D.C. area’s longer-than-average commutes could be taking a greater toll on women

Adeyinka Ogunlegan remembers sitting at a red light on Georgia Avenue when the text-message alert came through. Her main route home to Laurel was blocked because of emergency utility repairs.

In an instant, her run-of-the-mill commute, a drive she does daily, generally without incident, turned into a logistical nightmare.

Resources for your commute

What major overhauls are needed to improve the Metro system?

What major overhauls are needed to improve the Metro system?

CROWD SOURCED | Share your ideas for making the system better. Leave comments and upvote others.

Follow Dr. Gridlock on Twitter

Follow Dr. Gridlock on Twitter

Get the latest news that will affect your commute.

Read more from Dr. Gridlock

Read more from Dr. Gridlock

The blog is your transportation guide to the Beltway and beyond.

More transportation news

Her son, who is now 4, was waiting to be picked up at preschool, and her daughter, now 3, from the babysitter’s. The clock was ticking, traffic was crawling, and she still had at least 20 miles to go. She knew instinctively that a trip that normally takes her about an hour would take far more time unless she came up with a plan.

“I was like: ‘Oh my God. Oh my God,’ ” she recalled. “There was no bailout. It wasn’t pretty.”

Ogunlegan took a deep breath to keep herself from panicking. As her car idled, she could feel her blood pressure escalating. She checked Google Maps in hopes of finding a way out of the traffic jam. Ahead, she spied a few cars turning off onto side streets and decided to take a chance. She managed to navigate her way through side streets (thank you, GPS) to New Hampshire Avenue and from there to the Intercounty Connector, on which — for a fee — she sped to Laurel, arriving at her son’s school with a minute to spare.

A Washington Post poll of area residents this past summer found that women and men who drive average a roughly 30-minute commute. But for about one in six women — about one-third of whom have children at home — that sometimes harrowing daily commute is getting longer. While D.C. area drivers are seeing less congestion on local roads, they still spend seven more minutes commuting each day than the average American, according to the Census Bureau.

Those lengthy rides could have implications for women’s health and stress levels, particularly because their commutes often include stops other than home and work. A growing body of research shows that when it comes to commute stress, women feel the impact more than men.

In a 2010 study, researchers in Britain found that women reported having higher stress levels related to commuting than men did — even if they had shorter commutes.

“The theory was that it was a question of flexibility in time use,” said Jennifer Roberts, a professor of economics at the University of Sheffield. For women, “there were more deadlines for where they had to be. It was not just an issue of, ‘I have to be at my desk at 9.’ It was, ‘I have to get my kids to child care. I have to pick up the dry cleaning.’ ”

Roberts and her colleagues found the impact was particularly acute for women with preschool-age children. Researchers found the psychological effect on them was four times as great as for men with children of the same age.

Add a longer commute into the equation and it could be even worse for women, Roberts said.

Rori Pollak, executive director at Little Beginnings Child Development Center, has seen more than her share of harried moms and dads flying through the doors of the Arlington County day care.

“Most are very apologetic,” she said. “The hardest part is really for the child if they’re the last one here.”

Like many day-care centers, Little Beginnings charges a fee for late pickups. Parents who are one to 15 minutes late pay $20, and the fee escalates from there. Those who have more than four late pickups within a certain time frame face possible dismissal from the center. But Pollak rarely has to enforce the rule.

Pollak said she and her staff understand the stresses and work closely with parents to ease the anxiety. For example, center officials encourage parents to have backup plans in the event of emergencies.

Independent travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin said women may find commuting more stressful because they tend to do more than just travel to and from work. They make additional stops — at the market, at day care, at the dry cleaner — a phenomenon known as “trip chaining.” Men, by contrast, are more likely to drive straight from work to home.

In her research, McGuckin, who has worked as a consultant to the Department of Transportation, found a difference in men and women’s attitudes about commuting.
“The commute for men is a moment of respite in the day, where they can sit and listen to the radio,” she said. “But I think, for women, it’s simply another tense, mind-racing trap because you should be somewhere or have just a few minutes to get to day care before you get charged.”

And despite women’s advances in the workplace and as wage earners, that dynamic has not necessarily changed.

“Though we see some changes in the younger generation, women still do the majority of housework and child care,” said McGuckin, who has examined the effects of commuting on men and women. “Commutes women do are more often populated with stops. And they’re more likely to do pickup in the afternoon.”

Federal statistics illustrate the disparity. Among households with two working parents who commute, women make more than half — 63.3 percent— of the trips for drop-off and/or pickup.

Ogunlegan, a lawyer at a Rockville-based public-affairs firm, is one of those women. The family has one car, and her husband takes a commuter bus and Metro to his job at the Commerce Department in downtown D.C., which means she is responsible for both drop-offs and pickups.

As a result, she has carefully calibrated her 50-mile daily drive. Mornings can be hectic, but it’s the drive home that is the real stressor.

“It can be crazy,” Ogunlegan said about her commute, which includes two drop-offs, at the babysitter’s and at school, before she heads to her office. “It’s just this juggling act that you have to manage.”

She knows that if she does not leave work at 5 p.m. on the dot, she risks missing the 6:15 p.m. pickup deadline at her son’s preschool. She’s had a couple of late pickups — including one when she was in such a rush, she couldn’t remember if she had even closed her car door. Center officials were understanding, but even so, she does not like to be late. She knows her son’s teachers have children, too.

“You feel bad,” she said. “You just don’t want to be that parent.”

Some women said that, when they are able, they’ve tried to make adjustments to their schedules and to the places they choose to work to ensure they can be close to where their kids are. But even then, they know they are just one snowstorm or traffic tie-up away from a late pickup.

Susan Burkinshaw, a comptroller who lives in Germantown, has turned down higher-paying jobs in the District and Virginia so she can work within a 10-mile radius of her children’s schools and avoid the frantic last-minute scramble that comes with traffic delays.

For Kellie Reynolds, a mother of two from Gaithersburg, pickup always felt stressful, particularly when her children were younger.

“I never wanted to pick them up late,” said Reynolds, who works for the Federal Drug Administration. “It wasn’t the [late fee]. It was thinking about how bad the kids would feel if it was closing time and I wasn’t there.”

For years, Reynolds handled afternoon pickup and shuttled the kids to doctor appointments and practices because she had a more flexible work schedule than her husband, who worked in Frederick, Md. But after he took a job in Rockville, she became the one with the longer drive. As a result, he is able to pitch in more often, easing some of the stress.

Some women also acknowledge that they may put more pressure on themselves.

“I think it’s just the way our brains are wired. [We’re] always planning our next event — the laundry, calling about the doctor’s appointment,” said Bridget Dunn, a mother of two from Alexandria. “I don’t know that men do the same thing. We get hung up on these kinds of things because we’re sort of the conductor. I think the stress lies in that.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying

    Man killed in Loudoun crash