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The car is still king of D.C. area commute

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By Robert Thomson
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nicholas Ramfos, director of the Commuter Connections service, wants to help people find the best way to get to work while imposing the least stress on the D.C. region's transportation system. He couches this goal in the language of commuters: "It's all about time and money."

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The organization, part of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, uses a telephone poll called the State of the Commute Survey to help figure out where commuters are losing time and money and how they could save. Here's a look at findings from the 2010 survey, conducted in the winter and spring and published in July.

Driving alone declines

As in previous surveys, done every three years since 2001, the most popular option among commuters is driving alone to work. In 2010, driving alone represents 64 percent of all commuting trips per week. But the study also notes a decade-long decline in the popularity of solo driving. In 2001, its share was 70 percent.

The study looked at commuting in three geographic rings: a core, a middle ring and an outer ring. Driving alone was most popular in the outer ring, but even in the core, home to one of the nation's most-extensive transit systems, it was the choice of nearly half of the workers.

Telecommuting up

The number of people who worked from home at least occasionally grew significantly over the decade and now amounts to about 600,000 people. About half of the total number of teleworkers did so at least one day a week. Ramfos said the survey has a pretty strict definition of teleworking, tied to the reduction in car trips. If you drove to Starbuck's to use your laptop, you didn't telework.

Transit use rising

The transit share of the weekly commute rose from 17 percent to 21 percent over the decade. Commuters who live in the region's core were far more likely to use the trains and buses than those in the outer suburbs. More than eight in 10 respondents in the core said they lived within one-half mile of a bus stop. Fewer than two in 10 in the outer ring said they had such access.

Ride-sharing flat

Carpooling and vanpooling accounted for about 7 percent of weekly commuting trips, the same share they had at the start of the decade. Sharing is a more likely choice in the outer suburbs than in the middle or core.

Challenges

Although time and money incentives increasingly favor commuting alternatives, other factors are obviously working against the abandonment of the solo drive.

A Washington Post poll -- conducted by phone in March and sampling a smaller part of the region than did the Commuter Connections survey -- found similar trends. More than a quarter of the workers were telecommuting at least occasionally, but most were driving alone. In both polls, commuters observed that traffic congestion is worsening, despite the growing popularity of telework.

Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group for traffic relief, said the D.C. region is a national leader in promoting alternative means of transportation. Demand management can make "new bridges, parkways and other infrastructure work more efficiently," he said, "but do not eliminate the need for such investments."

In some ways, the region's robust and resilient economy hinders the single driver's search for alternatives. "It's a transient area," Ramfos said. People move and change jobs a lot, making it difficult, for example, to establish and maintain carpools.

Ramfos said there are plenty of opportunities to work with employers and individuals in promoting alternatives to the solo drive. He sees enormous potential for telecommuting but also is encouraged about the high-occupancy toll lanes' capacity to carry carpoolers.

Sometimes the shift to an alternative commute begins when a traveler calculates the cost of driving. Sometimes it begins with a snowstorm. In any case, a commuter need not approach a decision to telework or to take public transit as a permanent shift in lifestyle. "Just try it," Ramfos said.


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