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Poll: Washington-Area Commuting Conditions

Steve Ginsberg and Rich Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 14, 2005; 11:00 AM

A new poll by The Post finds that Washington-area residents spend nearly twice as long getting to work as people in the rest of the nation. They also get stuck in traffic jams three times more often than commuters in the rest of the country. The times that it takes people to get to work are also expanding: half of all area commuters spend 30 minutes or more traveling to work.

Government officials acknowledge the transportation system is collapsing, but say there is little they can do to rectify it.

Painful Commutes Don't Stop Drivers, (Post, Feb. 13)
Complete Survey Results

Washington Post staff writers Steve Ginsberg and Rich Morin were online Monday, Feb. 14, at 11 a.m. ET to take your comments about the poll results and your suggestions about what, if anything, you think should be done to make the drive to work a little more palatable.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Steve Ginsberg: Good morning commuters. We have a ton of questions, so we're going to get right at it.


Arlington, Va.: About how many people are riding bikes to Metro, or riding bikes all the way to work? I was struck by your profile of a woman who is spending a half-hour driving four miles in D.C. every day; she could do that trip in about half the time by bike.

Rich Morin: Very few area residents or people nationally bike to work...but I bet those who do are extremely fit. In fact, our survey found that only 1 percent of all commuters walk to work. I think a big reason is the obvious one: it's dangerous enough negotiating area roads in a car, much less a bike.


Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Where are the grand plans for transportation? So far, all I hear are minor little ideas, like another Metro or a bridge here and there. Where is the vision? Where is the "big picture?" Is anyone proposing anything like the spoke and hub solutions of the 50s (that were never fully built out). Anything that could make a radical difference in things, besides the minor this and that?

Steve Ginsberg: There are no grand plans for transportation in this regions. There are a number of reasons for this, including the difficulty of dealing with three jurisdictions with often competing ideas of how to move people. Add to that a disconnect between local land use planning and state transportation aims and it becomes even more difficult to manage. And right now, even if all those factors aligned, there is no money to do anything about it. A grand proposal like you're talking about would take billions that governments don't have.


On the Metro & Quite Satisfied: Your interviewing sample for this article seemed to be quite interesting, especially for those who you asked opinions about riding public transit in their commuting patterns. I take the Metro on a very regular basis and prefer it over driving for a number of reasons. It is convenient, easy, quiet, relaxing does not take significantly longer than driving, and there are a number of options that can fit my schedule. And this comes from someone who commutes by public transit from Chevy Chase to Potomac by walking to the Metro, taking the Red Line, and then Ride-On! There have got to be better people to interview than someone who lives in Frederick, drives to UDC, and then Metros to Judiciary Square because he takes classes at UDC. I don't believe the attitude towards Metro as expressed in your article to be an accurate one.

Rich Morin: I also take Metro to work each, day and I am generally satisfied. But I live reasonably close to a Metro station and work just two blocks up from one. Too few Washington-area residents have this luxury.The problem revealed in the poll is that Metro may be the most well-regarded subway system in the area that virtually nobody uses. The big reason is convenience. Most people say they live too far away from Metro stations, or work too far from a Metro stop, to make it anything but a second commuting option.


Arlington, Va.: It seems to me that two big reasons why people don't use Metro are parking and cost. For example, the East Falls Church Metro station in Arlington has only a tiny lot that fills up before 7:00 a.m. Unless you can walk to it or are willing to wait for a bus in January when it is 20 degrees, you have to drive. Another example from a friend who lives in Vienna: between parking at the Vienna metro stop and round trip fares to downtown, the daily cost is about $11. You can still park in a lot downtown for this much money, or even less. You then have the convenience of your car and don't have to deal with the awful WMATA.

Steve Ginsberg: We hear this a lot as reasons people don't use Metro. The system received good marks overall, but the most dissatisfaction showed up when we asked if people thought it was a good value.


