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Traffic's Toll: A Day on the Roads
with Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, February 4, 2000, 11 a.m. EST
Alan Sipress
Alan Sipress

Alan Sipress was the lead writer for The Post's special report: "Traffic's Toll: A Day on the Roads."

The Post sent 17 reporters and almost as many photographers out to capture one days journey into night, riding along by car, truck, van, bus, bicycle and even airplane as motorists jostled past each other to reach work and then home, and as businesses navigated through the crush to deliver products and services.

Sipress has covered transportation for the Metro desk since joining The Washington Post in 1998. He was Live Online at 11 a.m.







Washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Alan. Thanks for joining us. What a story you told us today! Now having slept on it, what themes do you see emerging from all this incredible reportage?

Alan Sipress: Thanks for having me this morning. We'll keep developing the two main themes that were reflected in our story: What traffic has been doing to how we lead our lives and how we got ourselves into this mess. And of course, there's the nettlesome question of what, if anything, we can do to relieve the situation.


Dupont Circle: I have to say, I find it amazing that so many people will willingly give up hours and hours of their free time every week, simply for a front yard and a two-car garage. What point is there in owning all these things if you aren't ever home to enjoy them? I myself moved from Alexandria to Dupont Circle in October, simply to make the commute to my downtown job simpler and faster. My commute used to involve two buses and two Metro lines, and frequently 45 minutes or more. Now, it's 10 minutes flat. A five minute walk for the two blocks from my apartment to the Metro, and five minutes to cover the two stops between Dupont and Metro Center. That's it. No more headaches, no more fear of being delayed at work for 10 minutes -because that could easily lengthen my commute to Alexandria to an hour and a half-. Now, getting to and from places is simple, and I have the entire evening from 5:30 on to read, work on my coursework for my Georgetown class, cook sumptuous dinners, or simply relax. There's no way in the world I would trade this for a house in the 'burbs.

Alan Sipress: There are many others in our region who've made a similar choice. But not everyone can make it. It's expensive, and growing more expensive by the day, to stay in town. But no doubt, for many people, a large backyard is well worth giving up to saves weeks every year on the highways.


Arlington, VA: Why o why can't our local and state governments overcome their narrow, parochial interests to address this crisis? It seems like each one has half of the equation right and half of it wrong. Why doesn't Maryland -and inner communities like Arlington- realize you need to build SOME new roads and expand others? Why doesn't Virginia realize you need -GASP!- taxes and-or tolls to pay for roads and that land use must be addressed? I'm a 27 year old who currently rides the Metro into Washington. I think I will seriously consider moving from the area if I have to change jobs in the future.

Alan Sipress: I'm not sure it's fair to say that their interests are parochial. There really are different philosophies about governing and different political cultures in the two states. Maryland, as a generally compact, urban, liberal state sees a larger role for the government in providing transit and planning growth. Virginia, a more expansive and largely rural state, still looks toward highways and a less intrusive government. But times may be changing as Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs become more alike.


Washington, DC: Whine, whine, whine. Has any one of the people in your article ever lived in Los Angeles County? Has any one of them ever been stuck behind one of those chicken trucks on the Ventura Freeway, that have released so many chickens in their daily traverses that chicken families roost in the scrub brush alongside the freeway? If they haven't, they know nothing of traffic delays.

Alan Sipress: Indeed, Washington has only the second worst traffic in the country after Los Angeles. Now I'm sure that's comfort to folks in our region who are on the road three, four or five hours a day.


Warrenton, VA: Traffic in NoVa is getting worse by the day. All the focus is on building more roads. The Post recently reported that simply building more roads doesn't work as they merely fill right up. I agree with that. Why don't they do something abouting curbing development?

Alan Sipress: I believe you're referring to a story that I wrote last month reporting two new studies that showed building new roads or adding lanes generates their own traffic and people take more and longer trips. Yet the studies do not say that new road capacity fills up entirely. It does provide some relief, especially in the short run. The bottom line is it costs much more and it's far more daunting to build your way out of congestion than planners have thought.


Washington, DC: I find it hard to believe that a single person with no children would turn down a dream job because of traffic congestion. I am speaking about the gentleman from Adams Morgan who turned down numerous jobs in northern Virginia. Why would he not just move to Reston or Fairfax and avoid the commute all together? Its not like condos in the city are hard to rent or sell these days.

