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Traffic As Economic Indicator?

Hi Dr. Gridlock:
I have noticed a welcome but eerie phenomenon on my daily commute from Clifton to the Vienna Metro station. This started around the MLK holiday. First, the drive at 7:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. between my house and Vienna takes half the time (about 20 minutes vs. about 40 minutes) and there are so many empty parking spaces!

I-66 Tuesday2.jpg Seen worse on 66, nearing Beltway. (Robert Thomson)

Now the availability of parking spaces could be explained by the recent increase in cost, but the flowing traffic stumps me. At first, I figured a lot of people were on vacation the week of the MLK holiday but it did not stop there. I hope this is not due to the slowdown of the economy, because that would be a very scary indicator.
Patricia P. Morris

Indeed it would. And in years past, I have heard traffic reporters say that congestion, or the lack of it, serves as an economic indicator. But is it too early to be linking the Dow Jones Average with the average commute?

I had this experience: The day before the letter arrived, staff writer Mark Berman and I went to Vienna to test a commute suggested by a reader, who wanted to know if it was faster to take Metro or drive to Fannie Mae on Connecticut Avenue, where the reader works. (We'll show you the results on an upcoming Commuter page in The Post.)

To do this test, I picked a street in Vienna and told Mark we needed to depart from there at 7:30 a.m., because he would be parking at the Vienna Metro garage, and many commuters have complained they can't get a space after 8 a.m. Well, when we got to our rendezvous on Connecticut Avenue, he looked at me like I owed him a half hour of sleep back. There were plenty of spaces at the Vienna garage, he said.

On my drive from Vienna to DC, there was plenty of traffic on I-66 till the merge onto the inner loop, but I've seen it a lot worse. And the trip up the Beltway, across the Legion Bridge and along River Road into the District was really pretty easy.

Still, there's evidence against a commuting decline, whatever the cause: On Tuesday, the day of our Vienna-DC test run, Metrorail recorded 707,773. On the same date in 2007, there were 664,228 trips. There have been similar increases in ridership on many recent weekdays, despite the Jan. 6 fare increases.

What's your experience? Any recent changes in congestion on your route, whether it's by road or rail? Think there's anything to a theory that relates congestion and the state of our economy?

By Robert Thomson  |  February 7, 2008; 5:16 AM ET
Categories:  Congestion  
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Next: The Weekend and Beyond


I believe Fannie Mae is on Wisconsin Ave.

Posted by: Laszlo | February 7, 2008 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Traffic is just as predictable as the stock market - if everyone could predict it precisely every single day, we would all be rich. Here in DC, there are so many factors that all the traffic engineering PhDs in the world could not get even close. Think of when congress is in session, federal holidays, the thought of snow (or rain) coming, someone has a flat tire, a jumper on the Wilson bridge, construction, etc. Over a series of years, possibly, there could be an argument made but the essence is that economic activity requires movement and transportation but the type of activity can vary the amount and type of transportation. To make a blanket statement like "the market is down so traffic is down" has got to be one of the more ridiculous comments I have seen.

Posted by: Steven | February 7, 2008 8:35 AM | Report abuse

the best way to get to Fannie Mae from the American Legion Bridge is take exit Clara Barton Pky South, take the Glen Echo turnaround to MacArthur, south on MacArthur, left at Loughboro (Silbey Hospital) onto Nebraska Ave, through Ward cirle, right on Van Ness, right on Upton to the parking garage, or right on Wisconsin to main building entrance.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2008 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I recently took a job where the only drawback was a Silver Spring to Reston commute. I've noticed that traffic has been affected by the following so far:
Was there a holiday this week?
Did either Fairfax or Montgomery county schools have a teacher workday this week?
(either of the above seem to trigger just enough people taking vacations to act as a relief valve on traffic.)
If there is a 2 hour delay for the schools, I see zero traffic at all, even in the afternoons.
Also, nice, sunny days tend to draw out more traffic. Today seemed heavier than normal, even though there were no big accidents anywhere. Blustery winter days tend to lead to fewer non-work trips, and thus lighter traffic.

