Yes, there are serious indicators that the mental health of commuters is improving. In a Washington Post poll conducted last month, commuters in the Washington region who drive reported on average that their trips take 31 minutes, down six minutes from the average in a 2005 poll. And they’re adopting more sensible habits. For example, 20 percent of commuters said they telework at least once a week, compared with 11 percent in a 2010 poll.
But “Dr. Gridlock” isn’t ready to take down his shingle as your congestion counselor. The average commuter doesn’t believe in averages, and many don’t sense the improvements that show up in regional surveys. These individual drivers, transit users, bikers and walkers are my people, and here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of providing therapy to the travelers who write to my column.
All travel is local — and very personal. My travelers don’t see the Washington region’s transportation network the way planners do. Planners imagine the transportation network as a big, unfolded map, stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Eastern Shore. It has interstates, secondary roads, rail lines, bus priority corridors and intermodal transportation facilities.
To my travelers, it’s not a big, unfolded map. The transportation network is a line from Point A to Point B, a line they follow every day. To them, improving the transportation network isn’t a question of building a highway or a rail line.
It’s a question of getting a few more seconds of green-light time at that intersection where they get stuck each morning. Fix that traffic light, and our “transportation problem” is solved. But our problem isn’t really that simple.
Commuting is complicated. A morning backup at the 11th Street bridge over the Anacostia River in the District might delay a traveler from Bowie on the way to work at the Pentagon. An afternoon jam at the George Washington Parkway exit from the Capital Beltway’s outer loop makes a commuter late getting home to the Navy Yard neighborhood from a job in Gaithersburg.
Transit riders lead equally complex lives. Fairfax County has been trying to please commuters with a more efficient bus service plan that will take advantage of Metro’s forthcoming Silver Line. Tell a Reston commuter who rides a bus all the way to the West Falls Church Metro station that she can have a much shorter bus ride to a train at the new Wiehle Avenue Metro station, and the commuter will say “thanks, anyway.”
Her job is near West Falls Church, but you’re going to send her bus to Wiehle Avenue, put her on a Silver Line train to East Falls Church, and then make her backtrack to West Falls Church on the Orange Line? She’d rather drive.
With travel patterns intertwined in many ways, problems are easy to create. It’s the solutions that are difficult.