Alexandria, Va.: This is regards to the survey of people driving instead of using public transportation.

My job is five miles from my home and I used to take the Metro bus and train daily. It took me one hour each way and cost me approximately $120 per month for too much aggravation. I now drive and it takes me between 15 and 30 minutes each way and I can park in a garage for $75 a month. This gives me a savings of $45 and 60 hours of my personal time a month. Not much wear and tear on the car either because of the short distance.

I'm not addicted to my car, I'm addicted to enjoying as much time with my family as I possibly can.

Rich Morin: You're lucky--I wish I lived so close to the Post. The typical area commuter lives more than 10 miles away from where they work and spends about 40 minutes driving. But something I found fascinating about the local and national polls: commuters in Washington really don't live much farther from where they work than commuters nationally--a few miles, on average--but it just takes them about twice as long to get there. That's because of congestion, which remains a greater problem here than in other cities.


Farragut North, Washington, D.C.: I would like to dispute the notion put forth in your Sunday piece that Metro is an irrelevant part of the transportation puzzle in Washington.

The big problem in this area, as I see it, is that collectively this region has not decided whether we want to be like New York or Los Angeles. We have a good but not great system of public transportation and a good but not great highway and road system. But there are currently no plans to improve the hybrid system we are currently stuck with.

The incredible demand for housing of all types anywhere close to the Metro suggest that there is an inadequate supply of Metro.

For example Virginia is again widening I-66 outside of the Beltway but why are they not simultaneously extending the orange line along the I-66 corridor?

I was at the Building Museum this past weekend and they had a Metro system map from the late 60's that showed the existing Metro system with proposed extensions to Germantown, Laurel, Bowie, Centreville and the only one that was built which was the Blue Line out to Largo.

Metrorail is popular in this area among all constituencies, even non users, and with the fastest growing economy and population in the country right now I just don't understand why no politicians have the leadership to propose a massive expansion of the existing system.

Steve Ginsberg: I don't believe we concluded that Metro is irrelevant. The people who use it said they like it, it's just that not that many people use it and many feel that it costs too much, is too far from home, takes too long, etc. to make it worthwhile. Virginia is planning a massive extension of Metro to Dulles airport, just not along the corridor you mentioned. But the answer to your bigger question of why politicians don't fight for an expanded system is money. They don't have any and they'd need to raise taxes to do anything major. And few of them seem willing to do that.


Arlington, Va.: Walking to work is not necessarily dangerous or difficult. About 75 percent of the time I commute four miles by Metro -- the other 25 percent I walk along urban streets and trails in D.C. and Arlington. It is generally pleasant and safe because of wide sidewalks and good pedestrian crossings in those jurisdictions.

Walking home from work on a pretty evening can put me in a good mood for days.

Rich Morin: Love it and wish that I could do it, as I expect many other commuters. As I mentioned to an earlier questioner, only about percent of all commuters walk to work. That's understandable, as only 20 percent of us work within five miles of our homes.


Washington, D.C.: The story on commuting times was very interesting. As someone who lives close to D.C. in a small home, and walks to Metro every day, I really wonder whether the quality of life provided by a large home in (for example) Frederick justifies the time the commute takes out of your day. In my view, a two hour commute each way is just not an acceptable way of life. It's difficult for me to believe that a management analyst working for the federal government can't afford something closer in (albeit perhaps something with less room).

One of the letters on the back of the Outlook section yesterday about high home prices was very interesting in light of the article about commutes. The letter was from someone complaining that she could not upgrade from her "starter home" in Vienna to a larger home in the same neighborhood, because of high prices and bidding wars.

This is a good indication of the reasons behind urban sprawl -- people are not satisfied with living in smaller homes, and constantly desire bigger, better, MORE! If families today would be satisfied with the kinds of homes our parents were, we might not have the outrageous commute times we see people suffering through.

