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As workers return to the office, experts see early signs of more driving

Hybrid schedules, less traffic congestion and lingering concerns about mass transit appear to be leading many commuters to drive alone.

Rush hour traffic has grown worse as more commuters return to the office, and many appear to have turned to driving during the pandemic. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Washington-area workers starting to return to offices in greater numbers appear to be driving more often than before the pandemic, enjoying less traffic congestion and plentiful downtown parking while often avoiding mass transit, experts say.

It’s too soon to know how much commuters who previously took transit, rode a bicycle or walked will continue to drive, particularly as gas prices soar and roads get busier amid a move to more office work this spring. But experts say they suspect the increase stems from the meteoric rise in telework during the pandemic, when many commuters lost their daily trek or found new opportunities — and reasons — to drive.

A prolonged shift toward driving would undermine years-long efforts in the D.C. region to reduce traffic congestion and combat climate change by promoting mass transit, carpools and, ironically, telework. Even if a sustained jump in telework suppresses overall rush-hour traffic in the short term, experts say the damaging effects of increased driving would take a toll as the region continues to grow.

“I think we should be concerned about it,” said Christopher Conklin, transportation director for Montgomery County. “We don’t want people to fall into a drive-to-work pattern that’s then hard to break out of.”

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Local officials say they haven’t done a deep analysis, but various data points signal a change.

Some commercial property managers report office buildings near 35 percent to 50 percent of pre-pandemic occupancies, while their parking garages are at 55 to 70 percent. Metrobus has hovered around 70 percent of pre-pandemic ridership for months. But Metrorail, whose customers generally have more opportunities to telework and drive, has lagged at about 30 percent this month.

Meanwhile, motorists report significantly more rush-hour traffic in recent weeks, particularly after more offices reopened March 1. Morning traffic volumes on some arteries headed into downtown Washington grew, on average, by almost 9 percent between late February and early March, according to the District Department of Transportation.

Average morning speeds on northbound I-95 in Northern Virginia and part of the southbound Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland have slowed from about 55 mph late last year to 46 mph, according to INRIX, a Seattle-area traffic analytics firm.

Another potentially troubling sign: Regional transportation planners say they are hearing that some carpools and van pools — most common among auto-dependent commuters from farther-out suburbs — haven’t reformed as trips to the office have become less regular.

“Those are all indicators that people must be driving,” said Kanti Srikanth, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Srikanth said the parking garage in COG’s office building near Union Station also seems busier than the building itself. He suspects some motorists might be avoiding longer waits for Metro trains while more than half of the system’s rail cars remain out of service for a safety defect.

“For two years, people have been used to no commute time,” Srikanth said, “so now every five minutes feels like something.”

As workers return to the office, many are rethinking their commutes

Getting people out of their cars could prove challenging, even as transit officials tout safety protocols, such as disinfecting surfaces more frequently. The longer people drive, experts say, the more they solidify other commuting-related decisions, such as where to live or how to get to child-care and after-school activities. Some might be more willing to take on the stress and costs of driving if they only have to do it two to three days a week.

Meanwhile, employees with newfound flexibility to start or finish work days from home could avoid the worst of the morning and evening traffic, while others who moved out of city centers for more space during the pandemic might have fewer transit options.

Temple Hills, Md., resident Yvette Wheeler said she’s not ready to relinquish her personal space. Wheeler, an accounting manager for a union, said she’s relied on Metro for years. But she switched to driving earlier in the pandemic, when she commuted twice a week, backups were scarce and daily parking cost as little as $10 in a mostly deserted downtown Washington.

She has continued to drive since ramping back up to five days a week in the office, even as her monthly commuting costs have climbed from $280 for Metro parking and train fare to $660 in gas and parking fees. Her drive time also has stretched from about 25 minutes to an hour.

Wheeler said it’s worth it to avoid the anxiety she felt recently when she tried Metro again and encountered passengers ignoring a federal mask mandate. After finding herself “crammed onto an evening train while being directed to “squeeze in,” she said, she decided to stay off Metro until its sidelined rail cars are restored.

“I don’t know how long that’s going to take,” Wheeler said.

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Riverdale resident Erica Perry said she had considered switching from driving to riding Metro before the pandemic. Now she’s too worried about bringing the coronavirus home to her medically vulnerable husband. She said driving also seems like a more reliable way to get home to their daughter, even though her drive to downtown D.C. has gradually grown from a pandemic low of 20 minutes to 45.

“I don’t want to be around all those people” on transit, said Perry, a data analyst.

Bob Pishue, an INRIX transportation analyst, said highway speeds mostly have remained about the same or slightly above pre-pandemic speeds throughout the day in the D.C. area, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and New York City. Rush-hour traffic has been slower to return but has increased steadily in many major metropolitan areas since early February — after the omicron wave began to subside — although it has recently declined amid rising gas prices.

Even if commuting traffic remains suppressed overall from more people continuing to work from home, Pishue said crushing congestion eventually could return during the height of the morning and evening rush. That’s because motorists who had previously avoided the peaks might decide to travel then if those times are more convenient and become less congested. The rush period might get shorter overall, he said, but it could feel as intense as before the pandemic.

“You’ll likely see fewer cars on the road,” Pishue said, “but congestion at its peak could be just as high.”

Months of pandemic teleworking have left some missing their commutes

Sandra Brecher, Montgomery County’s chief of commuter services, said she hopes less frequent commutes might encourage more people to try bicycling, and she expects warmer temperatures will bring more scooter and bikeshare rentals — both convenient ways to reach transit stations. More employers also should provide transit subsidies as a benefit, particularly if they provide parking, she said.

“Maybe some people think they need 2,000 pounds of steel around them to be protected” from the pandemic, Brecher said, “but I think that will wane.”

Jack McDougle, CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said he expects companies to continue subsidizing transit fares, especially because many pay higher rents near Metro stations to provide less parking.

“There’s a vested interested in a lot of companies making sure their employees use public transit,” McDougle said.

As workers make fewer trips to the office, commuter rail systems struggle to fill empty seats

Regional transportation planners say they expect it will take another 10 months or so for longer-term commute patterns to shake out.

For example, they say, worsening traffic from more offices reopening could cause some fed-up motorists to realign their office days with a carpool. For others, transit might become more appealing once downtown parking costs start to add up.

“People might be able to tolerate driving today,” said Timothy Canan, COG’s planning data and research program director. “But by June, it might be a totally different story.”

Reporter Justin George contributed to this report.