Posted by: Joe in SS | February 7, 2008 9:36 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: While Fannie Mae has its principal offices on Wisconsin Avenue, it also has offices at 4250 Connecticut Ave., where the commuter asking us to compare driving vs. Metro works. She takes Metro from Vienna to the Van Ness Station, which is very convenient to her Fannie Mae office. You can see it on this "Stationmasters" map:

Posted by: Robert Thomson | February 7, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Anthony Downs (Brookings Institute) has published about the link between traffic congestion and economic success. His advice:

"So get yourself an air-conditioned car with a CD player, a hands-free telephone, perhaps even a fax machine, and commute with someone you really like. Learn to enjoy being stuck in traffic as another leisure activity, because congestion is here to stay."

Posted by: whydrive | February 7, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Still the same number of HOV violators every morning on the Toll Road and 66 inside the Beltway. Not to mention the largest concentration of Priuses in the free world.

And this morning we had the dreaded return of "sun delay" because apparently sunglasses are a foreign concept to drivers around here.

Posted by: Nope, no changes | February 7, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I commute from Sterling, VA to Tysons Corner via Route 7. I usually leave my house later than most (between 9-9:30am), but until about 2 or 3 months ago the commute would normally take about 30-35 minutes with a fair amount of congestion from Reston to Tysons each day. The past 2 or 3 months I have noticed a significant decrease in traffic during my commute. Every day I basically fly all the way into Tysons with no backups and it takes about 20-25 minutes. It's basically like Friday traffic everyday coming in. Going home is a little lighter than it used to be (I leave my office around 6pm), but the difference isn't as drastic as the morning commute.

I hope it stays this way ;).

Posted by: T | February 7, 2008 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Traffic is quieter. The Rapture was last week. Washington (as you'd expect) wasn't impacted as much as other cities.

Posted by: Ed | February 7, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I take the VRE from Manassas, and it sure seems to me that ridership is up since January. I definitely have been parking farther away from the station in recent weeks.

If true, it's definitely a possible contributing factor to less traffic on I-66 and parking availability at Vienna.

Posted by: Rocket1124 | February 7, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like more people trying to talk themselves into a recession

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I think it has more to do with season and weather than anything else. Winter is dead season in this area, so not as many people out and about after work. Not as many tourists. Not as many shoppers (traffic is noticibly better now than in December). Just wait for the tourist season to kick up in spring. And on really nice warm days (like yesterday), more people want to go out. Not surprisingly, my reverse commute inbound to DC in PM rush was worse than normal yesterday.

And to "Nope, No Changes", please remember that non-HOV traffic to/from Dulles Airport is permitted on I-66 at all times. That is why police do not enforce HOV restrictions on I-66 proper, except between the Dulles Access ROad and the Beltway. They do, however, enforce eastbound on-ramps and westbound off-ramps at Sycamore Street and Glebe Road (because if you are using these ramps, you are not going to the airport!). The airports authority has said that any business at Dulles Airport counts in terms of being allowed to use the Access Road and therefore be non-HOV on I-66 during rush hour, and that business could be anything from parking at the airport for a week to fly overseas to purchasing a newspaper at a business on airport property.

Posted by: Woodley Park | February 7, 2008 11:55 AM | Report abuse

And the reason for police not enforcing HOV traffic (far left lane) on the Toll Road proper (not the Airport Access Road) would be what?

Based on the number of non-HOV vehicles on I-66 inside the Beltway, IAD must be one of the nation's most popular airports / coffee shops / newspaper stands. No wonder it needs Metro access!

Posted by: HOV Enforcement | February 7, 2008 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Think a lot of people moved out of the area at the beginning of the year, finally fed up with traffic headaches and metro fare increases? Or maybe they all moved to Manassas and now take MARC in...

Posted by: Laura | February 7, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Hmm I'm surprised Dr. G. hasn't posted anything about this, but there may be delays on MARC this afternoon/evening. Just a heads up to your MARC riders.

"MARC Train Hits Locomotive at Union Station"

Posted by: Laura | February 7, 2008 2:02 PM | Report abuse

In response to Woodley Park, all I have to say is that this is my 18th winter driving this route twice and a day and I have NEVER experienced such a prolonged drop in traffic outside of August and December. I don't know what planet WP is from where people don't work as much in the Winter time? Do tell.