Steve Ginsberg: You've hit on the crux of the situation. For some people a lengthy commute kills their quality of life. For others, an undesirable home kills theirs. So people choose one or the other.

It's important to realize that many, if not most, of the people who commute from the exurbs don't live in large homes on vast, rolling acreage. The commuter I profiled, Charles McClister, lives in a modest town house a mile from the interstate.


Leesburg, Va.: You mentioned in the article that many folks supported Dulles Rail and the ICC, but you only gave poll statistics for Dulles Rail, not the ICC. How many folks supported the ICC and did you also ask if they supported new potomac river crossings or any other projects (like the Purple Line)?

Steve Ginsberg: The numbers for the ICC were: 63 percent favor, 31 percent opposed and 6 percent with no opinion. We didn't ask about Potomac crossings or the Purple Line.


Greenbelt, Md.: Do you believe Metro is aware that the cost of parking at Metro lots is a major deterrent to using Metrorail? By charging $3.50 or more for parking, how can Metro possibly convince people that using public transportation is cheaper than driving?

Rich Morin: Only about 2 percent of those of us who infrequently ride Metro say it's the cost that's keeping us away. A bigger problem is not the cost of parking, it's that there isn't any, or not enough at least. That was mentioned by 5 percent of those surveyed. Still, parking and costs rank well down the list of why folks don't use Metro. Also, I think most frequently Metro riders are amazed how quickly the lots fill up. But your point is a good one. One of the women we quoted in the story, Bettie McLoud, noted that it was far more expensive for her to take Metro than drive her car to negotiate the 28 miles to work. But she found driving to be too big an aggravation, so it was worth it for her to Metro.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: There is a correlation to commuting time and the expensive D.C. housing market. Many of us cannot find affordable housing in the District or desirable metro areas surrounding and must move elsewhere to do so (I, for one, live in Baltimore). This adds to the commute time in a big way, but to have a simple home and keep my job, I spend nearly $500/month for my husband and I just to get to work via public transportation. Metro and MARC are getting out of control as far as pricing. I wish I had another alternative, but I'd like to hear some solutions.

Steve Ginsberg: Would you be able to live closer if you used that $500 a month for housing instead of commuting?


Arlington, Va.: I beg to differ with the repeated notion that Metro is under-utilized. If you have tried to get onto an Orange Line train from Vienna during rush hour and the period just before and just after rush hour, you will NOT be able to get a seat, much less a comfortable standing room.

It seems that poor initial planning in the 1960s led to the capacity issues we are now experiencing. Without the ability now to run express trains or A-B stations (as in Chicago), we are stuck.

By 2010, Metro is going to expand westward to Dulles, where another X-thousand riders per day are going to inundate the Orange line from West Falls Church into the District.

Under-used. I think not!

Steve Ginsberg: It's not that it's under-used when considered against the system's ability to carry passengers. It's that as a solution to regional transportation it has limited appeal for a slew of reasons, some of which you hit on.


Centreville, Va.: Since everyone acknowledges -- and the poll confirms -- that the Metro system gets scant usage (though is still overcrowded) due to the lack of significant cost savings and lack of convenience as compared with driving, why should a multi-billion dollar extension of Metro to the most suburbanized area of Northern Virginia solve anything? Better to use just a fraction of that money to solve the bottlenecks at entrance ramps onto 66, 495 and 267 (a longer acceleration lane at a minimum would help a lot, not to mention an additional lane), which is the main reason why traffic crawls on those roads, don't you think?

Steve Ginsberg: I think planners would tell you that both need to be done. One way to consider Metro is not just in the sheer numbers of people it moves, but as an option of a way to get around. A lot of transportation planning has to do with options and having Metro through Tysons and to Dulles would give all those tech workers some options to get back and forth. The District is a good example of this. You can get across town in very little time on Metro but it often takes two or three times as long to drive. It's good to know you have that option when needed. (And, of course, the roads would be even worse without that option.)


