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One Day's Commute Has Many Stories: Crashes, Impatience, Guilt and Even Gunfire
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2000; Page A1
A quarter-mile below the Cessna Skyhawk, rivers of headlights flickered against the dusky landscape. "This is a view of Washington few people can see, particularly when dawn is breaking and the marble on the Capitol lights up pink like that," said traffic reporter J.J. Gertler. "Down there, they're seeing the beauty of the taillights in front of them."
Soon, commuters would indeed be seeing nothing but red lights. A distraught driver on Interstate 66 had apparently shot himself in the head, sending his Chevy pickup careering across four lanes of rush-hour traffic and into a concrete median. Police closed the eastbound highway to search for shell casings. Traffic stacked up for 13 miles. The cause was grotesque, but so many days have paralyzing jams, Gertler said over the roar of his Cessna.
Elsewhere, Dave Mott bobbed, speeded and tailgated from Rockville to downtown, vying in vain to win the competition that quickens his pulse even as traffic slows. Grayling Reaves sat motionless in a bus, the promise of mass transit thwarted by a clogged Pennsylvania Avenue. He can move faster on foot. Some days, he gets out and walks.
In Woodbridge, Shawn Simmons set out on the easy leg of her daythe dash to drop off 7-year-old Jordan at child care and then race downtown. She would fret until evening about the return scramble to reach Jordan before late fees kick in, or she has to grab the cell phone to find someone else to retrieve her. And Beverly Barth left her bungalow on the Chesapeake Bay for a sometimes three-hour trek to Washington, part of a life in traffic that dispels her fantasies about hobbies, night school or exercise.
From each of these commuters, the region's worsening traffic exacted a price on yet another maddening day in the Washington region.
This is the tale of one day's journey into night as chronicled by Washington Post reporters and photographers who rode 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.
Now one of the most pervasive local problems, traffic is reshaping how the region lives and works, dominating the political debate and forcing people to weave their daily schedules around it as they ask: How tough will it be to get there?
"We have seen an explosion of delays in the last year and a half to two. Tens of thousands of people are victims," said Bob Marbourg, of WTOP radio, dean of Washington's traffic reporters. "It is taking more of your life in daily increments, [like] the time you have to get on the road in the morning to get a head start on rush hour. . . . It is leaving you less time at home with your family or to pursue recreational or educational pursuits."
Yesterday was a wintry weekday with its own challenges: still snowy side streets, a threat of afternoon flurries and, of course, the bloodshed on I-66 that left a 29-year-old man in critical condition and backed up cars from the Fairfax County Parkway to Gainesville.
The shooting, though hardly routine, demonstrated yet again that traffic has become so unpredictable that the unexpected can now be counted on. The region's badly overburdened road network is so close to breaking down on any given day that light rain, a big pothole, an overturned chicken truck or even sun glare can disrupt travel for thousands.
"A situation like this on 66, while a tragedy, exemplifies what is the typical day in that there is no such thing as a typical day for a Washington region commuter," said Virginia State Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell.
No longer the emblem of the freedom to go anywhere at any time, the car and the van and SUV have fostered a suburban lifestyle that distances homes from jobs and shopping, leading to longer trips and more of them.
Roads fill, robbing time and raising frustration, stealing spontaneity and diminishing civility. Businesses lose moneyexcept, of course, those providing cell phones, books on tape and traffic reports. Commuters cope in ways once thought unlikely just a few years ago.
In the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of the District, a computer analyst pedaled yesterday to his downtown job that offers little challenge but doesn't require him to combat the traffic in Northern Virginia. The shuttle buses run by a major Fairfax County firm at its own expense were rolling, part of an effort to help employees who said they could no longer endure driving. In Anne Arundel County, a woman telecommuted from home rather than brave the tie-ups along the 90-mile round trip to the office.
Yet even as traffic took this and other tolls, it was growing worse. New development was being planned yesterday.
New cars and homes were being bought yesterday. Soon, there will be even more congestion for Gertler to lament from a quarter-mile up, offering a kind of rebuke from the heavens every 10 minutes on the 8's.
The Competitive Driver on a Snarled Connecticut Ave.
