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Back in the car again

Car still king l State of Commute chart l Dr. Gridlock chat

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
One of the reasons I moved to my new home was the convenient 10-minute walk to the Rockville Station on the Red Line. But I'm back in the car now, even though my '98 Acura has more than 200,000 miles on it.

The reason? Metro has become a slow-motion disaster. Crazy fare increases. Broken escalators. Broken elevators. Slow moving, erratically driven trains. Overcrowding. Poor security. And most disconcerting, the fatal accidents.

I was trying to do the right thing environmentally by taking Metro. But I have a job I have to get to, safely and in a timely manner. So in spite of the added expense, and the wear and tear and the extra mileage on my 12-year-old car, I'm hitting the road.

It's hard to believe, given how bad traffic congestion has become in this area, but driving to work is far safer and more reliable than the Russian roulette that taking Metro has become.

Metro's rocky ride

USER PHOTOS: Share pictures of your experiences on Metro trains and buses.

TIMELINE: Take a look back at mishaps and tragedies in the system since 2009.

One of the reasons I don't go to Nationals games anymore is because taking Metro is almost a requirement.

Meanwhile, the politicos and talking heads keep chattering away, and nothing gets done. So look for me on Rockville Pike from now on.

R.I.P., Metro. I wish I could say it was fun while it lasted.
-- Thomas Ressler, Rockville

I never tell travelers they need to "do the right thing" by taking a certain form of transportation. On Sunday, I wrote that Nicholas Ramfos, the director of the Commuter Connections service, takes a similar approach in trying to help ease the commute in the D.C. area.

He wants travelers to find the best option, figuring that if they and their bosses have enough information and opportunity, many will make commuting choices that help not only them but the traveling public in genera.

To Ramfos, the choice is not about transportation ideology. "It's about time and money," he said. Commuter Connections helps sponsor events like Car Free Day on Sept. 22 to demonstrate the potential savings in choosing alternatives to driving alone.

Still, that's the choice of most commuters in the D.C. area, though telecommuting and transit have been making some gains. Carpooling and vanpooling have been a stagnant share of the commute for the past decade, according to Commuter Connections' 2010 State of the Commute Study.

How do you make your choice? The State of the Commute Study shows the broad trends, but doesn't focus as much on people like Ressler who make a change, find it unsatisfactory, then go back to Plan A.

While I do believe time and money are behind most people's choices, Ressler cites other issues regarding transit use, including the very important ones of safety and reliability. This follows on a range of issues:
-- Was the Metro fare increase equitable?
-- How likely is a rider to encounter a dangerous scene, like the Friday night brawl between Gallery Place and L'Enfant Plaza?
-- Can't Metro fix its escalators and air conditioners?

All good questions. Still, I don't recall the last time I heard a commuter compliment the traffic on Rockville Pike.


By Robert Thomson  | August 9, 2010; 10:18 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Driving, Metro, Transit  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail  
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Comments

My transit subsidy covers my entire cost of riding Metro, but I chose to pay for parking and gas and all other car-related expenses and drive to work. It's more than worth it to travel in comfort and security. My stress level has significantly been reduced since I ditched Metrorail soon after the June 2009 accident. It's supposed to be the other way around, but it's not. Just telling me that Metro is cheaper won't get back on those overheated, packed, unreliable, unsafe trains, with their rude, clueless employees and the dirty, smelly stations. And taking Metro on the weekends for a visit to a museum or the theater? Forget it! If the never-ending maintenance delays don't add on a 30-40 minutes delay each way, it's kids screaming and fighting on the trains.

For me, the choice of driving v. Metro is a quality of life issue, and I choose to improve my quality of life by driving to work and fun. It certainly wasn't that way 20 years ago, but that's the reality now. So, just telling me that I'm spending money won't change my mind.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | August 9, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Metro definitely has problems to address in its safety, but it would have to get a whole lot more dangerous to be as dangerous as driving on our roads. How many fatalities on Metro, total in the entire 36 years it has been open? Less than 100, I think. How many on our roads in just the past year? I don't have the figure, but it is way more than 100.

Posted by: jcflack1 | August 9, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the poster above, its more of a quality of life issue now. I live a 1 minute walk of a metro station on the orange line, but I have been driving since May.

