Greater Greater Washington

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Thundersnow traffic illustrates east-west divide

As thundersnow passed through the DC area right at rush hour, we were able to see the nadir of bad traffic via Google Maps.

The map is color-coded based on speed: green for fast, yellow for slow, red for very slow. The red-and-black striped areas are probably where car traffic has stopped entirely. You can see that auto traffic in the DC area affects both suburbs and city equally, even if those who don't have to drive can avoid it. But most importantly, you can see how normal, everyday highway chokepointslike the Beltway/I-270 mergehave converged with other chokepoints, forming miles-long traffic jams, like the one along the Beltway from College Park to Springfield.

But the Beltway commute isn't terrible for everyone. Notice how the most of the Beltway's eastern half, going through Prince George's County, is yellow. If you're driving from, say, Largo to Greenbelt, your trip is probably a little slower than usual, but still fine.

There aren't too many people in that situation, as most of the region's jobs are located on the west side, in places like Bethesda and Tysons Corner. One of the reasons why traffic was so bad last night, and relatively bad every other night, is because every morning thousands of people have to travel from one side of the region to the other.

Commuters are then faced with a choice: pay more to live near your job, whether it's in DC, Tysons or elsewhere, or spend less money on a home farther away from your job. That doesn't always mean moving to a more distant suburb. For many, the most affordable housing choice, and often the only affordable housing choice, is in Prince George's County, right on the District line.

There are lots of ways to fix this problem, like providing more housing in places like Tysons Corner where people already work, or putting more jobs in places like Prince George's County where people already live.

These solutions won't help anyone in traffic last night, but if implemented, they'll make future rush hours more bearable for people on both sides of the Beltway.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also 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. 

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I believe that's one of MWCOG's planning scenarios...trying to fix the jobs/housing divide.

by Froggie on Jan 27, 2011 8:09 am • linkreport

I like the idea of job and homes being close, but feel dubious when confronted with the reality of recessionary scramble to find work ANYWHERE. Also, the entire Baltimore area was paralyzed by one tractor trailer, jack-knifing on the 695 outer loop. We feel we have a good plan, we can out-smart nature and her extremes. Ha!

by janjamm on Jan 27, 2011 8:28 am • linkreport

"For many, the most affordable housing choice, and often the only affordable housing choice, is in Prince George's County, right on the District line."

Seems a good place to plug Mt. Rainier! Takoma Park at 1/2 or less the price. Great housing stock with large lots. Mixed-Use Town Center plan just adopted by the city and county and waiting for more intelligent/ambitious/entrepreneurial people to help us implement it. http://www.pgplanning.org/Resources/Publications/Mount_Rainier_MixedUse.htm
If you want to make Greater Washington, DC greater, this is the place to do it!

by thump on Jan 27, 2011 8:48 am • linkreport

You forgot to take into consideration the time of day the storm happened and the track of the storm. The west side of Washington metropolitan area was hit earlier and harder then the east.

I drove from Salisbury Maryland to Baltimore yesterday afternoon. First saw sleet on Kent Island aroung 1730. Did not encounter significant snow accumulations until I got the Severna Park 1800. Got to my destination in Baltimore at 1845. On the return trip snow was accumulated on the roads the full distance.

Total snow covered road mile logged 165.

by Sand Box John on Jan 27, 2011 8:55 am • linkreport

John's got a good point. The changeover to snow happened from west-to-east, and started right at the beginning of rush hour. With the exception of MoCo and points north/west, Maryland (and DC too) had it much easier weatherwise than the Virginia side did.

by Froggie on Jan 27, 2011 9:17 am • linkreport

My commute from College Park to Capitol Hill last night wasn't bad at all, though I stayed at work until 5, so most folks were off the roads by then. I think it took about 5 minutes longer than normal, but the lack of traffic compensated for the slower speeds due to the snow.

by Denny on Jan 27, 2011 9:44 am • linkreport

Let’s not forget that the entire VA side of the beltway is a gigantic construction zone.

by RJ on Jan 27, 2011 9:56 am • linkreport

Out by all the offices in the Dulles Corridor to which I unfortunately have to commute it started to thundersleet just before 3pm. That set off a mass rush to the doors. In minutes there was close to an inch of icy sleet everywhere. As that moved east into Tysons along with the Feds closing two hours early created a perfect storm. I live in Del Ray and got down to the Pentagon on 110 in 45 minutes. Getting through Crystal City on Rt 1 and then side streets took over an hour to go 2.5 miles. Pure hell. I think one of the big issues is that there is a discontinuity of lanes on Rt 1, and likely everywhere. Drivers stuck in traffic get opportunistic when an apparent lane opens up, only to cause a chokepoint further up the street when the lane ends again (and all the drivers who knew of the lane ending being pissed and not wanting to let you back in). Something needs to be done in high traffic situations to limit access to non through lanes.

by NikolasM on Jan 27, 2011 10:56 am • linkreport

One reason the eastern side of the beltway was less crowded was because you have more options to get into Maryland than Virginia.

Are we forgetting about the river and the limited amount of bridges while almost any street in DC going east will lead you to Maryland.

by kk on Jan 27, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

Commuters are then faced with a choice: pay more to live near your job

This is an incomplete simplified and hence false choice. Many people who bought between ~2000-2007 can not sell their home, simply because its under water. Many people have partners that work. Jobs move around, even if your employer stays the same. Regardless of an economy in which people scramble to have a job at all, it is not easy to find two jobs closely together. People have their job move, but do not want to have their kids change schools, or simply like their neighborhood or house.

