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Behind the Steering Wheel, A Driver Feels the Squeeze

View Ahead Rarely Changes: Wall of Cars, Lost Family Time

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A15

Charles McClister drives barely a mile from his new townhouse community, past an office park and a cluster of highway hotels, merges onto the interstate and, bam, there it is: the first traffic jam of his day. The sun is still tucked beneath the horizon, but the sky ahead of him already glows with the red bursts of taillights.

Calm by nature, McClister is getting a bit edgy. He's worried that cars are going to cut into his lane. They do.

Charles McClister takes a train about once a week but has problems with public transit's schedules and reliability. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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"This is what I'm saying -- everyone tries to squeeze over," he says, pointing at the culprits from a hand wrapped around a large coffee thermos. "They pretty much squeeze you out sometimes."

McClister, 30, is familiar with this feeling, having moved about 25 miles northwest to Frederick from Gaithersburg with his wife because they felt squeezed out of the housing market there. "This was a last resort," he says. "We decided we'd just suck it up."

They're not the only ones. Nearly a quarter of Washington area residents spend more than an hour getting from home to work, according to a new Washington Post poll. For 25 percent of commuters, it takes between a half-hour and an hour.

McClister would prefer not to be one of them. There is a MARC station three miles from his home, and he takes the train when he can. But when he can amounts to one day a week. The other days, he takes classes at the University of the District of Columbia after he's done with work as a management analyst at the U.S. Labor Department. The last train leaves at 7:15 p.m., too early for him.

"I think the MARC train system is a really good system," McClister says, nearly 20 minutes and not quite 10 miles into his drive. "But it's in no way perfect. How is it going to get me back home?

"Metro's not so reliable, either," he adds. "If Metro has a crack on its rail or it didn't get the ice right or if they have four-car trains instead of six-car trains, everybody's jammed in. There's no guaranteed way."

So he drives. From Interstate 270 to the Capital Beltway to Connecticut Avenue to a $75-per-semester parking spot at UDC, where he stores his car for the day, walks to the Van Ness-UDC Metro station and rides seven stops to Judiciary Square.

On days when he leaves by 5 a.m., it's not so bad. He might get to work in less than 90 minutes. But on days like this one, when he leaves late -- late being 6 a.m. -- there's a good chance it'll take him two hours.

All this time spent commuting is starting to weigh on him, because he's about to become a father. "My dad's done his commute for over 20-odd years, and most of his time is spent on the road or at work," says McClister, who grew up in Los Angeles. "My dad was a good dad, but he was away a lot. That goes through my mind. Am I going to be gone, too?"

At this moment, traffic has reappeared after a brief stretch of open road. "What was the split, maybe three miles, four miles?" McClister asks. "And now we're stuck again."

And now McClister is wondering why police don't ticket all the cheaters driving alone in the carpool lane to his left, where cars are moving faster than those in the regular lanes.

Not even the HOV lanes can overcome what lies ahead just outside Gaithersburg: a wall of cars that forces McClister and everyone else to come to a complete stop.

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