The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Where do MoCo residents walk, bike & take transit to work?

For decades, Montgomery County has promoted transit-oriented development as a way to provide alternatives to driving, but some say it hasn't worked, claiming most people "will drive no matter what." However, a detailed look at commuting habits in specific neighborhoods clearly shows that people will leave their cars at home if there are other options.

Nearly 60% downtown Silver Spring residents get to work without a car. Photo by the author.

I looked at data from the Census Bureau's 2006-2010 American Community Survey to see how Montgomery County's 502,000 employed residents get to work. Countywide, 2/3 of commuters drive to work alone. 15% take public transit, 11% carpool, and 5% work at home. Just 2% walk or bike to work.

While those numbers may seem impressive for a suburban area, they may seem underwhelming for anyone who envisions a more urban future for the county.

However, if you break it down by neighborhood, commuting habits vary dramatically. In places with reliable, frequent transit service, or jobs within close proximity, or were designed to encourage walking, biking and transit use over driving, commuters take advantage of the options they're given.

Not only does this data suggest that the county's policies have been successful, but it provides some guidance for how to encourage more walking, biking and transit use in the future. (For a closer look at the data, you can see my spreadsheet and consult this map of the county's census tracts.)

Taking transit to work

Here's a map of the county broken down by census tract, showing the areas where transit use is above the countywide average of 15 percent:

Census tracts with the highest percentage of transit commutes. Click the image for a larger version, or click here to see this image without the ranking labels.

Not surprisingly, people use transit more in areas where there's lots of transit, like around each of the 13 Metro stations in or (like Takoma and Friendship Heights) within walking distance of the county.

Over 40% of commuters take transit to work in Friendship, downtown Bethesda, downtown Silver Spring and South Silver Spring, where for decades the county has sought to concentrate jobs, housing and other amenities. Census Tract 7012.14, a concentration of apartments and condominiums just east of the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station in North Bethesda, wasn't far behind.

Commuters will choose the bus as well if the service is good. Transit use was high along corridors with frequent bus routes that run all day, seven days a week, like Veirs Mill Road, University Boulevard, Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue and Columbia Pike. Metrobus lines serving these roads, like the C, K, Q, Y and Z, are among the most-used routes in Maryland.

In tract 7023.01, which covers part of the Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring, there's no Metro station, but there are over a dozen Ride On and Metrobus routes. As a result, nearly 36% of commuters there use transit.

While the areas with above-average transit ridership were almost entirely in the Downcounty and East County, there were also a few Upcounty neighborhoods, like around the Germantown and Lakeforest transit centers, both of which are major Ride On hubs. This is impressive considering that these areas were built after World War II, when it was assumed that everyone would drive everywhere.

Walking and biking to work

Here's a map showing census tracts where the percentage of walkers and bicyclists is above the countywide average of 2.49 percent:

Census tracts with the highest percentage of foot and bike commutes. Click the image for a larger version, or click here to see this image without the ranking labels.

This map bears some similarities to a "bicycling heat map" Montgomery County planners created last year to determine what areas of the county would have the highest demand for bicycling infrastructure. As it predicted, walking and biking rates are higher in the county's downtowns, like Silver Spring, Bethesda and Rockville, where homes and jobs are within walking distance of one another.

However, there also appeared to be a connection between above-average walking and biking and proximity to a major educational, research or medical institution. There's a high instance of walkers and bikers around the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

About a quarter of commuters walk or bike to work in tracts 7050, which includes both facilities, and 7048.06 next door in downtown Bethesda. Meanwhile, almost 19% of commuters walk or bike to work in tract 7017.02 in Takoma Park, which includes Washington Adventist Hospital and Washington Adventist University.

And one out of ten commuters walk or bike in the recently-built Fallsgrove neighborhood of Rockville. Located miles from a Metro station and lacking good bus service, Fallsgrove has lower-than-average transit use.

However, it has interconnected streets and a mix of homes, shops and offices, making it easy to get around on foot or bike. It's also across the street from the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center, home to major employers like Johns Hopkins University and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital.

