More D.C. area commuters leaving the driving to others, census data show

By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 12:00 AM

In a region long dominated by solo drives to work, more Washington area residents are abandoning their cars and taking public transportation to work, according to new census data that reveal a noticeable shift in commuting patterns over the past five years.

Only New Yorkers take the subway to work more than Washingtonians do, and all forms of public transit showed gains in riders between 2005 and 2009.

During that period, 14 percent of the area's commuters used public transportation, up from 11 percent in the 2000 Census, according to a Washington Post analysis of American Community Survey statistics. Meanwhile, the percentage of solo drivers edged downward, from 68 percent in 2000 to 66 percent in the past half of the decade.

Transportation experts said the gains in public transit were in part the result of higher gas prices but also reflected the influx of younger residents who refuse to spend long hours in the car. Many of those in their 20s and 30s have chosen to live in vibrant neighborhoods along bus, Metro and rail lines, even if it means sacrificing the suburban amenities of their childhoods.

"They came of age in an environment of urbane media influences, watching 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld,' not 'Leave It to Beaver,' " said Shyam Kannan of the Bethesda-based real estate advisory firm RCLCO.

"They watched their parents spend hours on the road, and they're not into that," Kannan added. "This is a group that is lifestyle conscious and time conscious, and they've decided they would rather be texting and tweeting from the Metro."

The gains in public transportation, while small, are nevertheless significant in an area choked with traffic.

"The good news is that it only takes a few percentage points to make a difference in easing some of the problems on our roadways," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Some say the census statistics actually understate the growing popularity of public transportation. They fail to account for people who carpool, ride Metro a couple times a week, or drive to a Park and Ride lot and take the bus the rest of the way.

"It just captures one slice of travel behavior," said Dennis Leach, transportation director for Arlington County, where the use of the county's bus service rose 30 percent last year. "It doesn't allow for the richer trips people are taking using more than one mode in a given day."

Commuters base their decisions on how to get to work on what saves them the most time and money, said Nick Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which does a commuting survey every three years.

"Whenever there are spikes in gas prices, we get people saying, 'I can't do this every single day,' " he said.

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