Silver Spring, Md.: I've wondered about this for years. Half of all commuters in this area spend 30 minutes or more on their commute. So that means half of them spend less than 30 minutes, right? Who are these people?

I live two miles from the Silver Spring Metro station. I take Ride On to the station, and the Red Line to Farragut North. Not counting the time I spend waiting for the Ride On or walking the three blocks to my office, my commute is always 40-45 minutes, longer if the Red Line is having problems or the Ride On doesn't come as scheduled.

However, this pales in comparison to my colleagues' commutes. Many of them commute from outlying suburbs, like Gaithersburg or Herndon. Several take the Marc train from Baltimore or Harpers Ferry, and three take VRE from Fredericksburg and points beyond. One colleague does walk to work from a Mass. Ave. apartment, and a couple who walk to the Van Ness or Friendship Heights Metro stops place their commute at on or below 30 minutes. But half the area? My Silver Spring neighbors commute to such places as Tysons Corner, Alexandria, and the Pentagon. Any of us would give our eyeteeth for a 30 minute commute!

Any thoughts? Thanks for your time.

Rich Morin: That's a fair question. Part of the reason is that a fair number of people live close to where they work. The "burbs-to-DC" commute is the exception these days, not the rule. I found it startling that only one in four commuters drives from Maryland or Virginia into the District. So that less-than-30 average reflects the growth of employment centers like Tyson's Corner that are a bit closer to where people live. The other reason is that people likely underestimate their commutes, or recall what their commute was five or 10 years ago. I used to brag about my 45-minute commute to work from Fairfax. Then, just for fun, I timed it a few times: 1 hour and 5 minutes. My increasingly time-consuming commute largely reflects one thing: The change in the length of time it takes me to drive the few miles from my home to my Metro station.


Northern Virginia: It seems that one of the major problems is that Metro has failed to keep up with or to take into account the reality of where the growth is. For instance, Tysons Corner has, I believe, the second highest concentration of jobs in the D.C. area and while this has been the case for quite some time, only now are we even in the discussion phase of extending Metro to that area, and it will still take 10 years to build it if all goes as planned. People drive because the jobs are in places that public transportation won't take them such as in the Dulles Corridor from Tysons out to Ashburn.

Steve Ginsberg: Many people say this isn't the failing of Metro, but of local and regional planners who have allowed growth to occur in places where there's no Metro. There is still a lot of room for development at a lot of Metro stations and growth is still pushing away from them. Metro can chase it forever or planners can gear it elsewhere. That's where the competing agendas of local and state governments complicate matters.


Alexandria, VA: Let's face it. The Metro is terrible. Compare it to the NYC subway, or the T in Boston, or the L in Chicago, and you see that it's all flash and no substance. The Metro authorities have chosen to spend their money on flashy "smart cards" and keeping the trains spotless and arresting children for eating french fries, all the while charging more than comparable cities for trains that utterly fail to reach sufficiently extensively throughout the area.

Sure, the subway in New York is grimy and sometimes a little scary, but it runs late and runs all over. Why can't we have that here?

Steve Ginsberg: The short answer is money. What we found is that the Metro works well for those that it works well for. But, no, it's not as extensive or convenient as in other cities and Metro would be the first to acknowledge that.


Alexandria, Va.: Great article package! Are you going to do any follow-up on telecommuting numbers, opportunities, etc.?

Also, on the funny side, when I tell potential employers their locations are too far, I get nothing but silence -- it's like the elephant in the room, or, how dare you choose not to be miserable!

Steve Ginsberg: Thanks! Keep your eyes out for more poll-related articles in the coming weeks. Even with two full newspaper pages, we've got a lot more to report.


Washington, D.C.: Steve:

I think we all agree with you that options to cars are good. The problem is that Metrorail is the most expensive option out there, costing way too much for the small benefit it provides.

