Upbeat commuting trends face uncertain future

Robert Thomson
Columnist July 20, 2013

Wait. You mean we did something right?

That’s the reaction among many travelers and transportation planners when they first hear of indications that the commute is getting easier.

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

For so long, traffic congestion ranked with death and taxes among the unassailable facts of life. Now it appears that there may be a way out of one of them. I wish I could tell you it was death, but I’m not that kind of a doctor.

This may be the next best thing: National and local surveys, including a June poll of the D.C. region conducted by The Washington Post, suggest that commuters are spending less time in their cars.

In The Post’s poll, 28 percent of car commuters said the trip takes less than half an hour, compared with 20 percent in a 2005 poll.

If we indeed did something right, transportation professionals want a share of the credit. They point to projects like the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the rebuilding of large portions of the Capital Beltway in Virginia, which added capacity by providing new lanes or easing bottlenecks.

Others who advocate better land use as a key to easing congestion cite the growth of communities in the urban core where, by inclination or necessity, people seek less-expensive and less-cumbersome methods of getting around than their own cars.

There’s even evidence that the federal government did something right. A survey by Commuter Connections, a program of the Transportation Planning Board, finds that the federal government is responsible for almost all of this region’s growth in telecommuting over the past three years.

Among federal workers in the survey, 38 percent said they teleworked at least occasionally, up from 27 percent in 2010. Nicholas Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, said Wednesday that a major factor in this was the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which required all federal agencies to develop telework policies and then encourage the practice.

This wasn’t done purely out of interest in alleviating traffic congestion. The government wants to limit its need for office space while maintaining its ability to function during snowstorms, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Still, the region’s major employer is showing off its influence on the commuter pipelines.

But trends can prove tough to read. Although federal workers fueled a slight increase in overall teleworking, the rate among private-sector workers showed a decline. A quarter of private-sector workers reported telecommuting, down three percentage points since 2010.

Ramfos suspected that the weakened state of the private economy might be a key factor, causing some employers who had been supportive of teleworking to retrench.

In fact, it’s uncertainty about the economy’s impact on commuting that makes some transportation planners cautious in evaluating just how much we’re getting right.

Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, wondered whether an apparent decline in the number of young people driving might mean that the still-weak economy has caused more of them to continue their education rather than enter the car-commuting workforce.

The easing of congestion tends to coincide with economic weakness, he said. The current easing is quite impressive, but we need to wait before we can speak with sureness about the long-term trend.

Those who point to particular transportation projects in explaining the recent goodness must also note that overall reports of easier commutes came just as our local governments were scrounging for transportation money and many new projects had to be put on hold.

The current state of the commute is no guarantee of future results.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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