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Commuters Like Metro More Than They Use It

Inconvenience Cited Among Reasons in Poll

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page A01

Nikki Herson took Metro to work once. She found the 30-minute walk from her apartment to Tenleytown tiring, the 25-minute ride to Shady Grove tedious and the 10-minute bus ride from there plain annoying.

John Wengle's Bethesda-to-Washington commute is the kind Metro was made for. But he's turned off by packed Red Line cars and what can be an hour-long venture. In a car, he does it in a tidy, convenient and comfortable 25 minutes.

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Joan Elmore has no choice. She lives in Stafford County and works in Prince William County. The only transit between the two is a commuter rail line -- which she didn't know about -- that doesn't come close to her home or job. "There is no Metro," Elmore said. "They haven't quite done that yet."

Though Metro is the second busiest transit system in the nation and is working to ease crowding, the overwhelming majority of people who live in the Washington area say it doesn't work for them.

According to a recent Washington Post poll, 9 percent of Washingtonians said they regularly use the subway to get to and from work. A third of those who don't take Metro said they could but choose not to, while nearly two-thirds said public transportation isn't an option for them.

Their reasons varied: Metro is too far from home or from work, or they simply prefer to drive. Long rides and a lack of parking don't help.

At the same time, Washingtonians love their subway. Four out of five people in the region have used the system, and 88 percent of those have a positive view of it. Similar numbers said it was reliable, comfortable and a good value. And 58 percent said they would support more funding for Metro, even if that means higher taxes, rather than face service cuts.

So why doesn't it serve more people?

"Where it goes, people use it heavily," said Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County on the Metro board. "Those places that don't use it don't have it. It's pretty simple."

Is it Metro's fault for building a system designed mainly to ferry government workers from their homes to downtown offices? Is it the fault of local governments for allowing development far from Metro stations? Or is it the fault of car-obsessed commuters unwilling to give up the comfort and convenience of their rides?

A half-century ago, when Metro was planned, the goal was to move workers from the suburbs to the city. End-of-the-line places like Springfield and Rockville were on the frontier, and planners never imagined a day when people would commute to those spots as well as from them.

"It's clear that times have changed and some things need to be done to the system to make it work better," said Royce Drake, an engineer and construction manager at Metro from 1971 to 2002.

Today, the District accounts for one in four jobs in the region. As a result, commuting patterns have splintered, and many workers go from suburb to suburb or travel well beyond the reaches of Metro.

"As the center gets to be less and less significant, it's tougher for transit to play the type of role it would like to play," said Alan E. Pisarski of Falls Church, author of "Commuting in America." "The demand is just not there."

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