There were also above-average instances of walking and biking in rural communities, like Burtonsville, Potomac and Damascus. I'm not sure why this happens, but it bears further investigation.


The data suggests ways we can increase walking, biking and transit use in places like White Flint.

While this wasn't an exhaustive look at commuting habits, one pattern is clear: people will choose not to drive when real alternatives are available. If you provide fast, frequent transit service that's as convenient if not more so than driving, commuters will use it. And if people live close enough to their jobs, they'll consider walking or biking to work.

The best way to encourage these behaviors is by building up around our transit network. More people living in places like Bethesda, Silver Spring or White Flint means more people who can reach their jobs by foot, bike or transit.

But that's not all. We need to create a pleasant walking experience in these areas, which can encourage people to walk farther. We need to provide adequate bicycling infrastructure to attract a wider range of bicyclists.

And we should acknowledge that even people who live in transit-rich areas like downtown Silver Spring and take transit to work might still drive three blocks to the grocery store. There will be cars in Montgomery County for a long time to come, even if they have to share space with pedestrians, bicyclists and transit.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


Add a comment »

Good work.

MoCo is like if Fairfax and Arlington were one county. It is a "suburb" but has urban areas which means that those areas have a comparative advantage wrt transit than the more suburban areas of the county. It's better for the county as a whole (especially the further out individuals who pretty much have to drive) to leverage that.

This is good to show when people try to use the technical sense of the word suburban to demonstrate why some transit or place-making initiatives make perfect sense in Bethesda or Silver Spring despite them not being cities in a technical/municipality sense.

by drumz on Dec 17, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

It is amazing how much walking and biking is happening without county planners realizing it. I recently participated in a county walk from on the Georgetown Branch Trail from it's eastern terminus to almost Jones Mill Rd. The main purpose was to assess trail needs.

Some representatives clearly expected this dirt path that ended in a parking lot to be of hyper-local interest only. The far east end of it is actually in a limbo where no government entity is even responsible for regular upkeep. For a 7:00PM walk on a weekday - after prime commuting hours - we were constantly meeting walkers and bikers (mostly bike commuters). I think the main take-away for the county representatives there was how active even this stub trail is.

On a semi-related note, regarding your earlier post on where bike lanes might help, when Purple Line construction finally begins, this very active commuting trail will be partially or fully shut down for a long time. That map assumes current resources remain in place. At the time of the county walk, the construction plans weren't assuming the trail was a major thoroughfare and that they could just close the whole thing down during Purple Line construction rather than trying to reopen the trail in useful segments. This would dramatically affect a lot of bike commuters - particularly where there are few alternatives to the trail bridge near Jones Mill. In general, bike lanes on East West Highway need to be in place before that process begins and a safe bride detour would be ideal.

by Dan H on Dec 17, 2012 3:14 pm • linkreport

@D. Reed -this is really good. Thanks.

by Tina on Dec 17, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

Just guessing, but biking in Burtonsville, Potomac and Damascus benefit from wide roads with low traffic, the CCT and the Canal Towpath.

Dan H: +1. I am sure that better bike and walking infrastructure would be readily and cheaply available if MoCo DOT can get past the "cars only" mind set.

by SJE on Dec 17, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

I just love all of these neighboorhood names - particularly MoCo - as it translates to 'mucus' or 'snot' in Spanish. Perhaps intentional?

by dave on Dec 17, 2012 5:03 pm • linkreport


It would also help to know where people in the rural parts of the county work. For instance, if somebody lives over a store or on the farm where they work, does the Census count it as working at home, or walking to work? That's what my guess was. I'm not sure how many people living in Potomac or Burtonsville are walking/biking to jobs several miles away, though when I was growing up, my friend's dad ran from their house in White Oak to work in downtown DC.


It's just an abbrev, not unlike PG, HoCo or LoCo. And I did know it's Spanish for "booger," which is pretty funny. Not because I think Montgomery County is a booger, as you imply, but because boogers can be funny.

by dan reed! on Dec 17, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

Very good work!!

drumz -- while SS and Bethesda aren't "cities" they are "conurbations", and are treated as urban or town centers in a variety of ways, including from the standpoint of planning (even Census data collection).

