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When to Change Commute Route

To address a reader's concern about the intersection of Route 29 and Spring Street in downtown Silver Spring, I asked Chuck Gischlar at the Maryland State Highway Administration for some traffic stats on Route 29 usage in that area. Here's the history of average daily traffic flow on Route 29 near Spring Street:

2001 - 35,975
2002 - 37,150
2003 - 37,525
2004 - 34,375
2005 - 33,750
2006 - 33,412

Many of you know Route 29 as a busy commuter route between the Maryland suburbs and the District. Why the decline? Gischlar offered several possiblities, but I've got a theory and a question for you all.

First, this is what Gischlar suggested: The Route 29 bridge deck at the Beltway was replaced during 2004 and 2005. Some of the traffic may have shifted to another route. Also, he said, some of the traffic counts are called program counts, averages from actual counts that take into account a forecasted growth in the region that might be slightly off.

But I was intrigued by the idea of commuters changing routes. We are creatures of habit and tend to fall into commuting patterns, even if we don't really enjoy the patterns. (Great story on this in the April 16 issue of The New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten subtitled, "The soul of the commuter.") Establishing a routine helps us endure.

I'm thinking that the delays caused by the bridge redecking pushed some commuters over the threshold of endurance, and they sought alternative routes. For others, maybe it wasn't a road project. Maybe the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring was enough to cause them to see a dodge around the junction of Route 29 and Georgia Avenue.

But at the same time I was toying with this notion that it takes a jolt -- a significant and sudden increase in traffic -- to get us to change patterns, I also thought about a commute I used to do between Silver Spring and Rosslyn in which I was constantly testing alternative routes to find the one that was quickest, or eliminated an annoying left turn or merge. (An easier experiment to perform through a city grid than on a long-distance highway commute.)

I'd like to hear about your experiences and opinions on commute patterns and what it takes to vary them. We have three forums: Comment right here on Get There, write to me at (that's the mailbag I use in writing the twice-weekly newspaper column, so please include your name, home community and a phone number), and a Live Online chat at 1 p.m. today. The latter is our twice-monthly free for all on traffic and transit issues. You can submit a question or comment for the chat right now by using this link.

By Robert Thomson  |  April 23, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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Next: Fixing D.C. Traffic Experiment


I used to commute from Germantown to Tyson's and back. Since my schedule was flexible (college professor), sometimes I would be able to drive traffic-free and others during the Friday rush across the American Legion Bridge (ALB).

After 5 years of sitting in the Friday stop-and-go, I researched and found an alternative route (thanks to Google Earth) that allowed me to avoid 95% of the beltway and 270 all together.

From Tyson's Corner; here's the route I found worked for those who want it:

1) Take Chain Bridge Road to Leinsville Rd
2) Take Balls Hill Rd to Georgetown Pike
3) Merge on Beltway to cross on ALB
4) Take Clara Barton to Mcarthur Blvd/Falls Road
5) Take Falls Rd to left on River Road
6) Right at Stoney Creek Rd
7) Right on Travilah Rd
8) Left on Quince Orchard Rd
9) Left on Great Seneca Highway

Yes, it is a few more miles more in distance, but:

1) You are moving
2) It is a good way to "de-pressurize" from the day without beltway rush hour to wind you up before coming home.
3) It is reversible for going to Tyson's
4) It is a nice, scenic drive. I discovered parts of Montgomery County I never knew about.

Hope this helps those who want it.

Posted by: Rdvrk219 | April 23, 2007 8:35 AM | Report abuse

I work near the University of Maryland, and every fall when classes start it's worth completely altering my route to avoid the traffic jam of new students and workers. It's a longer distance to take Kenilworth Ave down to College Park, but quicker for the first month or two in the fall. Other times of the year, Rt 1 is usually faster.

