The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The car is still king in the Washington region, poll finds

Traffic along 14th Street NW on Thursday in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Most people in the Washington region drive their own cars to get around each day, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll, indicating that the region’s love affair with the automobile isn’t waning despite worsening traffic and growing efforts to promote mass transit and other modes of transportation.

And in yet one more indication of the region’s dependency on the car, the poll finds a growing share of residents also are using ride-booking services such as Uber and Lyft in far greater numbers than they did six years ago.

Regionwide, 85 percent of residents say they have driven their own cars to get places in the past year, including larger shares in the Northern Virginia (92 percent) and Maryland (85 percent) suburbs than in the District (64 percent).

A clear majority of area residents, 62 percent, use their own cars daily to get around, a big contrast with other transportation options such as commuter rail (1 percent) and Metrobus (5 percent). Only 7 percent of Washington-area residents say they ride Metro daily.

Most residents, 61 percent, say they used Uber, Lyft or a similar service in the past year. Six years ago, when the services were just becoming popular, 13 percent of residents said they had ever used a ride service, according to a 2013 Washington Post poll.

“We are a city in shape and form that is more like Los Angeles. We have really deep suburbs and a deep dependency on the automobile,” said Stephen S. Fuller, professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, which co-sponsored the poll with The Washington Post. “We grew up with the automobile, and it’s hard to learn new tricks when that’s all you know.”

Read the full poll results

In follow-up interviews, residents said driving gives them control, is more reliable and convenient than transit, and in many cases is the only option because public transportation isn’t easy to reach or it’s too infrequent and limited in its service hours.

“People drive because there aren’t many other options,” said Mike Berlin, 37, a Coast Guard petty officer first class, who commutes daily from Prince William County to Arlington.

Though driving is the most common way people get around, majorities have given other options a try in the past year. Nearly 3 in 4 residents say they walked to get from one place to another, and nearly 6 in 10 rode Metro in the past year. More District residents got around using those modes than those who live in the suburbs.

About a quarter of area residents rode a bike to get from one place to another in the past year, including similar shares across the District and the suburbs. But only a small minority, 2 percent, rode a bike daily.

The Post-Schar School poll asked a random sample of 1,507 Washington-area adults how often they used 10 modes of transportation to get from place to place in the past year.

The findings are in line with census figures on commuting habits, which indicate that the car continues to be king of the commute in the Washington region with no sign of being dethroned. A solid 73 percent majority of Washington-area workers commute by car, truck or van, according to the most recent data from the American Community Survey, which covers a five-year period from 2013 to 2017. That has hardly budged from the 74 percent who drove to work between 2005 and 2009. The most recent data also shows 64 percent drive alone, while the rest carpool.

Car dependency remains practically unchanged, experts say, in part because of the demands of the region’s economic growth.

“We keep pushing farther out, more and more people live farther away from the city center, and over the last decade, increasingly all of the jobs that have been added are moving out, too,” said Fuller, an economist.

This trend has accelerated in the past decade, Fuller said, when nearly all of the region’s job growth has been in the private sector while the region has lost thousands of federal jobs that tended to be concentrated in downtown Washington and the close-in suburbs such as Arlington, most accessible by transit. Those jobs also had the more predictable 9-to-5 schedules.

About 55 percent of all the job growth was in Northern Virginia over a four-year period from 2015 through 2018, driving up the workforce demands in areas such as Tysons and as far away as Loudoun County, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that the Fuller Institute reports and analyzes. More modest job growth was experienced in suburban Maryland (22 percent) and the District (23 percent) during that period, Fuller said.

“So we have been adding jobs, but increasingly they are disproportionately distributed around the region, and increasingly in Northern Virginia,” in places not reached by Metro, Fuller said. “It has required us to drive to scattered locations to work, get our health care and do our shopping.”

Poll: Washington-area residents widely oppose paying a toll to drive into downtown D.C.

Meanwhile, the region hasn’t kept up with the growing transportation needs, was slow to embrace mixed-use development around transit, and failed to make the needed investments to keep Metro strong, waiting instead until the system was in a downward spiral and losing riders.

Now, officials concerned about traffic congestion and its impact on the environment are pushing policies aimed at getting people out of their cars.

But residents and experts say the transit alternatives political leaders are promoting aren’t competitive with driving, are too limited in their reach, and are infrequent and unreliable.

Jasmine Mason, 29, an Army recruiter who commutes from Woodbridge to Alexandria, said driving saves her time and money and is more convenient and comfortable than taking public transportation.

Her closest Metro station is halfway to work in Springfield. Between parking fees and fares, it would be a more expensive trip, she said. She’s not confident Metro is a reliable option, especially now that six stations on the Yellow and Blue lines, including Franconia-Springfield, are closed as part of a summerlong reconstruction program.

