Does Metrorail or driving work best for commuters starting south of Beltway?

We invited travelers to suggest commutes we could test for them, to compare routes or travel modes. On Thursday morning, Post reporter Mark Berman and Robert Thomson, Dr. Gridlock, took up a reader’s suggestion to test routes between the Kingstowne area, south of the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia, and downtown D.C.

As a starting point, we chose a McDonald’s parking lot at the corner of Franconia and Brookland roads. The finish line was the lobby of The Post, at 15th and L streets Northwest. Berman drove all the way. Thomson drove to a Metro garage and took the Blue Line.

We’ll be testing other readers’ suggestions and can add a bike route. Send ideas to ­drgridlock@washpost.com.

Taking the train

7:55 a.m., Franconia Road. Depart McDonald’s parking lot for 3.2-mile trip to Franconia-Springfield Metro station. At Van Dorn Street, I bypass the sign pointing right toward the Van Dorn Street Metro station. That’s only 1.7 miles away, but I worry about parking. (And Mark later tells me I would have encountered a lot more traffic.) I wasted several minutes by mistakenly heading toward Metro parking at the Springfield Mall garage.

Which way to D.C. works for commuters south of Beltway in Virginia?

8:28 a.m., Franconia-Springfield Metro platform. Blue Line train arrives. Many people on this chilly platform have spent the past nine minutes in a rigid pose, gazing north in search of an incoming train. Metro’s online Trip Planner had told me to expect a train at 8:22, but the 8:28 arrival is the first I see.

8:47 a.m., Crystal City station. My car, the first on this six-car train, is now very crowded. The last seats have been taken, and the aisles and doorways are full of people standing. At Franconia-Springfield or any station up to Pentagon, I have the option of boarding a Rush Plus Yellow Line train, then transferring at L’Enfant Plaza to complete the trip, but Trip Planner did not recommend that, so I stay with the Blue Line.

9:04 a.m., McPherson Square station. The $5.40 rail trip ends. (But I have yet to pay the $4.50 parking fee back at Franconia-Springfield.) The train trip has been problem-free, with brief pauses before the Rosslyn station and in the Potomac River tunnel. Many riders exited my car at Foggy Bottom, opening up plenty of seats.

9:13 a.m., The Post. I reach the lobby after exiting the Metro station on the 14th Street NW side and walking briskly through McPherson Square to 15th Street. Total commute time: 1 hour 18 minutes.

Driving all the way

7:55 a.m., Franconia Road. Had to wait a minute to make the right turn out of the McDonald’s lot. Had to wait another minute before making the right onto Van Dorn Street. Once on Van Dorn Street, I run right into fairly heavy traffic. I’m sure this is just a momentary thing. It’ll clear up after we pass the Beltway.

8:17 a.m., Duke Street. Nope! I just got onto the Duke Street ramp. It took me 22 minutes from the time I was waiting to leave the parking lot to the time I got to this ramp, most of that time spent sitting in traffic on Van Dorn Street that moved very slowly — when it moved at all. Google Maps says the 2.5 miles from McDonald’s to Duke Street should take about six minutes without traffic. I’m on Duke Street very briefly before merging onto pretty slow traffic on I-395 North.

8:35 a.m., I-395 North. The first chunk of the I-395 trip was fairly congested, which meant plenty of stop-and-go traffic. (We cracked 40 miles per hour at one point, but we were mostly in the 20 to 25 mph range, or inching along.) Now, though, I’m around Exit 8B and traffic has slowed to an utter crawl. From here on through to the 14th Street bridge, it’s nothing but congestion and a seemingly endless line of cars waiting to get into the District.

8:58 a.m., 14th Street bridge. After about 23 minutes spent studying brake lights along the northernmost part of I-395, I cross onto the bridge. Weirdly, traffic flows without interruption while we’re over the water (I’m not sure I can adapt to this form of driving, where you use the gas pedal to accelerate) before promptly grinding almost to a halt again a minute later once we’re near the Jefferson Memorial.

9:19 a.m., The Post. I sat through some slow-moving traffic on 14th Street, with the slowest stretch being between the 14th Street bridge and the Mall. However, it did improve a little once I got to Constitution Avenue and beyond. I finally pull into the garage on 15th Street NW at 9:17 a.m. ($12 for all-day parking). Two minutes later, I enter The Post’s lobby to meet Dr. Gridlock. Total commute time: 1 hour 24 minutes.

Final thoughts
Berman said it was nice not to stand outside on a freezing Metro platform waiting for a train. On the other hand, he spent 45 minutes of his trip barely moving and is worried that everything since has been a pleasant daydream and he’s actually still waiting to get onto the 14th Street bridge.

Thomson noted that results can vary. He might have caught an earlier train and gained some time on Berman. On the other hand, Metrorail was having a pretty good morning Thursday, compared with other days during the cold snap. A problem with a track switch or a train brake can darken the day for thousands of commuters.

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.
Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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