Commuters Using Alternative Means to Reach Metro Stations

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bad luck put Haydee Moore, 60, on Fairfax Connector Bus No. 621 from her home in Penderbrook to the Vienna Metro station last week, after her car had broken down.

But bad luck turned to good when she discovered how comfortable the 45-minute ride was, how much easier it was than staking out the always-full Park-and-Ride lot at the station, and how much cheaper it was than paying the $5 daily parking fee.

"The bus is beautiful," Moore said as she prepared to board a train to Metro Center, where she works as a makeup artist and cosmetics marketer in a department store. Moore's car is fixed, but she has no plans to return to her old commute, she said.

Regional leaders are celebrating such stories, which they say reflect a growing trend among the Washington region's commuters of leaving their cars home, even for the short trip to the Metro station.

The numbers back them up, particularly at end-of-the-line stations such as Vienna, Huntington and Franconia-Springfield, which were designed with ample parking to serve far-flung passengers who drive to the train. Although ridership has increased steadily this year at all nine of the area's end-of-line Metro stations, parking usage actually has declined slightly overall, according to Metro statistics.

"All over, people are taking transit more," said Fairfax Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who also serves on the Metro board. "When gas prices went up, people said, 'You know, there's a viable alternative.' "

Several factors have enabled more commuters to reach the train without their car. Local and regional bus lines, such as Metro, the Fairfax Connector and Loudoun County Transit, have increased service in recent years, enabling more commuters to take the bus to the train from neighborhoods not otherwise within reach.

And more new housing developments are clustered around train stations, such as the not-yet-completed MetroWest community south of the Vienna platform, enabling commuters to walk from their doorstep onto the train.

Last year, Metro raised parking fees, which are $4.50 or higher.

"I think that's the threshold where people are saying, 'Well, maybe I'll take the bus or carpool,' " Hudgins said. "That's a good thing from the standpoint that there's only so much parking that you can build."

Ridership and parking statistics aren't the only numbers suggesting that commuting patterns are changing, Metro officials said.

In addition, recent Federal Highway Administration statistics show that across the nation, Americans are driving less. In January, for example, Americans drove 7 billion fewer vehicle miles over the same month last year, a 3.1 percent drop.

Most experts attribute the drop to higher fuel costs as well as the recession. But they are heartened that vehicle miles traveled have continued to decrease and transit trips have continued to rise, even as gas prices have come back down.

"It's a national trend," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the District-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. "It started with higher gas prices, and a lot of it has stayed as transit ridership has stayed high. People are realizing with higher gas prices how much of their budgets were going to transportation."

Robert Allen, 18, a senior at Oakton High School, walks to the Metro station nearly every day from his home in the Circle Woods neighborhood of Fairfax County, on his way to his part-time, after-school bank teller job in Ballston. It's not so much fun in the winter or the rain, he said. But it beats the daily parking charge.

"The parking's, like, five bucks," he said recently. "And anyway, at this time of day, you're not going to get a spot anyway. It's really rare."

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