Is your commute the optimal one? The Post will kick the tires on alternative custom routes

We’re emerging from a holiday period during which many travelers were preoccupied with figuring out the best alternatives to interstate highway travel.

Would Route 301 or a combination of routes 29 and 17 be a useful dodge around Interstate 95 for southbound drivers? Would an Eastern Shore route or a trip through Pennsylvania serve as a work-around for the traffic and tolls on a northward getaway? (Answer in most cases: It depends, but early mornings around the big holidays tend to be sweet spots.)

(Mark Gail/The Washington Post) - Afternoon traffic on the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring. Is the best way to get there via the Intercounty Connector, or combining Interstate 270 and the Beltway? The Washington Post transportation team has road-tested these routes.

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For the rest of the year, our sights shrink to whether a few minutes can be shaved from a local commute that’s become way too regular.

During an online chat last month, a commenter made this statement about the search for better commuting routes:

“I have a TomTom GPS that gets traffic data via radio signals. I thought it might be handy to use on my commute as it would find me a faster route. But I find it gets too annoying as it keeps recommending another route that it claims is faster. It can’t make up its mind. While I welcome an alternative route if it will be faster, I don’t want to change routes 10 times. In my opinion, if it can’t pick one route, it must be time to stop for dinner and wait until things clear out a bit.”

It’s good to seek out alternative routes, but there’s no benefit in information overload while driving. We have enough to worry about just getting through an intersection safely.

It’s much better to do the pioneering part of the commute from an armchair, someplace where you can study up on alternatives for testing later.

Commuters should know their options, and they could take a variety of forms. A driver should know a bailout course if trouble develops on the highway. That driver might also want to know how to take Metrorail when traffic is particularly bad.

A Metrorail rider might benefit from knowing where to transfer trains if there’s a lengthy delay on the usual route. Or how to find a Metrobus stop or what walking route might be reasonable from a certain station.

In fact, we might be able to help. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I on The Washington Post’s transportation team have done an occasional feature we call “Which Way?” We take travelers’ questions on which commuting route might work better for them and test a couple of possibilities.

For example, when the 495 express lanes opened last year, Post reporter Mark Berman and I tested routes from Gallows Road to Tysons Corner using the express lanes (me) and the regular Beltway lanes (him). Taking the express lanes, I managed to beat Mark to the roof of the Tysons mall garage off Westpark Drive by three minutes — but I paid a toll for that advantage. (The variable toll was 65 cents then, but it’s more likely to be around $2.90 now.)

When Maryland’s Intercounty Connector opened, we tested possibilities, with Mark taking the ICC and me on Interstate 270 and the Beltway into Silver Spring. I got to our rendezvous point first but was aided by a confusing sign on the ICC that led Mark into a detour.

We don’t measure only time. Like other commuters, we judge the trip by the entire experience. Where was there congestion? Where was there confusion? Driving might provide a faster trip, but Metro might be less of a hassle — or not.

Depending on what Point A’s and Point B’s you suggest, we might get transportation reporter Ashley Halsey III to join us on his bike. Ashley is an avid cyclist, and I have a feeling he’ll be competitive with some of the driving and transit routes.

So give us some starting and ending points for your commutes in the Washington area, and let us test whether one route — or one travel mode — might be better than another for you. I’ve got a couple ideas of my own for when the Silver Line opens.

Suggest alternative commutes to me via e-mail at drgridlock@
washpost.com
.

I’ve already gotten some good proposals for tests from online readers, including this one from Kate French of Vienna about commuting from there to Crystal City. She listed a variety of drives to test: the Capital Beltway to Interstate 395 to Route 1; the Beltway to Route 1; Route 50; and Route 7 and Route 123 to the George Washington Parkway.

“I keep thinking that there’s some magic route that I’m not aware of that will help me avoid 395 or driving through Old Town,” she wrote. Interstate 495 is “almost always great. It’s the rest of the drive that is torture. Metro takes way too long and is expensive.”

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