Posted by: Patricia P. Morris | February 7, 2008 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I'd have to agree entirely with two of the previous posts. First off, if either MOntgomery County or Fairfax County schools are on holiday/teacher work day/snow day, traffic is always lighter. Given my work in education, either system has had at least one day off every week since the 2nd week of January. I think this is the first 5 day week for both systems in a month, but still traffic this week is very light. Route 7 from Reston towards Tysons has been relatively light at most any hour recently. Most of the time prior to these recent weeks, traffic backs up most of the way from before Baron Cameron all the way into Tysons.

Posted by: xyv1027 | February 7, 2008 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Patricia, Woodley Park notes that not as many people are out and about AFTER WORK during the winter months. I don't think he said people don't work as much in the winter.

Posted by: xyv1027 | February 7, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I drive from Arlington to IAD 3-4 times per week to pick up a clients. I'm one of those solo drivers on I-66 that everyone automatically considers to be a dreaded "HOV violator".

Mind your business and stop giving me the look! My work is perfectly legal.

Posted by: solo on I-66 to IAD | February 7, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

"Mind your business and stop giving me the look!"

That's all they do? Man, every time I go out to the airport driving solo to catch a flight people give me the finger.

Posted by: Rich | February 7, 2008 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Thanks xyv1027. Point well taken. Apologies to WP. However, traffic after work is irrelevant in this discussion, we are talking about rush hour commuting. Signing off for the day. Happy driving.

Posted by: Patricia P. Morris | February 7, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

"And the reason for police not enforcing HOV traffic (far left lane) on the Toll Road proper (not the Airport Access Road) would be what?"

It's not close to a donut shop.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

"that business could be anything from parking at the airport for a week to fly overseas to purchasing a newspaper at a business on airport property."

That includes stopping at the airport gas station for a Coke and then continuing northwest?

Posted by: Dulles Airport | February 7, 2008 6:46 PM | Report abuse

"That includes stopping at the airport gas station for a Coke and then continuing northwest?"

Yes. MWAA officials I have spoken to about this have said that is considered airport business. As amazing as it may seem, the only ones the police are really interested in nailing are those who come in, turn around, and go back out without "doing" anything at the airport.

I guess they figure the time it takes to "do something" at the airport negates any travel time savings most of the time (Not on a summer Friday PM rush hour though!), so they try to get the obvious cheats, such as those who try to make a U-turn immediately after entering the airport. They deserve to get caught. However those of us who choose to make that our gas stop on the way to Leesburg will continue to enjoy the associated perks :)

Posted by: Woodley Park | February 7, 2008 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Regarding people going out after work...if those people go straight from work to their "going out" destination, and you happen to work or live near that "going out" destination, then it can affect your commute.

Living in DC, it is obvious to me that on a nice day, the commute home is often worse than on a not nice weather day. Parking in the neighborhood is worse too, and many of those cars bear Virginia and or Maryland tags. Especially true when you happen to get a 75 degree/20% humidity day in July, or a day like yesterday. In December, Tysons traffic was miserable, due to people Christmas shopping (presumably many of them came from work). Now if you don't live near tourist attractions, maybe you might not observe this phenominon.

Posted by: Woodley Park | February 7, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

While there may be SOME solo individuals on I-66 inside the Beltway with legitimate business at the airport (and I'm not one of the people who gives the look or the finger or anything else) there is simply no way that ALL of them have even been to the airport. Especially those who are coming from BEFORE the Dulles Connector hits I-66. It's simply unpossible.

Besides, it's no worse than having to slalom around the 54mph fleet of Priuses driving side by side down 66 as another poster stated. Another brilliant rule exception brought to you by the Commonshaft of Virginia.

Posted by: Forest for the trees? | February 8, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I think all of the I-66, etc. commuters are enjoying lighter traffic because it's ALL. ON. I-95. Ever since the week after New Year's, traffic has been worse and worse between 7:15 and 7:30 (the time my Metrobus hits the highway). I have actually started taking buses 10-20 minutes earlier in order to get to work on time (7:45, or 8-8:15 if I take my regular bus). I also get home 15 minutes later in the evenings- I leave at 4:15 and used to arrive home by 5, now 5:15.

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