Alan Sipress: As I mentioned earlier, folks make all kinds of choices about how to lead their lives. There are many fabulous reasons to live in the city and those may outweigh his need for a more challenging job. An essential point about traffic is it prevents many people from having it all: the good job and the good lifestyle.


Washington, DC: Why don't more people use the Metro? I live in Falls Church and work on K St. There is no better way to get downtown if you live by the Metro.

Alan Sipress: Washington certainly has one of the best rail transit systems in America and many people take it for granted. Yet many people don't. Transit ridership in our region is among the highest in the country and has been experiencing fairly healthy growth over the last decade as the systems in other metro areas struggled.


Alexandria, VA: Enjoyed the travel documentaries. These
commuting delays happen to all of us in the
Wash-Metro area. Whom do we petition in order to reduce the amount of building permits that are granted for new malls, housing developments, etc.? These projects
are clearly leading to suburban sprawl, and commuters spread farther and farther from their job sites.

Alan Sipress: More and more people in our region seem to be sharing your concerns. Candidates carrying the slow-growth banner fared real well in Virginia's county elections in November. In Maryland, Gov. Glendening has been setting up his state as a national model of "Smart Growth" designed to slow sprawl and channel public investment into already-developed areas. Whether these policies prevail is yet to be seen.


Washingtonpost.com: Alan, every time there's a story about commuting, hundreds of readers respond: Live where you work! Is there any evidence that the Washington traffic mess is leading more people to actually do that? Or, in fact, is the trend in the opposite direction?

Alan Sipress: No doubt that more people are working where they live: telecommuting. But it's often difficult to live near where you work. In many households, both the man and woman work, often in locations far apart. I've heard many stories about one member working in the Dulles corridor and the other close to Baltimore. Where do you live then? Also, it takes a change in planning philosophy. For a long time, we believed as a society that homes and businesses should be zoned separately. Now we're beginning to realize the virtues of mixed-used development.


Falls Church, VA: For the person in DC, I travel to LA all the time. I would say that our areas worst traffic spots -i.e. points on the Beltway- are worse than anything I have experienced in LA.

Alan Sipress: A study that came out last year showed that Washington has four of the 20 worst bottlenecks in the country: all on the Beltway. But again, we were number two, I believe. LA may have had one or two more.


Crystal City, VA: I think Dupont Circle has the right idea. It doesn't even have to be more expensive...IF you forgo owning a car completely. What you lose in real estate costs -and, of course, the need to rent a car for an occasional weekend getaway-, you make up for car payments, parking, gas, and insurance. There are very few cities in America where you can get away with not owning a car, but we're lucky enough to live in one of them. It sounds like a hardship, but -- as long as you don't work in Tysons -- it's really not. I was more than happy to trade my car for a 15 minute commute!

Alan Sipress: There's a lot to be said for that.


Washingtonpost.com: There are actually two ways for readers to respond to the Post's traffic story this morning. One is here, but it ends at noon. The other is through our new "Message Boards." We set up a board early this morning so that readers could share their thoughts about the story and their observations about traffic in general. Join us there after Live Online to continue this discussion.


Arlington, VA: I'm a native of the Wash area and I have to say, even if this sounds totally logical, I feel so angry at all the people who have flocked to this city and made it into the traffic nightmare that it is. Traffic is ruining my hometown!!!!! It didn't used to be like this! I am in my 20s, and even I can remember when Tysons Corner was surrounded by fields and the "swanky" Tysons Fairfax Square was a Kmart and a Chesapeake Bay Seafood House! Ack! Who needs all these upstart newcomers?!?!?!?!!?!?!? Sorry to sound so jaded at such a young age.

Alan Sipress: We shouldn't forget that one of the main causes of traffic is prosperity. Look at the high school girls we featured this morning, each with their own cars. Look at the new homebuyers. Too often the opposite of prosperity is a stagnating economy and joblessness. This region is relatively lucky to be so healthy. What's lacking, experts increasingly say, is intelligent land-use planning linked to transportation planning. For instance, make the most use of property near existing Metro stations.