Posted by: Adam | April 23, 2007 9:10 AM | Report abuse

re: ..."After 5 years of sitting in the Friday stop-and-go, I researched and found an alternative route (thanks to Google Earth)"

think real-time auto navigation systems tied to sensors that have instaneous traffic counts...

tell the auto nav unit you want the shortest time between your start and end.. and let it find the best path....

crazy? No.. this is being developed right now.

The question I have - is - should this kind of technology be part and parcel of VDOT and other DOTs to develop to get the best optimzation out of the existing system BEFORE they go off with plans for mega infrastructure that they already know they have no funding for and even if they did the EPA would not permit it?

In other words, is part of VDOT's job to provide customers with the means to obtain better service OR ... is this the province of private enterprise?

bonus question: - if your auto Nav unit did something like this - AND one day it also told you of a massive tie-up on your regular route AND it offered you an alternative route around the mess - would you use the info or just plunge headlong to become part of the mess... anyhow?

Posted by: Larry Gross | April 23, 2007 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Good Doctor, I drive to Tyson's from Centreville everyday and most days it's 66 to the Beltway. Some days, it's Braddock Road to Shirley Gate to 50 to the Beltway. Once, I even went all the way down Braddock to the Beltway (though around Mason and close to the Beltway it gets hectic). Several times I've diverted onto 123 and taken several routes back that way.

The biggest problem I've had is finding information. There is a VDOT/Daktronics sign on Rte. 28 at a spot that I could change my route quickly if I know what's going on with 66 however IT'S NEVER USED. I would like to see it used to tell me where the delays are. And no more of this Exit 54-62 crap, it's a non-travel road, tell me from what road to another.

What can the pleasant commuter who knows the area to do? XM gives info that's 30 minutes old while the other stations give info thats 45-60 minutes old. Can VDOT hire someone to look at the traffic cameras and type in a simple message to those boards. It's not that hard, I do something like it all the time.

Posted by: Jarrod | April 23, 2007 10:15 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: These comments are very useful, as well as interesting.
-- Hadn't thought of Google Earth as a route finder. I've been using Google Maps or Mapquest. Just tried Google Earth for directions and see it might have some advantages in perspective on a route.
-- This is patience: "After 5 years of sitting in the Friday stop-and-go, ... "
-- Hadn't thought of the seasonal variation of routes, to deal with conditions like return to classes. Will have to remember that when I ask you all for "September Shock" advice this year.
-- Good suggestions on intelligent traffic systems. So far, the promise of technology has exceeded the reality. I'm not crazy about how those overhead electronic signs are used. I want short bits of specific information about road conditions ahead, not "Report suspicious activity."
-- Was at a seminar last week where transpo consultant noted that we may someday have tech in our cars that displays traffic info on windshield in way that drivers can easily read.
-- Traffic cams are big help for real-time traffic, but they're still too widely dispersed in some parts of our region.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | April 23, 2007 10:37 AM | Report abuse

-- This is patience: "After 5 years of sitting in the Friday stop-and-go, ... "

Thanks Robert, my wife thinks that patience for all things is going to lead to a coronary!

In regards to the 5 years - It's the curse of being a transplant in the DC area; you stick to the main roads since you fear you'll end up in West Virginia if you turn left instead of right. You just end up following the herd across the bridge.

Posted by: Rdvrk219 | April 23, 2007 10:46 AM | Report abuse

My navigation system doesn't have the XM "NavTraffic" (is that what they call it?)--some cars' navis are integrated with the XM whereby the navi will color-code the roads based on the traffic reports and will recommend an alternate route if you have the destination programmed. I have XM and a navi but the traffic thing didn't exist in 2004. (I should note that I've lived in the DC area since the mid-1970s and thus know 25 different ways everywhere, so perhaps the "NavTraffic" might not be so useful.)

The thing for me on varying the routes is that there are a few options, but it in part depends on the season and in part on the vagaries of the given day. Plus, I live just to the south of the Beltway in Fairfax County near Edison High School, so there are only a limited number of routes I can use to get inside the Beltway and then there are a limited number of bridges. I've found that unless Van Dorn Street is backed up south of Franconia Road, it does no good to try an alternate route.

