Washington area residents spend far longer getting to work and find themselves in daily traffic jams three times as often as commuters elsewhere, according to new local and national polls by The Washington Post.
In spite of increasingly long and frustrating commutes, the survey found that Washingtonians remain addicted to their cars. Three in four area commuters drive to work alone. Carpooling is no more prevalent here than it is elsewhere in the country. Metro is widely admired but largely bypassed, a boutique transportation system that serves a hard-core constituency but is viewed by most commuters as inconvenient.
Overwhelming majorities of residents in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs and 4 in 10 District residents agree that congestion along their commutes has become progressively worse in the past five years, and most people in each jurisdiction predict that it will only get worse.
Solid majorities of area residents polled support a variety of big-ticket items to help ease traffic congestion, from extending Metro to Dulles International Airport to building an intercounty connector in the Maryland suburbs. Half would even be willing to pay higher gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects, compared with a third nationally.
Residents of fast-growing Northern Virginia are particularly sour about traffic in their area: More than half -- 53 percent -- say it has gotten "much worse" in the past five years, compared with 46 percent in Maryland and 24 percent in the District.
Virginia residents are also more likely to get snarled in traffic jams on their way to work, with fully one-third saying major ones are a daily occurrence, compared with 1 in 4 Maryland and District motorists.
Throughout the region, driving is increasingly dangerous, as speeders and trigger-tempered commuters make the daily drive a motorized run through the gantlet.
Nearly 9 in 10 said they often see other drivers traveling well over the speed limit, and 7 in 10 said they frequently encounter other motorists behaving too aggressively. Nearly half said they often see others running red lights or stop signs. Almost 4 in 10 said they "often" witness other drivers making angry or impolite gestures at other motorists.
The subway rates high with residents in terms of comfort, reliability and value, although frequent riders are somewhat less enthusiastic. Despite Metro's charms, only 1 in 10 commuters said they usually take the subway to work.
Metro remains a fallback option, at best, for most commuters, who complain that it is inconvenient to their home or workplace. Nearly half of all non-riders acknowledge that they prefer to drive to work, one of the biggest reasons only 1 in 4 area commuters rides any form of public transportation or carpools to work.
I am a strong advocate of public transit. I have to drive to my job in the McLean area because Metro hasn't arrived there, although it will be coming by 2011.
I think a lot of the problem--at least here in the DC area--is that the Metro's design does not meet current commuter needs. When the orignally engineers first designed the system they didn't envision that most users would be commuting from suburb to suburb.
The lines go from the suburbs to the city. Only the red line goes really deep into the city's suburbs, stretching all the way to Gaithersburg in Montgomery County. The Orange Line goes as far as Vienna. The Blue and Yellow lines go as far as the Springfield area. The Green Line goes as far as Branch Avenue, right at the Beltway and Greenbelt.
What is crucially missing from the DC subway system are lines that connect suburbs to suburbs. For example, someone traveling from Bethesda to Vienna has to travel via Metro Center. Instead of having a suburb to suburb line those commuters have to go into DC and then feed out. That is very inconvienent.
A large debate is going on whether to extend the Metro to Dulles. Here is the web site for the Dulles Extension (www.dullestransit.com). The orgnaization opposed to it is called www.dullesfreeway.org
Personally I think for Metro to be used more it has go to out to the far suburbs and link people who commute to jobs outside of DC--i.e, people who commute from Bethesda to Tysons or Centerville to McLean. It has to be made convenient.
The problem that I have with anti-rail forces is that they advocate "Quality Bus" or "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT). But people won't ride busses. Most proposals for BRT I see have limited stops and they travel the same congested roads as cars. Or in the better cases they have their own lanes on highways, but they really don't see to attract many riders.
I guess that the anti-rail forces believe in nothing but highways. But unfortunately, whenever you build highways, you add more cars. It's inevitable. Building highways leads to permanent congestion that continues on and on.
In Maryland the key debate is creating the ICC. The ICC is a highway that will connect with I-370 in Gaithersburg and come out to PG County. The road is necessary. It needs to be built.
Along with the highway there was a proposal to create a Purple Line to connect Montgomery County's suburbs to PG County's suburbs. Unfortunately, with the election of Ehrlich, and the appointment of his transportation secretary Robert Flanagan (R), the idea of rail stopped to a standstill. Flanagan is very pro-highway and anti-public transit.
That doesn't surprise me because Ehrlich's strongest support was in the Baltimore/Washington exurbs, precincts in places like Carroll and Frederick counties. These counties are filled with people who endure long commutes to live away from the closer suburbs and the central city. They don't want people in those areas to have easier access to their communities.
Also I do know there is a stigma to using public transit. It is not necessarily that bad here, but I do know many people who equate using the subway and the bus (more bus than subway) as being "a loser". They see only the lower classes using it and they don't want to ride for it means that they are lower class.
What can we do to make public transit a more compelling option? Or are people permanently wedded to their cars? No matter what is done they see their cars as giving them convenience and flexibility.
I'm not saying rail will solve problems, but it will take cars off if it is more convienent. If the DC metro system were to offer better connections from suburb to suburb I am sure that more people would ride. Or am I off base here?
Commuter rail does exist in DC. DC has VRE, which goes out to Manassass and Fredricksburg and MARC, which has lines that run out to Baltimore, Perryville, Frederick, and West Virginia. But my biggest criticism with MARC and VRE is that their trains run best during rush hour--they bring people from those exurbs to DC in the morning and return them at night. However, if you want to use MARC and VRE on the weekend, it really doesn't work well because there is no service!
Now I'm not saying VRE or MARC should run all the time, but it would be nice if they had maybe two or three trains per day in each direction on the weekend. Maybe one or two in the morning to go into DC, then one or two at night to take people back. That way at least those people would have more choices.
Anyway it just saddens me that the US still doesn't have a transportation strategy beyond highways, busses, and planes.