Arlington, Virginia: No question -- just a comment for those who keep dissing those of us with long commutes.

I live in Arlington, and metro'd to my job in DC for a long time. That job -contract- ended. The best job I could get after was in Rockville. BUT -- my husband works in Alexandria -10 minute commute- and my house that I own is in Arlington. I'd love to metro, but it takes twice as long as costs $8-day. And, I'm not about to ask husband to move to Rockville or sell Arlington inside the beltway house.

We all have our reasons for living far from our jobs -- to those of you who are smug about where you live and work -- please walk a mile -or drive down 66 a mile during rushhour- in some of our shoes.



Alan Sipress: You are exactly right. There are no simple solutions to our commuting quandary. There may indeed be no satisfactory solution.


Washingtonpost.com: It seems like there's a real split between the live-where-you-work faction and the hell-no-I-want-a-yard faction. Is it a class issue? A social issue? Is it something you see a lot on your beat?

Alan Sipress: There's certainly a class element here. If you have the dollars, you can often afford to live near where you work AND have the big yard.


Arlington, Va.: You wrote: "Now we're beginning to realize the virtues of mixed-used development." But wouldn't it be more accurate to say we're -remembering- these virtues? Historically, shops, businesses and homes have been jumbled together--look at any Old Town or old city. Segregation-by-zoning seems to be a very recent, peculiar development.



Alan Sipress: I agree completely. We do need to learn from the past and not forget the virtues of city living.


Arlington, VA: I'm been commuting to Annapolis for a year. I'm amazed by the traffic -I'm from Florida-. This entire regtion seems to be one big accident away from total gridlock. And it could be just one big rainstorm.

Shouldn't Maryland develop US 301 as an alternate route to the NE cities?

Alan Sipress: The state of Maryland is now planning a major study of the Route 301 corridor. As for your point about being one accident away from total gridlock, it's already happened. Remember the gundpowder truck that crashed in the Springfield interchange last summer. It paralyzed the region from morning to night.


Alexandria VA: Why doesn't anyone ever mention biking or walking as an alternative to waiting in traffic. If you don't like being stuck in traffic, stop complaining and buy a bike. Even someone who is out of shape can cover about 12 miles in an hour on a bike.

Alan Sipress: Those are words of good advice. It's not an option for everyone. But for those who can walk or bike, I agree it's worth giving it a spin.


Washingtonpost.com: Alan, so many of the traffic solutions proposed by local governments will be years, if not decades, in the making. Roads and rail lines take so long to fund and build. Is there any way to relieve traffic congestion in the short term?

Alan Sipress: Not really. Traffic congestion is spreading at such an epidemic rate that it's hard even to envision a way of keeping it at today's maddening levels.


Montgomery County, MD: #1 - Build the ICC! Trees are nice, but sitting on the beltway or 270 is not.

#2 - Why won't Maryland officials enforce the law that mandates headlights must be turned ON during inclement weather -even during the day-? Obviously, some drivers don't even have the common sense, let alone courtesy to do so.

#3 - Build another bridge across the Potomac north of the Cabin John bridge.

Alan Sipress: How do your neighbors in Montgomery County feel about points 1 and 3?


Woodbridge, VA: I agree the Metro is a great alternative, but I live where there is no Metro so I almost have to drive all the way in. They do have the Omni Ride buses but that is still inconvienant at times and you are still at the mercy of the traffic gridlock. Why don't people use common sense and quit being such idiots? For example, when you see the car in front of you at a light and it has not cleared the intersection don't try to rush through when the light turns yellow, trust me you will get another light. And I am sure that if we all treat other like we want to be treated, i.e. merging into lanes and such let one person in and so on and so forth. I think we just have so many idiots that drive and have to get home NOW not realizing that they and people like them are causing most of this rigamorole.

Alan Sipress: I'm not sure this would shorten our commutes much but a little more civility might make the trip less infuriating.


Centreville, VA: Why is there no easy way to travel between Northern Virginia suburbs and Montgomery County? It seems when it came to roads the two states don't work together at all. I live in Centreville and my wife is pregnant and we're going to a Birthing Center in Bethesda. The only way for us to get there is to come in 66 to the beltway travel up to Maryland and then out 270. I'm scared to death my next child will be born in a 495 traffic jam.