If I do take the metro, its either packed b/c they are only having 6 car trains, they have 8 and 9 minutes b/t trains during rush hour!!!, the stations & cars are +15 degrees hotter than the outside temp and thus you are soaked with sweat when you arrive at work, or there are delays that cripple the poorly designed system.

Currently have $300 on my smart trip as I cut off my deduction from my paycheck. Will perhaps give it a shot in a few months, but with the higher fare and horrible/unreliable service, not so sure I can stick with it on a regular basis.

Posted by: m1ke3i6 | August 9, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I'm inclined to agree that the quality of life issue is significant when it comes to deciding whether to take Metro or drive. (I think the federal subsidy is pretty significant, too.)

While transit use was us somewhat during the decade, according to the State of the Commute survey, what really surged was telecommuting. The study said about 600,000 workers in the DC region telecommute at least occasionally.

Many of us in this region are fortunate to be well-off enough to make allow lifestyle choices to be part of our commuting decisions.

On safety: I think that's a very important consideration for Metro riders. But if they really felt unsafe, they probably wouldn't get on the trains. And as jcflack1, driving is decidedly more dangerous that taking transit.

I believe that safety issues regarding Metro tend to reinforce other negative experiences commuters are having -- and having more commonly -- like encounters with busted air conditioners and escalators.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | August 9, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I, too, recently made the switch that Mr. Ressler made. After 7 years of bussing to/from Pentagon, getting on the yellow line, and spending more than an hour of time each way to get to work (I live 9 miles away), I finally got a parking space in my office building and I never looked back.

Sure I pay more to drive, but as one poster said, it's a quality of life issue. I'd rather sit in my air conditioned car - just me, not crowded into some stranger's armpit - and listen to a book on tape while crawling the 9 miles each day. Even in really bad traffic, it takes me max 45 minutes.

Metro has become so utterly incompetent at everything they do that it frustrated me to pay them. I know I'm only one rush hour (or peak of peak of peak from 5:15-5:30 or whatever the ridiculousness is) paying fare, but I just can't justify paying it anymore. If I didn't do my job satisfactorily, I would be fired. I have done the same to metro.

Posted by: Ellvee | August 9, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Metro has become completely unreliable. Though I initially supported the Silver line, I am having serious doubts about Metro's ability to manage this new line when they are daily showcasing their total incompetence in handling the existing system. I live in Loudoun County and I use the Loudoun County bus to commute to DC. This is far more reliable than Metro. I wish now that we had committed our resources to building a rapid bus line and added buses.

Posted by: ssaa98 | August 9, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

When I started working in my current office, the Metro commute (from VA to Silver Spring) was 35 - 45 minutes, 45 - 55 including my walk. I was happy with that. Less than an hour.

It's now 65 - 90 minutes on average, including my walk. It's also $4.25 each way (or will be by the end of this month), for a total of $8.50 daily.

My husband now works three blocks from me. His office provides free parking. Gas runs $20 - $30 per week. So it's either $25 per week and under 2 hours per day for both of us to carpool, or it's $85 per week and nearly 3 hours per day for both of us to take the Metro.

I'm opposed to cars and pro-public-transit, as a general rule (I didn't have a car for the 8 years before I moved to the DC area, thanks to living in Boston and NYC), but for the difference of over $200 per month and over 5 hours per week, the Metro just isn't tenable or reliable as a way to commute to and from work regularly anymore. I was leaving at 7:30 and getting to work at 9:15 at the end... now we leave in the car at 8:35 and I get to work at 9:20.

Posted by: EtoilePB | August 9, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Travel in the safety, comfort, and provacy of my own car on MY schedule vs. riding packed like cattle in a hot, dirty, crowded train that I have to wait (and wait) for in a dark, smelly station - and pay good money for the privilege - not to mention the "smart card" nonsense to pay for parking (if I don't ride a crowded, jerky bus).

It's a no-brainer.

Posted by: ceefer66 | August 9, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I rode metro today for the first time in a long time. My ride from WFC to McPherson Sq was $3.60, which I guess doesn't include the peak-of-the-peak business.

So that's $7.20 for metro, plus another $4.50 for parking, and you've got $11.70 if I take Metro.

