More commuters are driving on their way back to the office, experts say

A prolonged shift to driving would undermine years of effort in the DC region to reduce traffic congestion and fight climate change by promoting public transit, carpooling and, ironically, telecommuting. Even if a sustained increase in telecommuting removes overall rush-hour traffic in the short term, experts say the adverse effects of increased driving would take their toll as the region continues to grow.

“I think we should be concerned about that,” said Christopher Conklin, Montgomery County’s director of transportation. “We don’t want people to fall into a pattern of conduct at work that’s then hard to get out of.”

Local officials say they haven’t done a thorough analysis, but various data points signal a change.

Some commercial property managers report that office buildings account for nearly 35-50% of pre-pandemic occupancy, while their parking lots are between 55-70%. Metrobus hovered around 70% of pre-pandemic ridership for months. But Metrorail, whose customers generally have more options to telecommute and drive, has fallen behind by around 30% this month.

Meanwhile, motorists are reporting significantly more rush-hour traffic in recent weeks, particularly after more offices reopened on March 1. the county department of transport.

Average morning speeds on I-95 northbound in Northern Virginia and part of the Southbound Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland slowed from about 55 mph late last year to 46 mph, according to INRIX, a Seattle-area traffic analysis firm.

Another potentially troubling sign: Regional transportation planners say they’ve heard that some carpools and vanpools — most common among car-dependent commuters in outer suburbs — haven’t reformed as trips to the office have become less regular.

“These are all indicators that people need to drive,” said Kanti Srikanth, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Srikanth said the parking lot at the COG office building near Union Station also appears busier than the building itself. He suspects some motorists could avoid longer waits for subway trains as more than half of the system’s carriages remain out of service for a safety defect.

“For two years people were used to having no commute time,” Srikanth said, “so now every five minutes feels like something.”

Getting people out of their cars could prove difficult, even as transit officials tout safety protocols, such as more frequent disinfecting of surfaces. According to experts, the longer people drive, the more they consolidate other travel-related decisions, such as where to live or how to get to daycare and after-school activities. Some may be more willing to take on the stress and costs of driving if they only have to do it two to three days a week.

Meanwhile, employees with new flexibility to start or end their working days from home could avoid the worst of morning and evening traffic, while others who have left city centers for more space during the pandemic may have fewer public transit options.

Temple Hills, Md., resident Yvette Wheeler said she’s not ready to give up her personal space. Wheeler, a union’s accounting manager, said she’s relied on Metro for years. But she switched to driving earlier in the pandemic, when she was commuting twice a week, backups were scarce and daily parking was just $10 in a near-deserted downtown Washington.

She has continued to drive since she got back up to five days a week at the office, even though her monthly travel costs have gone from $280 for subway parking and train fare to $660 in transit fees. gasoline and parking. Its driving time has also been reduced from around 25 minutes to an hour.

Wheeler said it was worth avoiding the anxiety she felt recently when she tried Metro again and encountered passengers unaware of a federal mask mandate. After finding herself “crammed on an evening train while being asked to “sneak,” she said, she decided to stay off the subway until her the sidelined wagons are restored.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Wheeler said.

Riverdale resident Erica Perry said she considered switching from driving to the subway before the pandemic. Now she’s too worried about bringing the coronavirus back to her medically vulnerable husband. She said driving also appears to be a more reliable way to get home with their daughter, even though her commute to downtown DC has gradually increased from a pandemic low of 20 minutes to 45.

“I don’t want to be with all these people” on public transportation, said Perry, a data analyst.

Bob Pishue, an INRIX transportation analyst, said highway speeds remained about the same or slightly above pre-pandemic speeds throughout the day in the DC area, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Peak-hour traffic has been slower to return, but has steadily increased in many major metropolitan areas since early February – after the omicron wave began to subside – although it has recently declined due to rising gasoline prices.

Even though commuting traffic remains broadly suppressed as more people continue to work from home, Pishue said crushing congestion could eventually return at the peak of the morning and evening rush. Indeed, motorists who had previously avoided the peaks might decide to travel then if those times are more convenient and become less congested. The peak period might be shorter overall, he said, but it might seem as intense as before the pandemic.

“You’ll probably see fewer cars on the road,” Pishue said, “but congestion at its peak could be just as high.”

Sandra Brecher, Montgomery County commuter services chief, said she hopes less frequent trips could encourage more people to try the bike, and she expects warmer temperatures to lead to more rentals. scooters and self-service bicycles, two convenient ways to reach public transit stations. More employers should also offer transit subsidies as a perk, particularly if they offer parking, she said.

“Maybe some people think they need 2,000 pounds of steel around them to be protected” from the pandemic, Brecher said, “but I think that’s going to come down.”

Jack McDougle, CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said he expects companies to continue subsidizing transit fares, particularly because many pay higher rents near subway stations to provide less parking.

“A lot of companies have a vested interest in making sure their employees use public transportation,” McDougle said.

Regional transport planners say they expect it will take about another 10 months for longer-term travel patterns to transform.

For example, they say, worsening traffic due to the reopening of more offices could cause some weary motorists to realign their office days with carpooling. For others, public transit might become more attractive once downtown parking costs start to pile up.

“People might tolerate driving today,” said Timothy Canan, COG’s director of planning data and research program. “But by June it could be a totally different story.”

Journalist Justin George contributed to this report.

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