Alan Sipress: That's a frightening prospect.


Baltimore,MD: I can understand both sides of this discussion -wanting the house and yard in the 'burbs AND wanting a short painless commute- . . . but it boils down to you can't have everything. . . people have to make choices, and I for one don't see WHY the taxpayers should fork over zillions of dollars in new infrastructure to allow people to have their cake and eat it too . . . you wanna live in the 'burbs but work in the city? then suck it up and commute . . . you want the freedom of having your OWN vehicle, NOT using public transport? then DRIVE, but stop whining about your commute . . . you don't like the long commute? take a different job -we're at 4% unemployment by the way . . . lots of opportunities out there- . . .no on is forcing people to do these horrendous commutes . . . we all have choices, and they made theirs by living in a place which is inconvenient for their chosen jobs . . . if you are under 10 miles in heavy traffic which is the result of the OTHER commuters . . .get off your butt and BIKE it or something . . . there is always a way!

-I walk to work, btw . . . a conscious choice to live in the city since I work here-

Alan Sipress: I've worked in other parts of the country, most recently covering transportation in the Philadelphia area. And never have I seen folks as passionate about traffic and transportation as they are here in Washington.


Arlington, VA: All I can say about the article is WAH! If some ignoramus chooses to drive from one Metro-accessible area to another -the Union worker who lives in Rockville and commutes to Dupont Circle - wouldn't even have to TRANSFER!- instead of a clean, safe commute on Metro, he has no RIGHT to complain. I take Metro into the city every morning, and out again every night. I complain when my door to door comute goes from 25 minutes to 40 minutes -almost DOUBLE- because of Metro, but to complain because you are too -good- or too -important- to take the metro or a bus? PLEASE. Do not write the story as if these people are hapless-helpless victims of the big bad traffic. They make the traffic - we have looked at the enemy, and he is us!

Alan Sipress: You may be too harsh but there's a good bit of truth to what you say. Our traffic nightmare is a blight of our own making.


Washingtonpost.com: 10 minutes left with Alan Sipress.


Bethesda: I get along fine with out a car. I live and work near a Metro stop and don't need a car.
I feel I am part of the solution and as long as I live here, I won't own a car. Too many headaches.

Alan Sipress: You are indeed part of the solution. And you are also very lucky to have this option. Not everyone does. Imagine a working mother who has to race from work, run to daycare, run to the supermarket, run to the drycleaner, run to the drugstore and do it all without a car, arms brimming with packages and little ones in tow. Transit doesn't work for everyone.


Bethesda, MD: I grew up in Bethesda, left in 78, returned in 98. Both my husband and I live and work in Bethesda and have a 5-10 min. commute. My question is - is it so impossible to live close to work? Aren't there good jobs in the suburbs so everyone doesn't have to commute to downtown DC?

Alan Sipress: It's a worthy goal to live near work. But again, it's not always easy to do so See my answer above about two-worker households.


Annapolis, MD: Why is it there is no true north-south corridor or east-west corridor through Washington D.C. that is not controlled by traffic lights. With no true corridors the commercial traffic has to use the beltway and the mixing bowl to get through. I think instead of spending millions on trying to fix the mixing bowl they should have came up with a solution to the problem not a bandaid to situation. Most other major cities in the US have a route that goes through the city and comes out on the other side but not DC.

Alan Sipress: Planners orginally wanted to build I-95 right through the heart of Washington. But community activists, fearing it would decimate neighborhoods, blocked the plan and now we have the Beltway. Congestion is bad but DC was spared the damage that other cities experienced when major routes were run through them.


WDC: So long as MD and VA residents who work in DC don't pay commuter tax to help us out with our roads and bridges and traffic enforcement costs, I say SUFFER the traffic congestion!

Alan Sipress: I hear that frequently from Washington residents.


Washingtonpost.com: Alan, thanks so much for joining us this morning. Your article sure was stimulating! And readers, don't forget to continue this discussion on our Traffic's Toll Message Board. (I'll post some of the comments and questions that we didn't have time to get to in there.)

Alan Sipress: Thanks very much for having me. I look forward to doing it again.


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