I normally drive, and my parking costs $10. You have to add in gas and a bit of wear and tear mileage, but it looks like a wash to me, financially.

That doesn't factor in the quality of life issue, though. I'd much rather sit in my comfy, air-conditioned car than have to cram into a stuffy Orange Line car with a few hundred of my "closest friends". The A/C was working in my car this morning, but it was still pretty stuffy inside due to the Orange Crush effect.

I won't be taking Metro tomorrow!

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | August 9, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

When I worked downtown, I originally rode the Metro most days (Vienna to McPherson) because I didn't have parking at my office and my firm did not offer either a parking or transit subsidy. I then changed firms and the new firm offered both, but under the then-current IRS regulations the parking subsidy was substantially more than the transit subsidy. (I also moved, so my Metro commute would have been Franconia-Springfield or Huntington to Metro Center or Gallery Place.) I took the parking subsidy as soon as I got off the waiting list for space in the office garage. Even though gas and car insurance were probably more expensive, and even though the 14th Street Bridge was very bad for my blood pressure, driving turned out to be better than the Metro because I had control. On the Metro, if you get stuck, you're good and stuck, especially the time the train was stopped for an hour under the Potomac between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn. In the car, you may get stuck in a backup for a while, but you can always turn off and go a different way. Yeah, I lost that 40 minutes of reading time on the subway, but I was usually home sooner driving and I could just read the same book at home.

The big thing I found is that, except when there's a major problem like an overturned truck, driving tended to be more predictable. I never knew from day to day when or where the Metro might develop a problem. When I drove I usually had a pretty good sense that if I left by 7:30 I'd hit a backup at one particular spot, but if I left by 7:45 the backup would start two miles earlier and add 20 minutes to the trip. Predictability is an important consideration. I think the unpredictability of the trains these days almost certainly isn't helping local governments' efforts to get people to take the bus to and from the subway (you simply have to be too precise in terms of knowing when you'll reach the stop where you change to the bus).

The big difference between the DC Metro and the New York Subway, in the scenario EtoilePB notes, is that the DC Metro is primarily a way to commute or to reach certain other high-profile destinations (Nationals Park, RFK, Reagan Airport) while the New York Subway is a way to get around the city. But then, New York started construction of the original IRT line around 1900 and it opened on October 27, 1904. Since then, the subway has grown up with the city (though Queens is badly underserved). In the DC area, the Metrorail system is an attempt to graft mass transit onto an existing metropolitan area of lower density. It can never be cost-effective to have a subway system here that would serve the role that New York's does in that city.

Posted by: 1995hoo | August 9, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Travel in the safety, comfort, and provacy of my own car on MY schedule vs. riding packed like cattle in a hot, dirty, crowded train that I have to wait (and wait) for in a dark, smelly station - and pay good money for the privilege - not to mention the "smart card" nonsense to pay for parking (if I don't ride a crowded, jerky bus).

It's a no-brainer.

Posted by: ceefer66 | August 9, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I have a *lot* of complaints about Metro, but it frustrates me whenever someone says that driving is safer. Dr. G, do you have a statistic on safety of Metro versus driving?

Posted by: DOEJN | August 9, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Safety statistics should also include your odds of getting contagious diseases from the 400 other people crammed in a subterranian septic tank with you.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 9, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

In your chat today re the trains slowing down outbound between East and West Falls Church you said:

"There wouldn't be any track work there during the evening rush. And there haven't been any slowdowns for track circuit monitoring out that way in a while.

I think most likely it's the trains getting bunched up in the outbound direction, just as they do inbound in the morning.

Also some afternoon trains stop at West Falls Church and head back downtown, to ease congestion on the downtown platforms. Turning a train back is likely to slowdown the trains behind it, in the neighborhood of East Falls Church.

The operator should be telling the riders why the train is stopping."

No and no. The trains slow down and/or stop dead at the exact same place every day. There is no bunching of trains this far out on the line, and when I get off the trains at WFC they continue on to Vienna (i.e. they don't offload the trains at WFC as they would have to do if they were going to send the train back). Clearly there is a bad patch of track at this spot that needs to be fixed. This has been happening every day for at least six weeks now. It would be nice if Metro would at least acknowledge the problem, nicer if they would actually do something about it.

