Recently, I discovered a dirty little secret about Washington that makes us all unindicted co-conspirators: we all lie about how long it takes us to get to work. Its not that we don't like our city, or like where we live, its just that no one wants to admit how far he has to commute every day. In New York, the stories of two-hour commutes from the suburbs are legendary. In Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago hour-plus commutes are routine. But Washingtonians do not picture their city as a sprawling metropolis. Everyone, inside or "just outside" the Beltway, seems to live close-in. Or at least that's what we like to think.

This quiet conspiracy was played out in front of me at lunch recently. While I was sitting with a friend waiting for the other half of our foursome to arrive, my companion in drink was complaining about the heavy traffic that morning coming down North Capitol Street. I knew that he lived in Silver Spring, and it seemed that every Friday he complained how traffic was getting worse. Finally I asked, "How long does it take you to get to work?" As if reading from a script, he answered, "About half an hour."

"A half hour?" I thought. It takes me almost a half hour, and I live just a few miles into Virginia. How could it possibly take him a half hour?

Before I had a chance to ask him, another friend sat down, and he was welcome company since he rides Metro and never talks about commuting by car. But today was different. "Today," he said, "I drove into work because I'm leaving to spend the weekend out of town. You would not believe the traffic coming down from Dupont Circle. And then, it took me 15 minutes to find a parking space. How do you guys do it every day? It drove me nuts."

Seeing if I could impress upon my first friend that his half-hour drive was ridiculous, I said to the novice commuter, "So, how long did it take you to get to work?" He said, "I left at 8:15, and I'm normally at work by 8:30, but today it must have taken me 30 minutes."

Thirty minutes. How could it take 30 minutes to commute from Takoma Park, 30 minutes from Dupont Circle and 30 minutes from Arlington? Something doesn't seem right here. Then came the final piece of evidence that Washington is a perfectly symmetrical circle or oval or whatever, with everyone 30 minutes from where they work. The last friend arrived for lunch. This guy lives so far beyond the Beltway that you have to pack a lunch to go visit him. His neighborhood includes cows, horses and dirt bikes.

Almost before he sat down, we attacked him. "Okay, you're the one who lives in another area code. You commute to downtown. How long does it take you to get to work?" He looked at each of us, somewhat defensive, and then looked at the menu and said, "About a half hour." He tried to add lamely, "But I leave early, and I hit the bridge at just the right time, and then I . . . "

I didn't listen to any of it. None of the explanations really mattered. I had discovered the real secret of living and commuting in Washington. Everyone lives about a half hour from work, regardless of where he lives and how he commutes. For a city that is as spread out as Washington, that's a pretty amazing feature.

During the rest of lunch, the other three tried to solve the problems of the world, or at least figure out what's wrong with the Orioles. But I was not paying attention. I kept trying to picture a map of Washington so that everyone could live just a half hour from work. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that that guy L'Enfant really was a brilliant planner. -- Gerard Waldron