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Posted at 2:10 PM ET, 01/31/2011

Where to live for good commute?

By Robert Thomson

Here's a question about transportation and real estate that came in during last week's online chat. I promised I would post it on the blog and ask for your comments.

Q. I'm moving to the D.C. area. Your chats put the fear of God, gods, and other supreme beings into me about either being stuck at the mercy of a Metro transit system that seems more off than on or roadways that would leave me in the car more than enjoying my life. I want to rely on public transportation, so outlying communities are out. So, where in the D.C. metro area can a person get a home in a nice/safe area, good schools, and a commute that won't kill the commuter?

DG: Choosing a place to live and assessing the impact on commuting is a favorite topic among travelers, and not just in the targeted discussions we have from time to time. If we do a posting on an event, like a winter storm, that had a particularly bad effect on commuters, someone will post a comment about walking to and from work, and that will set off a mini-debate about how living close would be swell, but ...

And it's not just us talking. There's a nationwide debate about what it takes to make a livable community. That played out recently when the Texas Transportation Institute published its latest Urban Mobility Study, in which we always rank either near the top or at the top in various measures of commuting misery.

Another group, CEOs for Cities, had published a critical review called Driven Apart that concluded the Urban Mobility Report gives a skewed view of commuter pain because it fails to adequately account for the distances people travel to get to work. The D.C. region actually drops down a dozen spots on the list when that study re-examines the urban mobility data.

All that's mostly about commuting by car. We live in an area with one of the most extensive transit networks in the nation. Besides, you can't just draw a ring around D.C. and say that inside the ring, you'll have a fine commute and outside of it traveling is terrible.

Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute noted the impact of Washington's geography on commuting: We've got two rivers to deal with. Also, the placement of the Metrorail lines has a huge impact on decisions about where to live. A person may not choose to live very near work, but will choose to live near a Metrorail line that has a station close to the work place.

But Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, notes further complications that affect the choice of residence: Many commuters dislike a long trip, but what really bothers them is an unreliable trip. They yearn to know that tomorrow's commute will take about the same amount of time as today's.

And a further complication: That's no longer an issue just for drivers. Many Metrorail commuters now make the same complaint about reliability.

Layer onto these factors the traditional issues: Most people don't select a residence based on commuting distance alone. Some want entertainment nearby, some want songbirds, some want good schools.

Bottom line: If you're looking specifically at transportation, there's no handful of best places to live in the D.C. area. Certain conditions remain important and will only increase in importance. You need a short commute on a reliable route. Before making a real estate decision, you need to test several routes, and different modes, such as driving and transit.

What's your take on the location issue?

By Robert Thomson  | January 31, 2011; 2:10 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting, Driving, Metro, Transit  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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Metro pain sounds worse than it is...

...unless you live along the west halves of the Red and Orange Lines. Those are the most crowded portions of the system. They suffer the most problems, and because they are so crowded there is little margin for error and even a small problem results in big headaches.

My advice would be to live anywhere that you like and that is on any other portion of the Metro.

Posted by: dal20402 | January 31, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

In my experience, it is best to choose a place to live with several commuting options or backups. I chose to live in Germantown precisely for that...and because I do not like to live in urban areas. I live in walking distance to the MARC station here. I prefer to take the MARC because, GENERALLY, it is quicker, friendlier, and more comfortable. Should something go wrong on the MARC, I have the option of driving or taking the bus to Shady Grove. This adds another half-hour each way to my commute, but it is by no means horrible in the case of MARC emergencies. My wife usually drives to work in Hyattsville, but she can take the MARC and then switch the Metro at Silver Spring if it she has car issues or the weather is bad. I tried living in Frederick, where I enjoyed the quality of the country life better, but the commute was too long on even a good day. And by relying solely on the MARC, getting home became a grand misadventure if there were train troubles. Our commutes home last Wednesday in the snow took just 15 minutes longer than usual because we both took the train.

Posted by: NickDanger | January 31, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I would echo what NickDanger says and I'd add the point that, in terms of driving in the DC area, one of the keys is to know as many alternate routes as possible and to know them well enough to be able to change your route at a moment's notice. Don't listen to the traffic report before you leave home and then assume that you'll be OK all the way to your destination based on that report. Strange things sometimes happen very suddenly. I remember the day a box of nails fell off a truck and scattered all over a Beltway on-ramp. Anyone who had listened to an earlier traffic report and planned to use that ramp without listening for updates and knowing an alternate route was screwed.

The point about having alternative modes of transportation is good, too. I seldom ride the Fairfax Connector bus, but I like having a stop a half-mile from home because there have been a few times where I've had to leave my RX-7 at the mechanic overnight while he obtains parts. Having the bus available to get me home from the Metrorail on those nights was a very useful thing!

Dr. Gridlock's final paragraph echoes something his predecessor, Ron Shaffer, used to suggest to people asking for advice on where to live: Once you've selected a particular area as a possibility, try to get up super-duper early some morning, drive to that area, and then try making the commute from there. In the afternoon, commute back to there before going home. This helps you get a sense for the traffic flow or Metro crowding or whatever. I'd recommend that you do this on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday during the school year, as that's when traffic tends to be heaviest. Doing this can help you learn of things that may not otherwise be apparent--for example, a particularly long light that's badly timed, or backups due to a school along the route, or a bad intersection.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 31, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I live in the city; I don't drive; and I don't like Metrorail for daily commuting because of the reliability issues. I am 1 mile from a Metro station and 4 miles from work. I takes about the same time walking as it does to take 2 buses to work.

Posted by: Croby | January 31, 2011 10:42 PM | Report abuse

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