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.

But two of three people in the region still hop in their cars and drive to work alone. And many of them are setting their alarm clocks before dawn to do that. One-third of all area commuters leave home before 7 a.m., a phenomenon fueled by both geography and economics.

Residents of Loudoun County - which has the country's highest median household income, $114,000 - are less likely to leave early than residents of Prince William and Anne Arundel counties, where household incomes are lower.

People in Northeast and Southeast Washington are much more likely to be up and out early than residents of Northwest Washington.

In many Prince George's County neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway and in the east side of the District, four of 10 commuters leave before 7 a.m. Less than half that many people living inside the Beltway in Montgomery County do. In Temple Hills, for instance, 49 percent of commuters leave early; in Bethesda, just 11 percent do.

Alan Pisarski, a Northern Virginia resident who wrote a widely circulated study titled "Commuting in America," said many of the early risers are blue-collar workers whose workdays start before 9. More-affluent professionals can afford to live closer to their workplace and don't have to get to their offices as early.

"It's a combination of the nature of the workforce and the nature of the cost of housing in this metropolitan area," he said. "People from northern areas like Frederick who work at the airports come in, sleep in their cars for an hour and go to work at 7. If that isn't an indicator of a pathetic transportation system, I don't know what is."

The growth in early commuters is visible to veterans of early commutes.

Ramfos said that for the past 15 years, his wife has been leaving their Loudoun home before 5 a.m. to get to work early and beat the traffic. In the past few years, she has found herself in a lot more pre-dawn traffic.

The census also found distinct geographical differences in how many people drive to work alone. In Rockville, more than three-quarters drive solo, a similar rate to many parts of more-distant Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties. In Silver Spring and Takoma Park, barely half do.

Commuters living in the District, Alexandria, Arlington and Falls Church have been heavy users of Metro. In Fairfax, barely 6 percent have used it.

The workplace destination also makes a difference. About 37 percent of people who work in the District arrive by public transportation, as do 22 percent of workers in Arlington.

Underscoring the push to have a Metro stop in Tysons Corner, just 3 percent of about 550,000 people who work in Fairfax got to their jobs using public transit. Eight of 10 drove to work alone.

In Prince George's, with 320,000 workers, just 7 percent used Metro, while 73 percent drove solo.

Kannan, of RCLCO, said Washington's transit system has helped make it a magnet for young people, and he expects the use of public transportation to accelerate as the economy improves.

"We might have seen an even greater increase if not for the fact that Generation Y has been dramatically underemployed," he said. "The number of 30-year-old men living in the basement of their parents' home has kept them from using transit. When they find work and return to the workforce, the data suggest they will make the trade-off of a larger house for proximity to work, shopping and transit."

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company