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Census survey: It's a long, lonely commute

The Census Bureau's 2006-2008 American Community Survey shows that despite more than a decade of efforts to get commuters in the Washington region to carpool, take transit or live close enough to walk to work, most people continue to drive, drive alone and drive a long way to work.

The study of that three-year span says our region had 2,221,629 workers over 16. Of them, 1,415,834 drove alone to work, while 363,334 took public transportation. The number said to be carpooling was put at 237,724. (This is a survey, not an actual count. That's just once a decade. You can see the full details for our region here.)

Nationwide, the percentage of workers who drove alone to work ranged from 50.4 percent in the New York metropolis to 87.3 percent in the Jackson, Tenn., and Monroe, Mich., areas. We come in at 63.7 percent. Public transportation is the choice of 16.4 percent. (Not bad, nationwide. The figures don't appear here, but in most surveys, the percentage of public transit users rises toward the more crowded center of urban regions.)

The study says New York had the longest mean travel time to work, at 34.5 minutes, followed by us, at 33.2 minutes. Only one metropolitan area, Grand Forks, N.D., had a mean travel time to work of less than 15 minutes, the study said.

What are the implications? First, we're not doing ourselves any favors as a group, though individuals are choosing the course they think is best for them. Collectively, we're using too much gas, getting the roads too crowded and creating a demand for more roads -- expensive to build and maintain and wasteful of land.

It also highlights the plight of Metro riders. To keep fares from surging, they need to convince their fellow taxpayers -- who don't ride Metro -- that local governments should increase their subsidies. Their best argument: Metro takes about a half million cars off the road. But that requires imagination, to visualize the consequences of a commute with all those extra vehicles.

A related case of us and them: Drivers on the Dulles Toll Road aren't anxious to pay the higher tolls proposed for January. Particularly annoying to many is the idea that much of the money will go not to improvements on the roadway but to building the new Metrorail line through Tysons and out toward Dulles. Those drivers have long argued that they are the majority, not the potential transit riders. Why shouldn't the $5 billion for the transit line go to improving the roads in the area?

By Robert Thomson  |  October 27, 2009; 10:53 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Congestion , Driving , Metro , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock  
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Posted by: Axel2 | October 27, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

It's a double-edged get more people who drive alone to take transit, there-by taking more cars off the road....that in turn, frees up space on I95/495/66/270....people who live EVEN FARTHER OUT, hear/see that traffic has lessened....they think, "HEY, I can get a job in DC/Arlington/Bethesda/Alexandria/etc that pays me FAR more than out here in St Marys/Cumberland/Ashland/etc...,if traffic is less, it won't be that long of a commute and I can afford the extra gas." .......that starts the whole cycle again and extends the traffic pain, need to widen roads & redo on/off ramps and pay for traffic monitoring out even farther....what we need are more inhibitors to driving and fewer incentives.......people in this area are more REactive than they are PROactive.....they do not change their ways unless it's EXTREMELY painful or costly.....let it become want the roads widened/on-off ramps adjusted, NO!!!! Deal with what you have.....The greedy disguise their counter-argument to this as, "Oh you're going to inhibit progress/commerce/development of new business/the current activities of existing ones!!!".....that’s all happy hog-wash…..human beings have been “evolving and adapting” for hundreds of thousands of years……this “inhibition” will force another change, growth and evolution…’s happened before……when suburban development started to sprout at the beginning of the last century, there were nay-sayers who said it couldn’t work; people wouldn’t live out there because of the cost of getting to the necessities that were at the city-centre (i.e.-grocers, butchers, bakers, department store, salons, barbers, hardware stores, haberdasheries, etc.)…..but ya know what…..ALL THOSE BUSINESSES EVOLVED AND CHANGED TO ENGAGE THE NEW BUSINESS…..grocers, butchers & bakers merged to become suburban supermarkets…..large downtown department store built off-shoot suburban satellites….they ALL created new ways of doing business…, this scream of “Your strangling commerce/development and new jobs!!!” from the new nay-sayers is all just “SAVE MY CASH COW!” in disguise…..those people have had it easy, making easy money on the driving public and don’t want to change their ways, because it would cost them money to adjust & adapt and it wouldn’t immediately give them the quick return/buck they are used to….WHO CARES!!!! As people are forced to take transit, get out of their cars more often, and walk around a bit more, NEW “commerce”, “business” and ”jobs” will spring up to meet their new needs…… So who cares if traffic “strangles people’s livelihoods” out there…..someone else’s new livelihood will be created for every withering one….

Posted by: jsabol | October 27, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

@jsabol: Please, please, next time you post something, break that up into paragraphs. It's next to impossible to read that colossal wall of text.