But the data seems a little suspect. Some of those numbers are very high.

by Richard Layman on Dec 17, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

Conurbation: that's the word I was looking but can't remember. Thanks.

by Drumz on Dec 17, 2012 8:10 pm • linkreport

Why mention Lakestforest Transit Center but not Lakeforest Mall, the mall is most likely a destination for many in the vicinity, unless taking a bus to Shady Grove or J route to Bethesda.

With Friendship Heights being mentioned are the people talking about the DC Neighborhood, Chevy Chase in Maryland or even Somerset in Maryland

by kk on Dec 18, 2012 12:41 am • linkreport

I think there is one piece of missing data from your analysis. The high level of bus use in the East county and G-burg may primarily be because incomes are lower in those areas, and people don't have the funds for buying and maintaining cars. One of the goals to increase ridership should be to make buses desirable to people for whom it is not the only form of transportation available.

by rothel on Dec 18, 2012 7:53 am • linkreport


Which numbers do you think are too high? Seems logical to me that people who choose to live right next to transit would then pick jobs also close to transit. That's why they're willing to pay the premium to live there.

by MLD on Dec 18, 2012 7:59 am • linkreport

Those bike numbers in the outer areas. But I concede your point about transit numbers in census tracts immediately abutting stations involving some self selection.

Part of the problem is how the data is collected, people are supposed to list their primary mode. E.g., in 2010 when I worked in Balt. County, my primary mode was railroad to Baltimore, but I biked between home and Union Station, and used bus (sometimes light rail) and then switched to bike from Balt. City to Towson.

In any case, MoCo should be very pleased with this data.

by Richard Layman on Dec 18, 2012 9:57 am • linkreport

If you look at the data spreadsheet from Dan, the high numbers in the bike/walk map (it combines both) are driven by an increase in people who walk to work, not so much by bikers.

And yes, the use of primary mode only is a detriment to the last mile modes like bike/walk. And NHTS data about travel is pretty horrible when it comes to alternative (non-driving) modes.

by MLD on Dec 18, 2012 10:06 am • linkreport

The numbers for areas close to Metro are not excessive at all. Robert Cervero measured trip generation rates in three MoCo apartment buildings near Metro and found them to be very low.

by Ben Ross on Dec 18, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

Clearly MoCo has benefited from mass transit developed to move armies of worker bees to and from the city. But other than that, it's basically just car-oriented, sprawly suburbia, like way too much of America. "Downtown" Bethesda, Silver Spring, etc., don't feel like downtowns at all. They're as sterile as any shopping mall or strip center.

Does the photo above invite you to go there and walk around? The only "destination" is the train station. The rest is built to capture car traffic from that, and from up and down the Pike.

It certainly isn't trying to capture me, as a cyclist, pedestrian, or bus rider.

Roads around MoCo would scare most cyclists to death, with no bike lanes, fast traffic, too many high speed merge lanes, and plenty of bad pavement, all of which make the hills that much worse. Imagine crawling up a hill, trying to get past a freeway onramp, being buzzed by 50mph traffic -- the reality of getting to most commercial areas. When you do get there, there are no bike racks!

Pedestrians fare no better, with huge distances to get across Rockville Pike, or around unconnected parcels. Crosswalk buttons do not change the signal timing at all. They just give you a walk signal on the next cycle -- not even the current one when there's plenty of time left! Dozens of crosswalks that should be marked, aren't -- like the ones between major bus stops on opposite sites of the street, or that connect discontinuous sidewalks.

Bus coverage is pretty good, but timeliness is not. Be sure to get to the bus stop at least 5 minutes early, and expect to wait until at least 5 minutes after the bus is due. Even at terminals, like train stations or malls -- where there's no excuse for this -- buses leave minutes early or late. "Next bus" information is available only after navigating the general county phone tree, and only during business hours. Why can't bus schedules be posted at bus stops?

MoCo still has a long way to go.

by Silverfish on Dec 19, 2012 1:04 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us