The Washington Post

In D.C. suburbs, commuters need their cars, but perhaps not every day

In 2008, early-morning crowds board a Loudoun County Transit bus at the Dulles North Transit Center on Moran Road. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

After I suggested that suburbanites deserve the same variety of commuting options available to people in the Washington region’s center, I heard from some of those suburbanites.

Their comments highlighted the complexities of local travel. Suburban governments can’t plan on setting up one commuting system that everyone will use in the same way. We have differing desires regarding how we want to get around, and differing needs.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Here are some personal experiences they shared with me.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I should be riding the Loudoun County commuter buses every day from Leesburg to L’Enfant Plaza, but I have a difficult time committing because of allergies to perfume and cologne. It invariably happens that someone with too much on, especially in the morning when freshly applied, sits next to me. Also, I can usually get to work faster in the morning by driving.

This is because the bus goes uptown through K Street after crossing the river before trundling down 14th Street to Independence Avenue. It isn’t cheap — $14 a day ($7 each way), compared with $8 to park all day at the waterfront garages. I know: Gas and wear and tear make up the difference and more. But I like driving.

My normal route is Route 7 to Georgetown Pike to Interstate 495 to Clara Barton Parkway/Canal Road to Whitehurst Freeway to the spur over to Independence. I have gotten to work in 40 minutes.

The return is Independence to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, George Washington Parkway to Route 123 South to Georgetown Pike to Route 7. I have to get off the parkway at Route 123 because the Marylanders take up both lanes at the end before merging to I-495 North, and the delay is ridiculous. It is usually backed up to the CIA.

This month, the two $8 Southwest Waterfront garages (Phillips Seafood’s was one; the other, under the tennis stadium) closed because of redevelopment , so now I have a problem.

No more lower-cost parking options. Guess I’ll hold my nose and ride the bus. The other option is carpooling, but I have not found one yet.

Dale Freeman,

Loudoun County

DG: This is far from the first time a traveler has cited allergy problems as an issue in using transit, and I’ve heard it mentioned in carpooling discussions as well.

The Washington region has some great programs that promote carpooling. Check out Commuter Connections, at, to find a ride to share.

Despite such helpful efforts, the portion of commuters who share rides has remained small. In the latest edition of its “State of the Commute” survey, in 2013, Commuter Connections found that 6.7 percent of weekly commuter trips in the region are by carpool or vanpool.

In the surveys done every three years since 2001, the percentage has hovered in that single-digit range. Meanwhile, driving alone has remained the most popular form of commuting, by a lot. In the 2013 survey, driving alone captured 65.8 percent of commuters.

Slightly fewer than one in five people commute by transit. About one in 50 commuters is biking or walking.

Keep in mind that these are regionwide results. The survey is supportive of my argument that suburbanites deserve more options for getting around, because it shows that transit use, biking and walking are more prevalent among commuters in the region’s core communities.

Why? Because these options exist. These commuters have more bus routes, bike lanes and sidewalks and easier access to train stations than suburbanites do.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I agree with your statement that the suburban Metro stations are too car-focused. I drive to Franconia-Springfield, largely because I drop off my older son at school in the morning and then take my other son in to day care in the District.

I have taken the bus when I don’t have kids with me, but it doesn’t run that often, takes an indirect route and, on the way home, it’s hard to time the arrival of the train to the departure of the bus.

We need parking at some Metro stops, including Franconia-Springfield, but the station is a wasted opportunity, in my view. Completed in 1997 — not exactly ancient history — the station feels like an airport and is completely cut off from the surrounding area by both the garage and the elevated Franconia-Springfield Parkway.

Despite these barriers, every morning I see lots of people who live near the mall crossing busy highways and walking under dreary overpasses to get to the train, thus proving that there’s an appetite for just these kinds of solutions.

It’s a real shame that with the upcoming rejuvenation of the Springfield Mall, the Metro station is so hidden and inaccessible to pedestrians and businesses.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure what can be done to make that better without a major, expensive overhaul of the garage and highway, because both so completely and effectively isolate the station from everything else. (Even better, Metro could extend the line to Lorton, though I don’t expect to see that in my lifetime.)

Max Lapertosa, Lorton

DG: Easing car congestion around Metro stations and making the suburbs more complete communities isn’t a matter of having everyone do the same thing, as in, “We gave you this bus, so you’d better use it.”

Some people have allergies to worry about, others have children to take care of. Some people just prefer to drive. They might prefer to drive one day and take a bus the next.

Progress won’t come from convincing people of what they should do. Progress comes from opening up the possibilities for what they can do.

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