Daily Misery Has a Number: Commute 2nd-Longest in U.S.

By D'Vera Cohn and Robert Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Residents of Washington's outer suburbs endure some of the nation's longest commutes, according to a U.S. Census survey released yesterday that also showed clogged roads and high gasoline prices are pushing a growing number of people onto mass transit.

The region's average commute is more than 33 minutes one way, ranking second to the New York area's 34 minutes among large metropolitan regions. In Calvert, Prince William and Stafford counties, however, the average journey to work takes 40 minutes or more, according to the 2005 American Community Survey of households.

These long commutes are fueled by new housing popping up rapidly in the region's outer fringes, where most residents travel to counties closer to the District to work, transportation experts say. Pushing up the numbers is the region's high employment level, which includes the parents of the vast majority of the region's preschoolers. The region also ranks high in the share of people who commute outside their home county, as more than half do.

As roads have jammed and fuel prices have soared, thousands of people have switched from cars to public transportation, the survey figures indicate.

The Washington area, where 13 percent of workers get to their jobs by bus or rail, ranks behind only New York and San Francisco in use of mass transit. The region has zoomed past Boston and Chicago since the 2000 Census. Two-thirds of workers still drive to their jobs alone, but that share appears to have leveled off since 2000. The popularity of carpools continues to fade.

Alan E. Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of "Commuting in America," said the long journeys to work in exurban Washington echo trends in the rest of the country, where extreme commutes are growing. The region's increasing use of mass transit is a turnaround from the 1990s, when it dropped. That contrasts with much of the East Coast, Pisarski said, but transit use is soaring in many western states where routes are opening.

The reasons for growing transit use in the area include recent legislation encouraging employers to offer transit subsidies to workers if they also offer parking subsidies, Pisarski said. Also important, he said, is "a little bit of congestion. But more significantly, this was a reaction to the fuel prices and people testing transit to see what it does. The interesting thing is that, if fuel prices drop, what will people do?"

The District long has ranked high in public transit use: More than a third of commuters who live in the city take buses, subways or commuter rail to get to their jobs. But public transit use has grown even in suburban areas where the transit network is patchy. In Prince William, where only one in 20 people commutes that way, the number of users appears to have doubled since 2000.

One sign of the region's growing appetite for public transportation is the rising number of bus routes linking outer suburbs to Metrorail stations and major employment centers. At the M1 OmniRide bus stop at the Pentagon, more than 20 people waited in line yesterday for the daily 3 p.m. trip to Manassas. First in line was Tiffany Gaines, who drives to Manassas each morning from her home in Warrenton to catch the bus.

"It always used to be half-empty," said Gaines, who has ridden the M1 bus for four years. "Now, every time I go, it's practically full."

"I know people who are getting up earlier and driving to earlier stops so they can get the seat they want," said Jadonna Embrey, an administrative assistant who lives in Manassas and began taking the bus last year to save money.

The trip takes about two hours each way, with the bus winding through downtown Washington for stops at the State Department and the Pentagon before heading onto increasingly jammed Interstate 66. The roads are so packed that the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission is adding 10 minutes to the trip schedule, said Eric Marx, its planning and operations director.

"Those commuter buses fill up as soon as you put them on," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Particularly where you have HOV facilities, it's an attractive option."

Kirby said the apparent drop in carpool use between the 2000 Census and the 2005 survey matches local research showing the same thing.

"A good part of that is a mirror image of transit increasing," he said. "Every time we increase transit, we soak up carpooling. It's the same market. They are the kind of people who are trying to avoid driving alone. Carpooling is somewhat of an inconvenience. If transit service improves or someone gives you a subsidy -- forget the carpool, I'm going to transit."

But transit use is also rising in closer-in jurisdictions. Metrorail trips grew 17 percent from 2000 to 2005. The system has opened several stops since 2000.

But Dan Tangherlini, Metro's acting general manager, said: "We have seen large increases in the core stations as well. Some of our biggest-growing stations are places like Gallery Place, which has grown as a destination in and of itself."

Tangherlini said that when the system updates its survey of rail riders this year, "I've got some friendly bets here we will see large increases in out-of-compact origins" -- people who drive in from exurban counties that do not have Metro stations.

The American Community Survey is a detailed national survey of households that is the planned replacement for the long form in the 2010 Census. The survey does not yet cover the entire population -- it leaves out the small percentage of people in college dormitories, prisons, nursing homes and other "group quarters."

Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company