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Pursuit of a Grande Latte May Be Stirring Up Gridlock

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page A01

Almost every morning for a decade, Roger Bratter has stopped at a Starbucks in Gaithersburg to sip a grande latte sans foam or a green tea and spend 20 peaceful minutes with the newspaper before heading to his auto repair shop.

Grabbing a cup at home, he said, just isn't the same.

Patrons come and go early one morning at a Starbucks on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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"Our kid's got to go to school. My wife has to get to the Metro. I've got to get to work," Bratter, 54, said during a 7:30 a.m. visit last week. "If I have to make [coffee] and clean it up, it's just an extra stress factor."

Minutes earlier, at the same Starbucks on Quince Orchard Road, Steve Elgin, 41, pulled into the drive-through. A venti latte once or twice a week takes the edge off his one-hour commute between Frederick and Gaithersburg.

"It gives me something to do on [Interstate] 270," said Elgin, an executive in an insurance claims company.

The two men represent what one researcher says is evidence that the national craving for gourmet coffee may be adding mileage to the morning rush hour. And the numbers might be significant enough to complicate efforts to reduce traffic congestion, save fuel and reduce air pollution.

She calls it -- what else? -- the "Starbucks Effect."

"If you see people replacing an in-home activity like brewing your own coffee with an activity that requires a new [car] trip, that's not exactly the trend we're looking for," said Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst who used U.S. Department of Transportation data to develop her findings.

McGuckin built her thesis from the department's National Household Travel Survey, a periodic study of about 70,000 households in which each member keeps a diary of comings and goings -- who's driving where, how far and for what purpose.

What McGuckin and two colleagues found in comparing the 1995 and 2001 surveys, the two most recent ones, was that 1.6 million new Americans tacked personal errands onto their commutes. Studies have long shown that errands are an integral part of the daily routine, especially on the way home from work, when arrival times are more flexible. Women continue to outpace men in these trips, shouldering most of the early-evening family tasks after leaving the office, such as grocery shopping and picking up children.

But the researchers also discovered that for the first time most of the growth in errands occurred during the morning commute -- and far more men had joined in.

A closer look showed that many of those men had destinations more enjoyable than the dry cleaner. While younger men were sharing in more household-related errands such as ferrying children, older men were devoting many of their morning trips to coffee and such portable breakfast food as bagels.

The Starbucks Effect is, of course, not just about Starbucks, although Starbucks opened more than 4,000 locations worldwide between 1995 and 2001, the two years the travel researchers used for comparison.

In addition to its effect on mileage, the boom in on-the-go breakfasts has confounded attempts to forecast travel patterns, which are based on computer models that rely heavily on the predictability of the morning commute. Those models assume that people take the shortest, fastest routes to work, not the ones that necessarily lead past a doughnut shop.

"How do we predict future travel when commercial and social interactions like this can surprise us?" McGuckin asked.

Not everyone who has studied these trends is convinced that a change big enough to affect traffic patterns or pollution has occurred. Fast-food restaurants, after all, have catered to morning commuters since McDonald's introduced the Egg McMuffin in the 1970s.

Alan E. Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America," said that although McGuckin's findings are noteworthy, he doubts that coffee-and-bagel-seeking commuters are running up much extra mileage. Most people don't have to drive far out of their way for coffee, he said, and their engines probably remain warm enough during those relatively brief stops to prevent high-polluting "cold starts" -- the engine ignitions at the beginning of trips that produce the dirtiest exhaust.

He said, however, that the increase in personal errands added on to commutes causes more congestion during peak travel times.

"It's more of a problem from a traffic point of view than from anything else," Pisarski said.

Ronald Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said he sees problems only if commuters' coffee addictions motivate them to pass up alternatives to driving alone. Carpools, along with bus and rail systems, usually frown upon -- if not outright prohibit -- eating and drinking.

"You have your radio and air conditioning, and having your coffee cup there is one more thing that makes you more inclined to drive," Kirby said. "If that becomes a big deal, it just makes it a little hard to get people onto transit. But how big a factor it is, I just wonder."

However, it's no accident, restaurant industry analysts say, that commuters rarely have to wait to make a left turn to get their caffeine fix. Restaurants catering to the breakfast crowd usually make sure they're on the right side of the street for the morning traffic flow. In some cases, Starbucks will have two locations across the street from each other to accommodate traffic patterns in both directions, company spokesman Alan Hilowitz said.

With 65 percent of the sales for Caribou Coffee coming before 10 a.m., the chain is creating more drive-throughs and simplifying menus to speed morning commuters through, said Michael Coles, president and chief executive of Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee Corp.

"They still want to move along, but you get that coffee and turn your radio on, and that's your 20 to 30 minutes in the morning," Coles said. "It's a commute that you've turned from something that had no pleasure at all to one that is now the best part of your morning."

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