We would be much better off looking to more cost-effective alternatives, like bus rapid transit, to meet our needs going forward, particularly in suburban areas like Tyson's Corner and Fairfax. BRT can carry as many or more people than Metrorail and save us billions. Go to some of the cities where BRT has been implemented and see for yourself.

Steve Ginsberg: Sounds like my good friend Ken Reid has tuned in. BRT is a good option in some places. It still requires the use of roads, though, so there are challenges to that. It also requires people to rethink how they feel about buses. I also think governments design transportation infrastructure to spur growth and development and that a Metro station would spur more of that than a bus stop.


Confirm your numbers?: Your article said one in 10 D.C. residents takes Metro to work. I thought something like 400,000 each day took Metro for work, that means there are 3.6 million people commuting in cars? Is it really that many, the number seemed off to me.

Rich Morin: I think your estimate of daily ridership is a bit high, but let's accept it for now. I believe that number includes ALL riders, including those who are not just going to work and those making short trips on Metro during the day. So it's a bit misleading to estimate car ridership based on commuters. Also, some of us take the bus or other form of public transportation, though this percentage is small.


Reston, Va. - please keep in mind: Its important to the people who drive who say "I dont Metro, I wont pay for Metro taxes" - please remember, the half million people who take the Metro each day, if there was no Metro, would be in front of you and behind you on the highway. You think your commute is bad now? Imagine your drive if Metro was shut down for the day.

Steve Ginsberg: Some say if you took all the money used on Metro to widen roads, this wouldn't be the case. I'm not so sure, though, particularly when you're talking about mobility within suburbs. It's one thing to widen highways to 10 lanes, but it's much harder to make local streets capable of handling huge amounts of traffic.


Silver Spring, Md.: Submitting early. If the state ran a bar and gave away beer for free, it would not be unexpected that the bar would always be crowded. Adding 10 feet to the end of the bar would not solve the crowding problem. I have lived in the D.C. area for 15 years and in that time have put 38,000 miles on my car. That has involved making decision about where I live and how I commute. Why should my taxes go to support people so they can have an easier commute and a bigger house further out? The things that would make the most difference on traffic flow and cost the least, from the states' point of view, would be to enforce traffic laws and teach people to drive smarter and then fine them when they don't. Parking in traffic lanes during rush hour, left turns from no left turn areas and blocking the box probably do more to slow traffic and 2 more lanes on 66 would do to improve it.

Rich Morin: One thing is certain: that free-beer bar would be crowded with journalists! Just kidding. We're a sober lot these days. We asked people what they thought would do the most to improve traffic flows, and the single most frequently mentioned response was "immediately remove disabled or stalled vehicles from the roadways". More than seven in 10--72 percent--thought that would be "very effective" in easing traffic congestion, more than said the same thing about "expanding public transportation" (52 percent) or "building new roads" (44 percent).


Leesburg, Va.: Ken Reid here from notollincrease.com
Metro can't be built everywhere. It's too expensive to build and operate each year. Tell your readers that Metro is now consuming $400 million of the region's tax dollars each year for subsidies. Please note that the failure to put jobs near metro is not true. Forty percent of all jobs in Montgomery County are within a 1/2 mile walk from Metro. Only 13 percent of Montgomerians use transit to go to work. I would guess that there's a higher percentage of jobs near metro in arlington and D.C. People are moving further out to find housing because of restrictive zoning policies, in part, and because land is cheaper. the problem is not that we dont have enough rail, the problem is the lack of highways -- particularly for suburb -to-suburb commuting. Highways can carry buses, carpools, van pools, even bikes, but we're so fixated on rail in this region though it services only 3 percent of all trips (12 percent of commuter trips). Let's be real and build highways for people, all of which can be funded by tolls.

Steve Ginsberg: There's Ken Reid! We didn't find any great rush to carpooling in our pool. One of the more surprising stats was that we actually do it less than people in the rest of the nation, 7 percent compared to 8 percent. So I'm very skeptical that those new roads would be filled with car or van pools. Also, if you do the math, the cost of paying for tolls on multiple roads would exceed even a hefty gas tax increase so I'm not sure toll roads are the quickest way to save people money.


