick the regular lanes, leaving the toll lanes to the big spenders with important places to be.

That’s the theory behind Beltway behavior modification. But as many drivers have pointed out to me, there’s often no way to tell before entering the express lanes whether you’re making a good investment. The regular lanes may look fine at your one and only access point to the express lanes, but they could be jammed two miles ahead.

Using traffic information

So, ideally, everyone who uses the west side of the Beltway in Virginia would be checking for the latest traffic information just before leaving home or the office so they could make smart choices about spending money on tolls. And there are more and more resources available for them to check.

While most commuters said they don’t check, the poll did provide a sign of hope: Among those who say they have used the express lanes,
51 percent say they do check for travel information before starting their trips.

Overall, though, the poll reflects what commuters have told me for years: They know their route, so they just get in the car and go. If they run into congestion, they turn on the radio and listen for a traffic report, hoping to be included.

Among all commuters who do check for information, the radio is the most frequent source, according to the poll. Forty percent say they’ll check that. The next most frequent source is TV, with 30 percent. Twelve percent say they check a media Web site.

Travel tips

●You don’t necessarily need to make the instant cost-benefit analysis for the express lanes to be worthwhile. Sometimes the route itself provides the benefit. On my Thursday trip, to an annual transportation information session called “Keep Tysons Moving,” I chose the express lanes because they provide a new access point into the north side of Tysons. I made that decision before leaving home and would have paid much more than 35 cents for the simple, time-saving route.

●If you can’t make a daily decision on the express lanes, test them a few times. See if, on average, they save time versus the regular lanes. If they do save time, then use them whenever your schedule is less flexible.

If you can invest five minutes to prepare for a Beltway trip, no single source beats the HOT lanes Web site, at www.495expresslanes.com. It shows the current toll rates for many — but not all — trips. It also has the best webcams in the region, showing the regular lanes as well as the express lanes with exceptional clarity.

●Google Maps, MapQuest, Bing and the INRIX traffic app all provide easy-to-view traffic information, though only MapQuest would show me a route into Tysons using the express lanes exit. For traffic information, though, I prefer looking at the TrafficLand Web site, at www.trafficland.com, because it shows both the colored lines that indicate traffic speeds and the traffic camera views.

The colored lines are good for seeing an entire route at a glance. The camera views may miss knots of traffic, but they let me judge for myself how bad the congestion is — when I remember to look before leaving.

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