Drivers see less congestion on area roads


Traffic is seen on Interstate 66 in Fairfax County in this file photo. The average commuting time has declined in recent years in the Washington region, but trips still take longer than the national average. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
June 29, 2013

After years of complaining that their commute is the worst in the nation, many people who work in or around Washington say they’re spending fewer minutes behind the wheel and less time stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

The improved outlook — expressed in a Washington Post poll of people who live and commute in the region— is backed by more than drivers’ opinions. In a new analysis, Inrix, a company that records traffic flow using transmitters aboard fleet vehicles, said that local drivers spend, on average, an hour and 22 minutes less per month in congested traffic than they did three years ago.

The analysis, produced at the request of The Post, tracks fairly closely to observations by many drivers in The Post survey, who said they are spending less time commuting than they did in 2005.

“It absolutely was a factor,” said Jennifer Hoh, describing her decision to take a job with a 20-minute rush-hour commute in Reston. It took about an hour and a half on traffic-snarled roads to reach her previous job in Rosslyn.

“Now work is a nine-hour day,” she said. “When I was in Rosslyn, the commute made it a 12-hour day.”

Where the commutes along the Beltway have improved or worsened.;

Few things cause more conversation and more complaining than traffic congestion on roads overburdened by the swelling population in metropolitan Washington. The region almost always ranks in the top five — and occasionally rises to No. 1 — when various experts rate the worst urban traffic in the nation .

The Post survey found that although half the drivers polled said they get stuck in traffic jams at least several times a week, the average commute time dropped to 31 minutes this year from 37 minutes in 2005. That’s just minutes saved on a given day, but it adds up to more than 25 hours a year wasted in congested traffic.

New roads

Some of the relief may be credited to new roadways, including Virginia’s new high-occupancy toll lanes, Maryland’s Intercounty Connector and completed connector roads from the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The fitful economic recovery and federal furloughs also may be keeping some wheels parked in the driveway.

High-occupancy express lanes, which predate the new HOT lanes, also have been effective in changing commuting habits.

The 31-minute commute time is still well above the national average of 25.5 minutes. Nevertheless, Inrix tracking data show that while congestion was up by 9 percent nationally in May, it has declined slightly on several key roadways in and around Washington.

Todd El-Taher of Alexandria bought a motorcycle five years ago so he could qualify to use high-occupancy express lanes on Interstate 395 for a thrice-weekly commute to Rockville. Now he also uses the HOT lanes that opened this year on the Virginia portion of the Capital Beltway. He estimates that riding the motorcycle saves him 30 minutes each trip.

“That drastically impacts the amount of time I spent on the road,” said El-Taher, 41.

Signs of progress are evident for D.C. area commuters.

Although 75 percent of area commuters get there by car, the survey revealed that commuters are open to alternatives. By about 2 to 1, there was a preference for options other than roads. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they approve of the District’s expansion of the bike lane network.

Beating rush hour by avoiding it has become a passion among those in the region who can work a flexible schedule, creating something like shadow rush hours — one that begins before dawn and another that ends well after dinnertime.

Chuck Lewis of Gaithersburg leaves home at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to get to his construction sites and heads home after 1 p.m. He doesn’t encounter much congestion during either trip, and although his job dictates the times, he said traveling during off-peak hours is a smart way to commute.

“If I was to work at normal rush hours, I would probably think about driving in early [anyway],” said Lewis, 25. “You’re cutting your total commute time in half. You’re saving an hour and a half or two hours each day.”

HOT lanes

The Inrix data indicate that Virginia’s high-occupancy toll lanes have speeded the flow of traffic, and The Post’s survey found that drivers have noticed the difference.

More than a third of those polled said they have used the lanes, which opened late last year, and by a 2-to-1 margin, they said the investment in them was money well spent.

Hoh said she jumped on the HOT lanes recently when an accident tied up the non-toll lanes of I-495. “It made a huge difference, but it’s not affordable for every day,” she said.

Inrix found that traffic in either direction was getting through the HOT lane zones an average of 6 mph faster during the afternoon commute and that travel times had dropped by about seven minutes.

Tale of Two Bridges

One revealing way of looking at regional commutes, found in Inrix data, might be called the Tale of Two Bridges.

The morning commute includes a mass migration from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties into Northern Virginia.

Inrix found a more notable improvement in Beltway traffic moving in a clockwise direction, on the inner loop, than in traffic moving in a counterclockwise direction, on the outer loop. Credit for the inner loop improvement goes to completion of the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River. Meanwhile, the American Legion Bridge continues to be a choke point for morning traffic on the outer loop.

The ICC

Another recently completed highway — the Intercounty Connector, which runs east-west between Prince George’s and Montgomery — appears to have siphoned off traffic from Interstate 95 between the Beltway and Baltimore. That trip was shortened after the ICC opened, Inrix found.

About one in four people surveyed said they had used the ICC. The Maryland State Highway Administration on Thursday said an in-house study of the highway showed that drivers using the ICC cut their travel time in half, compared with using local roads for east-west travel north of the Beltway.

“The ICC is working,” said the SHA administrator, Melinda B. Peters.

Slowdowns

Although Beltway traffic appears to have been improved by two projects — the HOT lanes and the Wilson Bridge — two major routes into the District have gotten slower inside the Beltway.

Interstate 66 is three to five minutes slower this year than it was in 2012, and I-395 is as much as two minutes slower at certain times of the day, Inrix reported.

Four major commuter arteries in the District — 16th Street NW, Rhode Island Avenue, Georgia Avenue NW and I-295 — saw slight improvements, with average speeds increasing by about 1 mph.

But if the average time spent commuting has gone down, the time savings have not been universal, and many bottlenecks like the American Legion Bridge remain.

Steve Kroll spends a lot of time on the road as a driver and a stagehand for a company that puts on events throughout the region. He said congestion has worsened in recent years.

“I know when I go to Northern Virginia that if I don’t get out of, say, Chantilly at 3:30, or even before that, it’s done. It’s over,” said Kroll, 29, who lives in Burtonsville and works in College Park. “I’ll be stuck in traffic for at least an hour and a half coming back to College Park.”

It used to take him up to 45 minutes to commute to work in College Park using Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway. But over the past year, he began using back roads, and he cut travel time to about 15 to 20 minutes.

“Any little trick that will get me to where I’m going on time,” Kroll said.

Still, he’s moving this week, in part to be closer to his job. Cutting down on his commute is the only way to cut down on his driving. He said that area officials are not moving fast enough to accommodate the surge in the region’s population.

“They’re not meeting the demand quick enough,” he said.

Craighill is polling manager for Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group. Capital Insight pollsters Jon Cohen and Scott Clement contributed to this report. Mark Berman also contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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