Posted by: FeelWood | August 9, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

@ DOEJN

"I have a *lot* of complaints about Metro, but it frustrates me whenever someone says that driving is safer. Dr. G, do you have a statistic on safety of Metro versus driving?"

I've never been punched, shoved, spit on, verbally harrased, or threatened in my own car.


Posted by: ceefer66 | August 9, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

FeelWood, I totally know exactly what you are talking about.

I used to take a bus from WFC and I cant tell you how many F'n times I would miss the bus b/c the train would just stop and not move for NO REASON.

Posted by: m1ke3i6 | August 9, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

This letter and the ensuing comments are a perfect example of how artificially cheap we've made driving in this country.

Do not, for one second, think that the total cost of driving is the $X you pay in gas, insurance, and depreciation. Society is bearing the majority of the costs you pass on, in the form of extensive, hard-to-maintain sprawling infrastructure with costs that will spiral over time; pollution and emissions (and oil spills) that are permanently altering the face of the world you live in (hard to work downtown when it is under water); and expensive military and diplomatic pursuits to secure and maintain cheap oil in a manner that frequently conflicts with the very constitutional and human rights ideals we are supposed to uphold.

But, yes, obviously none of that should factor in your daily decision making. As an individual actor, you can only say to yourself "these problems are far away, and there is nothing I can do." And you are right. You live in a society that has totally walled itself off from the costs associated with a generation of terrible planning.

So, as you drive your car to work, it might be worth asking yourself why we are the only western country where mass transit is not only exponentially more expensive than driving, it is also far less frequent and reliable. Ask yourself why the vast majority of communities in America are designed to be taken in from a driver's seat. Ask yourself if barreling down a road in a box of steel at high speeds for hours every day is really how people were supposed to live. What happens when gas prices spike and your nearest neighbor (or grocery store) is a gallon of gas away?

My point is, these day to day gripes are understandable, but I wish that I was hearing more of you say we need to fundamentally rethink how we pay for what we do. The biggest idiocy is that the densest, most transit accessible and human friendly places in America are reserved only for the rich and childless.

Last one out, turn out the lights.

Posted by: supersmax | August 9, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I used to take the Metro everyday. My job pays for me to take the Metro but I find myself driving more often. I live very close to the Wheaton station but the red line has been unreliable at best.

I have found that driving (although not the cheapest option) is better for my mental health. I arrive to work in a peaceful state of mind. Going on the metro is like Russian roulette, will I ever get to my destination on time in an aircondititioned train? You never know.

Traffic on the streets can be bad but I have found that I get to work 10 -20 minutes faster if I choose to drive.

Posted by: honeylamb | August 9, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I'm going to be a rare person to chime in to say that I prefer Metro. Granted, I've experienced my share of problems this summer and have missed several evening appointments because of bad delays caused by downed power lines, kinks in the rail, etc. But I live in Olney and driving down Georgia Avenue or New Hampshire to get into the district is just prohibitively difficult and time consuming. I either drive or take the Ride-On commuter bus to Glenmont and only experience problems sporadically. The chances of being injured on the Metro are less than driving, and I'd much rather deal with idiots on the train than idiots behind the wheel (who have the means to kill you more readily than a random crazy person on the train). But that's not to defend Metro for its mismanagement, and I only see it getting worse. I think the best solution for me would be to get a job closer to home (moving's not an option given my husband's job and other issues) or telecommute more often!

Posted by: sophiamaria | August 9, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

"

@ DOEJN

"I have a *lot* of complaints about Metro, but it frustrates me whenever someone says that driving is safer. Dr. G, do you have a statistic on safety of Metro versus driving?"

I've never been punched, shoved, spit on, verbally harrased, or threatened in my own car.


Posted by: ceefer66"

You make a good point. Safety means safety from harm of many degrees of severity. I would like to see objective statistics on the safety of driving and transit, accounting for all those factors. Still, at the end of the day, most of us would rather be spit on than be killed in a crash.

My frustration lies in the fact that a few Metro accidents (which, of course, are a few too many) lead people to say that driving is safer, when there are many more car accidents.

Posted by: DOEJN | August 10, 2010 12:30 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it the goal of area traffic planners to ensure that traffic moves so slowly that accidents are impossible?

Posted by: jiji1 | August 10, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

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