Metrorail vs. driving: Commuters offer tips on getting from Virginia to D.C. and back

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 12

When Washington Post reporter Mark Berman and I do our “Which Way?” features, testing routes to work submitted by commuters, we don’t consider it a race, and we don’t name a winner. Whether one of our routes works best for another commuter is a personal decision, and who gets to the destination first is only one factor in making it.

I think travelers know this, because many will tell us they have added up the costs of a drive or a transit ride. Others will note conditions that either add to or subtract from the stress of the trip. A Metrorail ride might involve a wait on a cold platform but it offers a rider a chance to read or get some work done. A drive is more of a hands-on experience. The drivers must focus on the road. But the trip might also offer more privacy, and a chance to be alone with your thoughts — and music.

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 our latest ad­ven­ture, published on the Feb. 2 Commuter page, Berman drove all the way to downtown D.C. from the Kingstowne area, just south of the Capital Beltway in Virginia. His route included Van Dorn Street, Duke Street, Interstate 395 and the 14th Street bridge. I drove to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station and took the Blue Line to the McPherson Square station, but we did share one experience.

We each thought the trip took a really long time, and we were sure the other guy would get there first. Maybe that’s the heart of the shared experience of commuting: anxiety.

Many commenters with similar commutes offered practical suggestions or shared their experiences.


Morning passengers fill Metro bus on Route 54 to capacity on 14th Street in 2010 in the District. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read your rail vs. road article with interest because I am one of those who have done both. Your article was only half-complete, because you did not address the return trip. The round-trip difference is why I now ride Metro.

I moved to Springfield in 2006 and found a job working in downtown D.C. My initial trips to work were road commutes. Leaving my house at 6 a.m., I would be sitting at my desk 35 minutes later.

When I left to return home, it was quite a different story. It was usually 11 / 2 to two hours to get back, ranging from a personal best of one hour and 10 minutes to more than four hours one eventful evening, which involved accident blockage. I did this for four months before I decided I had to do something about the return trip.

Thus began my trips on Metro. Because I live five miles from the Franconia-Springfield Metro station, my morning commute time increased to 50 minutes door-to-door. But that was offset by the fact that for 35 minutes of it I was sitting down reading my book — and not watching out for racing drivers on I-395.

The real payoff came on my trip home. Again, 50 minutes door-to-door, with a relaxing 35 minutes of reading. So, it was not only much shorter than my previous commute home, but also predictable. I had found my peace of mind again.

Granted, there have been a few hiccups. About six times over the past seven years, I had to stand because of crowding, and I think four times there were events that caused the trip to take more than an hour, including one trip that lasted three. But these have proved to be rare exceptions.

You do have to figure in cost. For me, it was a wash. With the cost of gas and parking, in 2006, my car commute was about $15, nearly the same as my Metro cost (including parking). The same holds true for today, if you can get into one of the lower-cost garages.

Peter Misuinas, Springfield

DG: Berman, who also uses Metro to commute between Virginia and the District, had these additional thoughts on his driving trip:

The key thing with commutes — and one thing that driving offers that Metro or transit does not — is that making the same trip day after day offers a chance for experimentation.

You can try side roads, test alternative routes and see which one offers the best/shortest/easiest commute. With Metro, you can alter certain elements — trying different stations, testing transfers or figuring out where to board so you’re right near the escalators when you get off the train — but you can’t alter as many parts of the formula, because the trains go where the trains go.

One person who does this commute and commented online about it recommended skipping Duke Street by taking Van Dorn Street to King Street, and also exiting I-395 North onto Washington Boulevard and taking that to Memorial Bridge. Another recommended using Routes 1 and 110 to get to the Arlington Memorial Bridge rather than taking the 14th Street bridge.

Metro riders also offered tips based on experience, such as heading to the Huntington station, on the Yellow Line, or taking the bus to the Van Dorn Street station instead.

The time of departure can really affect the drive. A commenter pointed out that you could hit very different traffic (as well as crowding on the Metro) at 6 or 7 a.m. versus 8 or 9 a.m.

Riders also advocated taking VRE rather than Metro from Franconia-Springfield to Crystal City or Union Station. VRE makes fewer stops than Metro, and you’re allowed to eat and drink.

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