“I don’t want to risk it,” Mason said. “I just get in the car and go.”

Another potential option, the Virginia Railway Express commuter train, isn’t feasible for Mason and workers with less predictable work schedules and who live outside the District core. VRE ferries commuters from Northern Virginia into downtown in the morning and back in the evening, with service ending about 7 p.m.

Mason said she could drive to one of three commuter parking lots near her, then catch a commuter bus or slug — a popular form of carpooling along the Interstate 95 corridor — but she would need to get up earlier, add a transfer to the local bus to get to her office, and possibly double her commute time.

She chooses to drive, avoiding waiting 30 minutes for a bus to show up or unexpected Metro disruptions.

“I don’t have to worry about the bus schedules, or about getting up two hours earlier in case something happens in the Metro,” she said. “If it’s raining, I don’t have to be out waiting or running to the Metro.”

Even people who want to give Metro and other options a try can’t seem to get it to work well enough for daily use.

The Post-Schar School poll finds that in addition to the roughly 6 in 10 who rode Metrorail in the previous year, 3 in 10 rode Metrobus and 17 percent rode on another local bus system. District residents are especially likely to use public transportation, with 77 percent riding Metrorail and 62 percent riding Metrobus at least once. Those with incomes less than $50,000 are also more likely to use Metrobus; 45 percent rode in the past year.

But with the vast majority of residents driving to work, far fewer rely on public transportation for their daily commutes, with 9 percent saying that Metrorail is their usual way of getting to work, followed by 4 percent who ride any bus system and 1 percent who use another form of public transportation. An additional 4 percent usually walk to work, while 1 percent ride a bike.

After years of chronic service disruptions that led to ridership declines, Metro appears to be making progress in improving reliability; the system is experiencing fewer breakdowns and winning back the public trust. A Silver Line expansion under construction will connect the region to more riders to and from Dulles International Airport and the rapidly growing corridor in eastern Loudoun.

Poll: Metro’s reputation is improving, but that doesn’t mean more are riding

Meanwhile, a plan to transform the region’s bus network is moving forward, with new strategies such as adding bus lanes and modern fleets to attract riders and reverse ridership declines driven by service that is considered slow, complex and unreliable.

Fuller said trying to get more people on public transportation is the right policy, but the survey results raise an important question that government officials need to be asking.

“How do we do it?” Fuller said, noting failed strategies of the past that did not address the realities of a growing workplace.

“We can’t just say, ‘Well, if we have more reliable service, people will ride it.’ That’s a good thing, but it may not speak to the reason people aren’t riding Metro or the buses,” he said. “We have to think more strategically about how we offer people the opportunity to get out of their car. . . . You can’t just mandate it.”

Ride-hailing services, chiefly Uber and Lyft, have become more popular, adding thousands of trips to the region’s roads and replacing mass transit, walking and other short trips, according to research. They are even integrated into the region’s transit system, filling in gaps in train and bus service.

Though 61 percent of residents have used ride-hailing services in the past year, a 45 percent plurality used them a few times a month or less. Only 2 percent said they used them daily, but a larger 15 percent said they used them at least “a few times a week.” Not surprisingly, ride-hailing is highest in the District, where 31 percent of residents use the services at least a few times a week, more than twice the share in the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs (13 percent and 12 percent, respectively).

D.C. residents are also more likely than suburbanites to have utilized a car-share service such as Zipcar or Car2Go or used an electric scooter.

More people walk in the densest areas of the region and where the infrastructure is better suited for pedestrians, such as in the District and some of the close-in suburbs, generally built with sidewalks and lower speed limits.

About 9 in 10 D.C. residents say they walked to get somewhere in the past year, compared with about 7 in 10 residents in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. And District residents were more likely to walk somewhere daily (61 percent) than those in the Maryland (35 percent) or Virginia (31 percent) suburbs.

Northern Virginia walkers spike among those who live in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church, 55 percent of whom say they walk daily. Public transit commuters are more likely to be daily walkers, 69 percent, than those who commute by car, 31 percent.

William Herron, 77, a longtime D.C. resident and former federal employee, said he drives, walks and takes transit. But he mostly bikes to get places within the city. Not only does biking provide exercise, he said, he is also able to time his trip.

“It is easier because I can time my trip pretty much to the minute. I can park anywhere, and I don’t get any tickets. If I am driving, it’s anybody’s guess when I will get there,” Herron said.

The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone April 25 to May 2, with an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Subsamples of D.C. residents along with suburban Maryland and Virginia residents have an error margin of plus or minus six percentage points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Poll: 61 percent of D.C.-area residents favor plan to add toll lanes to Beltway, I-270

1 million Maryland drivers with state-issued Real ID licenses still are not compliant

Virginia seals deal to extend toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news