Posted by: pikamander007 | October 27, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

@jsabol: Please, please, next time you post something, break that up into paragraphs. It's next to impossible to read that colossal wall of text.

Why would you want to read it anyway, it is just a crazy, nonsensical rant.

Posted by: Axel2 | October 27, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

"First, we're not doing ourselves any favors as a group, though individuals are choosing the course they think is best for them."

By your reasoning everyone of us could choose a suboptimal transportation mode and that would make us better off? An interesting opinion.

Posted by: AnonymousAlso | October 27, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Others may have pointed this out: a mitigating factor in those "long, lonely commutes" is listening to music, news, audio books, etc. For some, like me, it was a welcome private interlude between home and work. My 45-minute drive each way to and from work was filled with music for the 25 years that I commuted on the scenic Capital Beltway. In my case, WBJC in Baltimore became my friend. Guess commuters can adapt to almost anything.

Posted by: HarryMRosenbergaolcom | October 27, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

When I had the opportunity of residence and work/school proximity to public transportation routes, I used the transit opportunity and loved it.

Unfortunately, much of my career involved schedules and locations that made using public transit difficult versus a private automobile.

I'd be perfectly happy to make public transit virtually free to the users whose schedule allowed them to ride buses or rail.

After all, that has got to be cheaper than paving over 10% of the DC area and continuing to maintain it.

When I read stories in the WaPo regarding transportation, invariably costs are a consideration for the users. We are already subsidizing perhaps more than 1/2 the costs, why not decrease fares and make attractive to that next group of folks who are just on the margin and driven by the relative costs of transit vs. car?

Posted by: Guvernor | October 27, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Ah ...the Blackberry commentator. The day that Blackberrys advise people to break up their paragraphs will be a day of bliss.

I look at the argument like this: If people choose to drive, they probably don't know how much it REALLY costs them to do so. If people chose to take public transport, then they probably know EXACTLY how much it costs.

Take these figures to determine which is best for you...

1) Chose one:
a) If you drive, determine how many miles it is for you to drive to work then multiply that number x 0.52 (this is how much it costs you to drive according to the US government)

b)If you take public transportation, then determine how much it costs you to travel for one day to and from work.

2) Now, determine how much you get paid per hour. If you are an hourly wage worker you already know, but if you are salaried, then divide your annual salary by 2080 (that is how many hours employees work per year on an 8 hr day)

3) Determine how long it takes you to get to work (from your door to your workplace) and multiply that times the hourly wage you figured out in #2. It is best if you pick take some of your WORST days, and mix them in with your average days travel so you don't go too low in your travel time.

4) Take the sum of #1 and #3 and multiply them times 20...this is how much your transportation costs you in time and money!

I use this formula every time I look at moving...When figured with the costs of a monthly house payment our your rent, it can be a great tool in determining if you really want to be in the burbs or in the city.

You can also use this to help friends determine their potential costs, and to win over the 'car people' or 'metro people' in your life or at the pub.


Posted by: mzkatheryn | October 27, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Is the 33.2 minute commute door to door or just time spent in the car? I seriously doubt that many public transit commuters can do a door to door commute in less than 33 minutes when you consider walking to and from the bus stop or Metro station and the amount of time spent waiting for the bus/train and/or making any necessary transfers. Most people who walk or bike to work probably don't do much, if any, better.

At least this article (unlike many others) doesn't bemoan a supposed loss of worker productivity from car commuting time which is a facious argument since public transit commuters also are losing the same or more "productive" hours waiting for the bus/train, etc. Using the bus, my door to door commute is about 25 minutes and I only live about 18 blocks from my office and use Next Bus to decide when to leave the house. But I don't complain about my "lost" 50 minutes each day and in fact I am grateful for our good public transportation system.

I wholeheartedly argree that long (or even short) car commutes (especially in "lonely" single occupancy vehicles) are a waste of gas, cause undue harmful emissions, cost the taxpayers too much money in new road construction and upkeep, etc. but I am tired of car commuters complaining about their large amount of "wasted" time spent commuting when public transit users generally spend the same amount of time or even more in their commutes while doing more to protect the environment and save taxpayers money in the long run.

If 33 minutes is a long car commute then it is also a very long one for almost all of us who don't live right next door to their work.

Posted by: robertevans20024 | October 27, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

SO funny.....I find it interesting that the two people who directed comments at my post, could only criticize my grammer/not breaking up paragraphs. If you do not like what I say, rebut the statements. You can clearly read it.

Next time, say something constructive about THE TOPIC, not a comment's structure. That's what these things are for; COMMENTARY ON THE TOPIC. Not personal attacks. If you want to teach english, please do so. By the way, does this please thou???? Two paragraphs.....

Posted by: jsabol | October 28, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

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