Beltway Insider: What can be done to force more employers (including federal agencies) to allow employees to telecommute one or more days a week?

Rich Morin: Convince them that workers can be as or more productive telecommuting than they can be showing up for work frazzled after a long commute. That should do it. As commutes lengthen for everyone--including bosses--telecommuting is increasingly viable.


Arlington, Va.: Two comments -- First, I agree with the previous post that what people consider a reasonable size house is all out of whack. I live in Arlington, but I also have a 1,000 square feet house which most people would consider too small for even a couple. Second, even living in Arlington my husband still has to make a fairly lengthy commute to Chantilly every day so I can be close to my job in D.C. There is no perfect solution, but if metro were extended further down 66 maybe his commute wouldn't be so bad.

Steve Ginsberg: The two worker household is a huge wrench in the transportation equation. Sometimes there's really no way to live near both jobs.
Many people also told tales of multiple job or office changes over the past decade. You can't expect these people to move every time they change jobs or their company moves, so inevitably a lot of them end up living far from their jobs.


Washington, D.C.: Metro is not a "boutique system" as you describe it: number two in ridership in the nation; Texas Trans Institute says our delays would be 50 percent longer without transit; and Metro carries large percentage of peak hour commuters where jobs are concentrated, places like Arlington, Bethesda and D.C.

Underlying your story, but not discussed, is the failure of local governments and business leaders to link Metro and transit to development in enough places. Metro hasn't failed, our land use has.

Your poll confirms the problem. The biggest reason people did not use Metro more often was: "I work to far from a Metro station" and three of the four next highest reasons related to transit/development link.

Steve Ginsberg: I think Metro will remain a boutique system until a majority of people feel they can access it.


Washington, D.C.: To the person who lives in Baltimore -- I just don't buy the statement that it is impossible to find housing near a metro stop near D.C. Sure, if you limit yourself to Arlington, Bethesda and Chevy Chase, you might have to pay the big bucks, but what about areas such as Silver Spring or Rockville (in Montgomery County) and I'm sure there are comparable areas in Virginia as well.

Rich Morin: I think this response to an earlier comment reflects an important fact: People value different things. Commuting time is only one factor, perhaps a secondary one, to other things when people are deciding where to live, including the quality of local schools and housing costs. It's not a good or bad thing, it's just how people order their personal priorities. As bad at it is, congestion simply isn't bad enough--yet--to cause people to reorder those priorities.


East Falls Church, Va.: The East Falls Church station is not a good example of Metro! They should close that station -- which has the worst of both worlds (little parking and no adjacent residential or office density). On either side, you have West Falls Church with tons and tons of Metro parking, and Ballston, which has tons and tons of private parking. So if you're driving to Metro, just don't go to East Falls Church and you should be fine.

Or even better, sell your car and move to Ballston, Crystal City, Clarendon or Rosslyn. Then walk to Metro.

Steve Ginsberg: Sounds like someone is trying to make it easier for him to find a parking spot at East Falls Church!


Shaw, Washington, D.C. RE: widening roads?: for the people who say that widening roads and increasing road capacity is the answer, I wonder how many drive through the mixing bowl every day, and are suffering through a 10-year construction project that will be filled to capacity within five years (meaning more construction).

Can you point to a single example, anywhere in the world, where simply building more roads solved anyone's transportation problems outside five years?

Steve Ginsberg: This is the counter argument. There are actually examples of cities with wide open freeways, but they are in places with limited economies. I haven't come across an example yet of a thriving city without commuting problems, much less a booming metropolis like ours.


Steve Ginsberg: Thanks for all the great questions. There will be more poll stories to come, so stay tuned. Also, if anyone cares to follow up with any transportation question or comment, my email is ginsbergs@washpost.com.


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