On the road less than 10 minutes, Dave Mott had already broken the 40-mph speed limit, working his 1990 Chevy Cavalier through lanes of traffic like a running back racing for daylight.
Now he was stopped on Connecticut Avenue. The light ahead was green. But the taillights were burning bright red.
"What's going on?" he asked, blocked in his effort to be among the first to arrive at his downtown Washington job. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, boys and girls. Let's go!"
For Mott, 49, a labor organizer with a penchant for fedoras who is known to pound his dashboard out of frustration, commuting from the Aspen Hill section of Rockville is a 14.8-mile road race. At every turn, poky motorists seem to conspire against him. Congestion brings out his always present need to be first just as it does with many other drivers but it is a contest he knows he can never win.
"Here we go," Mott said with a deep sigh as he headed into Kensington.
It was another backup. He spotted open asphalt down the left lane. He scanned his mirrors. Sized up his options. And gunned the gas.
"Weeeeeeeeeeeee," whined the four-cylinder engine with 135,769 miles.
Mott was in the clear for about 10 seconds. But there was more trouble. He spotted a brief break in the center lane, but a Ford Econoline van sped up, blocking his path to another momentary stretch of freedom.
"Can't do it," Mott muttered, conceding the skill of the Econoline driver.
Before his heart attack, before his motorcycle crash, before the arrival of his two kids, Mott wouldn't have been so charitable. He might have had a colorful gesture for the Econoline driver, or simply pulled in front of him.
While his aggression has softened with age, he also refuses to suffer the fools of the highway. Like a skilled wheelman speeding from the scene of a crime, he drives around them, pulls in front of them and doesn't look back.
They are objects to be overcome, obstacles in his way.
Many drivers lament that rising congestion has whittled away at civility, inducing a "me first" mentality. While Mott is sympathetic to such concerns, he also understands that it's every man for himself in Washington, D.C.
"I wish I had a snowplow," he said as he hit another backup near the National Zoo. "I could just push everyone out of the way."
With four lanes open, a succession of green lights ahead, and traffic at a standstill, Mott was losing patience.
He didn't know it then, but his commute was even being confounded by President Clinton. Clinton was attending a prayer breakfast at the Washington Hilton, and drivers were slowing for a peek at the motorcade, snarling traffic all the way back to Chevy Chase.
"This is driving me nuts," Mott said.
One hour and 25 minutes after leaving his home, Mott pulled into a downtown Washington parking lot. He was a half-hour behind schedule, and probably wouldn't be among the first at work.
"That was terrible," he said, stepping from his Chevy. "Not good at all."
For Working Single Mother, Traffic Woes Add Up Fast
Shawn Simmons left the engine running. There was no time to park.
She had pulled her green minivan in front of the Young World day-care center in Woodbridge, where she goes every morningand where, on this day, she led her ponytailed daughter past a front window decorated with paper hearts and inside the front door, to the center's sign-in book.
"7:45," she told 7-year-old Jordan to write.
Early. That left Simmons feeling good.
A single mother, she starts every day with a mixture of mad rush and commuting precision. There is little slack in her life, no husband to fill in if she gets stuck. Every bit of this difficult math three children, three public schools, a job 25 miles from her home, a heap of traffic woes falls on her. It has, by now, made her a most savvy road warrior. Her chief traffic-fighting tactic is to drive to the commuter lot at Potomac Mills Mall to pick up two strangers who are also making a morning commute "slugs," as they are known in local parlance.
The company of these strangers means Simmons, 41, can use HOV lanes on Interstate 95, which shaves 30 to 45 minutes off her morning haul, and which means she can usually get to her job at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield near L'Enfant Plaza on time, by 9 a.m. Yesterday, she did well by this method 56 minutes from home to office and her co-workers teased her about her timely arrival, 15 minutes before the phone lines opened and people in her department started managing inquiries from doctors' offices.
In a sense, this group of joking workers illustrates one reason traffic has swelled in recent years: They are nearly all women. At the turn of the century, the typical woman works outside the home. And contributes to traffic. Simmons took her seat in a cubicle where children's photographsof Jordan and her brothers, Cameron, 12, and Ryan, 14beckon from the bulletin board. For a moment, she thought ahead to the day's end and wondered what time she would see Jordan again. The question always looms: Will she be there on time?