Debates over transportation projects reflect diversity of D.C. region’s commuters


A Red Line Metro train departs the Rhode Island Ave. station. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist September 28, 2013

Commuters may share the pain of trips that take too long, but in many other ways, they come from different places.

A new study confirms that most commuters travel by car, but from community to community, habits vary and patterns are more complex. Those who live in the most densely populated areas have the best access to transit, and many take advantage of it. They also are more likely to bike and walk. Those who live in the more spread-out suburbs are dependent more on their cars.

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

In a year when Maryland and Virginia vastly expanded the amount of money available for transportation improvements, findings such as those in the 2013 “State of the Commute” survey could remind planners why not every constituency agrees on how the new money should be spent.

The survey is conducted every three years for the regional Transportation Planning Board’s Commuter Connections program. The following are some survey findings based on where the respondents live.

State of the commute

In the survey, the “core” is Arlington County, Alexandria and the District. The “middle ring” is Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The “outer ring” is Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Commuters in the outer ring are the most likely to drive alone. Commuters in the core are the most likely to take transit, though many still drive alone. Biking and walking are more frequent in the core. Teleworking and ride-sharing are about evenly distributed.

Here’s the breakdown:

Drive alone: 45 percent in the core, 70 percent in the middle ring, 74 percent in the outer ring.

Take transit: 34 percent in the core, 15 percent in the middle ring, 8 percent in the outer ring.

Bike or walk: 8 percent in the core, 1 percent in the middle ring, 1 percent in the outer ring.

Telework: 8 percent in the core, 7 percent in the middle ring, 7 percent in the outer ring.

Carpool or vanpool: 6 percent in the core, 6 percent in the middle ring, 9 percent in the outer ring.

Transit access: In the core, 84 percent said they live within a half-mile of a bus stop. That drops to 53 percent for the middle ring and plummets to 15 percent in the outer ring.

Transportation politics

The diversity in geography and commuting preferences that is reflected in the survey also shows up in debates over transportation spending and policy.

In Maryland, government officials, planners and the public are looking at lists of road and transit projects that they can finance with the higher gas taxes approved this year. The big-ticket items are transit projects for the D.C. and Baltimore suburbs. Montgomery just held hearings on proposals to create a rapid bus system, in some cases taking lanes now used by car drivers.

In the District, city planners are looking at transit projects, bike lanes and parking rules. All these changes squeeze the space available for drivers and encourage other forms of travel.

Those commenting in public hearings or in written testimony often evaluate the programs based on whether they think many of their fellow commuters are likely to drive on those roads, ride in those buses or pedal in those bike lanes.

Nowhere was the split more evident than when the newly empowered Northern Virginia Transportation Authority decided this summer how to spend the first round of money generated by the state’s transportation revenue act.

The key question, most agreed, was whether projects would provide significant regional congestion relief. But at hearings weighing the interests of core communities such as Arlington and Alexandria, middle-ring communities including Fairfax and outer-ring communities including Loudoun and Prince William, speakers debated whether “significant,” “regional” and “congestion relief” could apply to bus shelters as well as highway interchanges.

Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, a Democrat who represents parts of Arlington and Fairfax, praised the “diverse mix” of road, transit and multi-modal projects on the list.

Matthew Kahn, speaking on behalf of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and noting that “we work with buyers for whom a primary concern is the traffic they will face if they move here,” urged the selection of projects with “regional significance.”

“Other more-local projects, like buses and pedestrian bridges, should be completed with your local share of the funds,” he told the members of the authority’s board.

David Birtwistle, speaking for the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, questioned whether “enough evidence of regional impact exists to support local buses, bus shelters and pedestrian bridges” and also suggested that such projects be funded with the localities’ share of the revenue rather than the regional share.

Roger Diedrich, speaking on behalf of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said spending should not reflect the mix of travel modes, dominated by solo driving regionally and especially in the outer suburbs.

“We need to change the existing mode mix in the region to encourage more non-highway travel,” he said.

The first round of projects approved by the authority in July did mix in road, transit, biking and pedestrian projects, including those bus shelters. But look for further clashes as the authority deliberates on a long-range plan.

While debates about the future play out, how are today’s commuters doing?

Not so bad, they say. In the 2013 survey, 64 percent reported they were satisfied with their commute, up slightly from 62 percent in the 2010 survey.

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