For example--my normal commute goes straight up Van Dorn to Seminary, then onto I-395 to the 12th Street exit in DC. But I always look over when I'm going up the hill to Seminary Road; if I-395 is slow, I take Beauregard Street/Walter Reed Drive to Columbia Pike and then I go on down to the Pentagon.

Crossing the 14th Street Bridge is a crapshoot. The road always backs up. If it's backed up as far as the Washington Boulevard exit, I get off and head for Memorial Bridge (once across, I take Independence to 15th and hang a left). Memorial Bridge is generally a lot less nerve-racking than the 14th Street Bridge because there's a lot less lane-changing going on and you don't have to watch for people using the onramp acceleration lanes to try to jump the queue.

But then you have a day like today where you get off for Memorial Bridge but it's backed up past the Pentagon, so then I take the Pentagon South Parking exit and get back on I-395 (you cannot determine whether there's a backup until you have exited). Downside of this is that the queue-jumpers I noted before cause everyone to assume that anyone in the onramp acceleration lane is queue-jumping, which isn't really the case if you're coming up the ramp from the Pentagon.

In past summers I've occasionally gone over the Wilson Bridge and up I-295, but with the Douglass Bridge closing this summer, forget that. If anything, the people on I-295 are also ruder and more aggressive than the people on I-395. I used to go up US-1 through Alexandria on occasion, too, but the construction at the Beltway interchange put an end to that.

Finally, I used to use Russell Road as a shortcut until I was rear-ended (and my car totaled) when I was stopped at a red light. Some 18-year-old girl got distracted by the speed humps and wasn't looking where she was going. I now have a mental block against that road.

What it boils down to is that I can't give a straight answer for how I decide on my route on any given day. It's fair to say that I listen to the traffic reports and I judge how the traffic is flowing versus your average day (e.g., as noted above, if Van Dorn is backed up to where it'll take three light cycles to get across Franconia, I'll go a different way because it will be even worse further up the road). But it's also fair to say that the days on which there's a bad enough backup to warrant taking a different route are also those annoying days where EVERYTHING seems to be backed up, and I'd wager that's because other people also start bailing out for alternate routes.

Posted by: Rich | April 23, 2007 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I commute most days from north Reston to north Bethesda (near Montgomery Mall). In doing this drive for 5 years, I've found that the time I leave my house determines the route I take. Generally my work schedule is fairly flexible so my timing to leave in the morning is more of a personal preference, rather than one dictated by a set schedule. In general, I avoid leaving the house between 7:15am and 8:15am (what I see is the height of AM rush). From where I live, I can easily commute via three routes to get to the beltway: The toll road, Route 7 or Georgetown Pike, and all three are about the same time-wise. If I leave by 7:15am, The Toll Rd (entering from Hunter Mill Rd) is typically the fastest because of the large number of school buses on secondary roads at this hour. If I leave between 8:15am and 9am, Georgetown Pike is generally the best as Route 7 is still clogged most of the way from Baron Cameron Ave into Tysons at this hour. Georgetown Pike tends to "clear out" fairly early though due in part to the numerous private schools at/near the junction with the beltway; most of these schools, including Langley HS and Cooper MS, have start times of 8am or earlier. If I leave after 9 or 9:15am, Route 7 is generally best and tends to clear out more predictably than the Toll Rd does (and its a tad faster than Georgetown Pike), especially on days when sun glare is a factor on the Toll Rd. My commute from north Reston to near Montgomery Mall is rarely more than 30 minutes, a surprise too many judging by the DC areas generally horrific traffic.

In general, I'd suggest that everyone invest in a good old-fashioned, detailed map! I've learned just about every backroad through Great Falls and McLean to the beltway over the years. Traffic reports are hit or miss although I find WTOP to be the most accurate (and far better than XM); Georgetown Pike and Route 7 rarely get adequate traffic report coverage on any station. My wife's navigation and traffic system is next to useless on most roads, except for the key arteries (I-66, Toll Rd, 270) and the beltway.

