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When Commutes Go Bad

Neil Pedersen, the Maryland state highway adminstrator, told me a while ago that it isn't so much the length of a commute that bothers travelers as the lack of reliability in a commute.

I've been thinking about that during the six months I've been reading letters from travelers. Sure, people do complain about the length of the trips, both in time and distance. They might say so in the context of writing that we need to create more affordable housing near work centers, like the District or Tysons.

But for many people, the length of the trip is a given. It's not the thing that really vexes them. It's the thing that goes wrong that they complain about. It might be something that goes wrong and directly affects them or it might be something going on around them that they think is unfair.

I've heard from a commuter whose trip takes him from Delaware to D.C. When does he get to see his home in daylight, I wondered. But the thing he was writing to me about was the unfairness he observed on a relatively small segment of his trip: The solo drivers who travel in the carpool lane on Route 50 through Prince George's.

For others, the thing that goes wrong occurs at Metro parking lots, where they wander around in search of a non-existent space. Or it's the lane squeeze caused by an accident up ahead. Am I in the lane that goes through? Will I have to merge? Is that guy going to let me in? How many are going to try to squeeze in ahead of me?

Transportation planners know there are things that can be done to ease the anxieties that come with commuting. They can't tell you where to live and where to work, but they can build more parking garages, or set up bus systems that will let people get to Metro stations without bringing their cars. And they can set up emergency response systems that will clear accidents more quickly.

The rest of us, we learn to deal with some things, but not others. There's often one thing we're dreading out there when we turn the ignition key.

What's that thing for you and what would you do about it if you had the power?

By Robert Thomson  |  January 17, 2007; 8:08 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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