In short, the choice of where to live is much more complex than pained above.

There are also other conclusions you can draw from the traffic image. For instance, perhaps nobody drives in PG county because there are no jobs. Or no decent housing. Or perhaps PG county has way better transportation system than "we" like to think here in GGW.

Finally, we need to start thinking about a term similar to "windshield perspective": The view from behind the windshield. We need a term for people who live in DC and can not imagine what goes on beyond the District Line. For people for whom Arlington is far away in the Deep South. People who think that all commuters live in Frederick or Fredericksburg and all work in DC. People who don't realize that there are people working in Tyson's and living in Reston, people who work at Andrews and live in PG county, and oddest of all, people who live in DC and actually leave the District to work out of the holy (truncated) diamond. There are even families where one member works in DC, and the other in Baltimore (oh gasp!)

So, let's stop laughing at people who have long commutes, and start dealing with a realistic way of moving people around this wonderful greater Washington.

by Jasper on Jan 27, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

Jasper makes a good point. "Live near your job" is something that's not that simple for many two-earner households. My mother and father live east of Fairfax City off Route 236. My father works downtown. When they moved to their house in 1983, my mother worked relatively close to where we lived, although the main reason why they chose that particular house was to ensure that my brother and I would go to Frost for junior high and Woodson for high school. Moving on the basis of the schools is extremely common in this area, BTW.

Anyway, a few years later my mom took a job teaching part-time at Longfellow, which is over near McLean. That's a pretty easy commute from where they live via Prosperity Avenue, US-29, and Shreve/Haycock Road. Then, in 1989, she was offered a full-time teaching job out in Centreville, which she accepted and held until she retired last year.

When you view it in terms of where they work/worked (one downtown, one in Centreville), living where they do, about two miles east of Woodson High, is really an ideal location even though it's not necessarily close to either workplace. It's centrally-located between the two of them, gives them access to a good number of roads and to two Metro stops, and is in a good neighborhood.

I suspect that sort of thing is true for a lot of people. People change jobs, too, and it's not always desirable or practical to move. It's also fair to consider which is more important to many parents: a short commute or which schools their kids will attend. Can anyone here, other than the truly single-issue types, REALLY blame people who put their kids' education first when they have to make that choice?

by Rich on Jan 27, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport

"There are lots of ways to fix this problem, like providing more housing in places like Tysons Corner where people already work, or putting more jobs in places like Prince George's County where people already live."

Maybe both are possible. Why not ask the CEOs and Board room execs "What things would you want to see out of PGCo before you would consider opening an office there?", and similarly, ask PGCo residents, "If you had to live near Tysons corner, what would be the ideal housing situation that you could reasonably afford?", or something to that extent. Fact of the matter is, nothing is stopping something like this from being done now, outside of general uncertainty borne of unwarranted fears.

by C. R. on Jan 27, 2011 5:10 pm • linkreport

Last night you would have been stuck even if you lived in DC. People who could not walk to Metro were unable to catch cabs, and I saw plenty of buses abandoned.

As a general proposal the "living near work" is good, but there are limits in practice
1. One partner in a relationship works at a different location to another.
2. You own a house, then you change jobs or your job moves to a different location.
3. The schools in one area are vastly worse than another area (historically a big problem in many urban areas)
4. Once you have kids, in school, there are more downsides to moving.

by SJE on Jan 27, 2011 8:38 pm • linkreport

I have to disagree. I would say it is more of a depiction of the severely limited east/west flow west of the Potomac, heavier snow on the west of the area, more people in the region living in Montgomery and Fairfax (~2 Million) and a large percentage of those working in DC. I have already looked at the statistics and DC proper has at least 100k jobs over the entirety of FairCo (the region's second largest employer). So, Tysons is not the region's job center and certainly neither is Bethesda. Both of them combined would not be! I wish this myth would stop being promulgated on GGW.

by Sivad on Jan 27, 2011 10:47 pm • linkreport

Isn't it an illustration of the problem of overwhelming car dependency and insufficient rail availability? Where are the stories of trains that were delayed?

by Tina on Jan 28, 2011 10:49 am • linkreport

I would say it is more of a depiction of the severely limited east/west flow west of the Potomac ....

I don't know how valid that point is. On the whole, there are far more good east-west arteries through Northern Virginia than there are north-south routes. That's one reason why the construction of the Fairfax County Parkway was considered a priority, as it provided a direct alternative to either going all the way in to the Beltway or using a bunch of different roads.

by Rich on Jan 28, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

That map is incorrect many times so you shouldn't just assume it's correct.

by Vance on Jan 30, 2011 9:29 pm • linkreport

Fix the schools; lower crime and eliminate the thug culture and the housing issues will disappear. (along with a lot of other problems). Maryland would be a lot more attractive. Parts of Germantown, Montgomery village - ridiculous to have a crime and gang problem in those areas. Good schools good policing would solve it- making it more attractive for normal ppl to live there. Unfortunately - we're too busy bldg cheap condos that will likely just become shabby ghettos in 20 yrs. At least the illegals take the bus or ride bikes- but they're reproducing like rats- expect another baby boom generation to be here in 10 yrs.

by Popo on Jun 19, 2011 5:57 pm • linkreport

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