For the evening commute, I generally try and avoid peak hours, particularly on Thurs and Fridays. When I do encounter congestion, back roads to get to the Clara Barton Parkway to cross the American Legion Bridge, and then immediately exit at Georgetown Pike are generally a great work-around.

Posted by: xyv1027 | April 23, 2007 1:20 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure if people already know this, but Google Earth isn't just a map. It will actually show you where traffic is running smoothly, where it begins to slow and where the stops are. It is a wonderful tool.

Go to Just map your trip and click on the traffic button and plan your travel!

There is another section called "My Maps" where you can plot out a trip (point A to B) and it will help you plan stops in between, interesting sites, travel issues, all sorts of things.

I swear I do not work for them, but I really like them.

Enjoy your trip!

Posted by: DC non-Commuter | April 23, 2007 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I also find WTOP to provide the most accurate information in the area. I once commuted from Cetnreville to Baltimore's Inner Harbor for 2 years recently. talk about Yuk! I spent an average of 3.5 hours daily in my car. Poeple would ask how I coped or why do I do it? I guess after you do something long enough it becomes normal.

I hear news that $4/gallon of gas is right around the corner this month. THAT will cause me to go buy a scooter or motorcycle.

Posted by: Kevin | April 23, 2007 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I commute from the Takoma DC area to College Park and/or Greenbelt everyday. My standard route for the last 1.5 years has been north on Piney Branch, west on University Blvd. However, the recent construction on University Blvd between Piney Branch and Riggs Rd (note, 'recent' is the last several months) has led me to modifying my commute home through Adelphi and Metzerott Rds. Interestingly enough, the same construction that completely cripples the evening commute (east-bound) has little to no affect on the morning commute (west-bound). So, University Blvd in the morning, and Adelphi and Metzerott in the evenings it is!!

Posted by: flexible student | April 23, 2007 4:37 PM | Report abuse

$4 a gallon??? For what??? Bush must've had something to fool enough people into voting for him the second time around because it was obvious he was going to line the pockets of his oil and defense contracting friends. Good call uh-murr-ih-kuh.

Posted by: Bye Bush | April 24, 2007 9:19 AM | Report abuse

12 miles out of my 35 mile commute have realistic alternative routes, and I find I sometimes take 'plan B' or 'plan C' (or Plan S, hit a subway stop) when traffic is bad (as do most others). But sometimes I'm just bored and switch it up. The mileage and time difference between the various streets is < 2 minutes/2 miles so it doesn't really make a difference in my 45 minute drive.

Sometimes I just want a change...

Posted by: Andrew | April 24, 2007 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock - you note the declining traffic counts on Colesville Road. What about Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues? Georgia is gridlocked every single day between the Beltway and Forest Glen Metro, and the crowd on New Hampshire in the afternoons leaves me wondering - "Where do all of these people come from?" I wonder if many of the folks from Colesville moved over to GA or NH. I live just north of Silver Spring, and always use Colesville over GA or NH.

Posted by: Joe | April 24, 2007 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I go from a spot near Georgia Ave at the Beltway to Shady Grove road. Mornings is no problem on 495/270, but for evenings I have several alternate back road routes.

I adopted one of them for routine use when the pavement was improved to the point where it didn't threaten my suspension any more. I adopted another when the light timing at a critical intersection was altered to make it bearable. I now know how the traffic patterns work and can predict what's best based on WTOP and various observable delays early in my route.

When gas goes to $4.50 I'll take public transportation (bus followed by Metro followed by bus) - but it takes an hour each way where my commute is 20 minutes in the morning and 30 to 50 in the afternoon.

So my personal threshhold is an extra hour.

Posted by: Jessica | April 24, 2007 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Ahh...gas that finally costs it's true cost. $4 gas is cheap. We should be so lucky.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | April 24, 2007 3:09 PM | Report abuse

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