Becky Harlan/for WAMU
Some 35% of regional workers travel more than 45 minutes each way to work.
Becky Harlan/for WAMU
Updated Jan. 27, 9:50 a.m.
Brent Scott leaves for work around 6 a.m. each day. He arrives two hours later.
Scott lives in Brooklyn Park, Maryland, an area of Anne Arundel County that's closer to Baltimore than D.C. He works in Silver Spring. On a typical day, Scott drives to a MARC station, hops on a train to Union Station, transfers to Metro's Red Line, deboards at Silver Spring and walks (or takes a scooter) five blocks to his office.
Scott, who works as an IT engineer, has the kind of long commute that's all too common in the region. Commutes here are among the lengthiest in the country. While the average American commutes about 27 minutes (a record high), the average D.C.-area worker spends 43 minutes getting to and from work. And more than a third travel 45 minutes or more to work every day.
In 2017, those who drove to work logged 102 hours sitting on the road due to traffic congestion. That's the equivalent of more than four days — time that could have been spent pursuing hobbies, meeting up with friends, connecting with family or sleeping.
For Scott and others, spending hours a week in transit is a tradeoff for being able to afford a home.
"I wanted a decent, single-family house, and what was affordable was up that way," he says. This echoes a Brooking Institute study that found commutes tend to be longer in metropolitan areas where housing is priciest.
But long commutes can take a toll — on health, wealth, happiness and time. And employers and employees alike are looking for solutions.
Commutes Are Getting Longer
The number of people in the District increases substantially in the daytime hours, leaping from an estimated 705,749 to well past a million as commuters pour in from the suburbs and exurbs of Maryland and Virginia. Increasingly, those commuters are frustrated with the trip.
In 2019, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) released its triennial State of the Commute report, a survey that examines commuting patterns. More than a quarter of respondents (28% in total) said their commute was more difficult than it was the previous year — an increase of about six percentage points from the 2016 survey. Overall, about half of respondents said they were satisfied with their commute.
How are all these people getting to work? In 2019, 60% of commuters surveyed listed driving without passengers in the car as their primary way of getting to work. This is down from its 2004 peak, but still more than triple the next-closest mode of transit. Nearly 20% of respondents take the train (Metro or commuter rail) as their primary mode of work travel. Another 7% opt for the bus, 5% carpool and 3% bike, walk or ride a scooter.
Does Moving Help?
The reasons why commuters choose one mode over another, as well as how much time they're willing to travel, aren't as readily quantifiable. Several factors come into play when choosing where to live and work: the availability and proximity of a job; the need for an affordable home; the location of a significant other. Often, it's a blend of reasons.
Nora Strumpf, communications manager for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, commutes an hour and 45 minutes to D.C. from her home in Baltimore. She moved to Baltimore four years ago to live with her boyfriend, but that's just one of the reasons she lives where she does.
"The rent, obviously, is very high in Washington, D.C., and we can get a lot more of an affordable rent living in Baltimore," she says, adding that when she moved, she didn't think she'd maintain the commute for as long as she has.
But while moving further from the District can cut housing costs, those savings can quickly be negated by added transportation costs. For example: Two adults with no children in Arlington County need about $5,653 in monthly income, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In Anne Arundel County, where Scott lives, the estimate is very similar — $5,039 — due in part to transportation costs.
Is It Worth It?
The hazards of long commutes include a drop in job satisfaction, an increase in carbon emissions, higher personal costs and tolls on physical and mental health.
In a study from Social Science & Medicine, then-University of Michigan public health professor Gilbert C. Gee examined whether perceived stress while driving affects one's health as much as a more objective measure of stress. Gee, now at the UCLA Fielding School of Health, stumbled on the idea while driving in Michigan.
"In L.A., you kind of anticipate that you're going to have a lot of traffic to deal with as you commute, but in Ann Arbor I didn't have that expectation," Gee says. "And I just remember one day driving home from work, and it took me two-and-a-half hours for what's normally a 15-minute drive. And it just made me think, 'Boy, I'm really stressed out sitting here stuck in traffic.'"
In addition to connecting traffic stress with depressive symptoms and an overall decline in health, the study also showed a correlation between driving-related stress and the number of vehicles on the road. Basically, the mere sight of traffic can be stress-inducing.
A MARC train pulls out of Union Station last week. Many area employers offer pre-tax dollars for public transit, including commuter trains and Metro.
Time is another sacrifice. All the hours spent in transit — whether streaming podcasts, scrolling through Twitter, or gripping the steering wheel as your eyes glaze over at the taillights ahead — is a lost opportunity for face-to-face human interaction and productivity.
Caroline Mohan lives with her parents in Haymarket and works in D.C. as a communications intern. Each day, she shares a car with her parents on a commute that takes 3.5 to 4 hours round trip. She hopes to move to D.C. when she can afford it.
"This commute is insane. It's just such a waste of time, and I get anxious in the car thinking about how I could be applying for jobs or, I don't know—doing anything besides sitting in the car," Mohan says.
Making It (Slightly) Better
While local commutes aren't getting any shorter, many area employers are taking steps to ease the mental and financial burdens.
The District government, as well as a number of private employers, offers compressed and flexible work schedules, as well as telework—a practice with myriad benefits for employees, employers and the environment. Some jobs also offer Metro subsidies and flexible spending accounts for rail fare and parking. Federal employees in the area can take advantage of a transit subsidy. However, a 2010 law expanding telework options for federal employees has, in effect, been rolled back in recent years.
Some 35% of commuters surveyed in the 2019 State of the Commute study said they teleworked frequently or occasionally, an increase of 16 percentage points over the past 12 years. And 60% said their employer offered commuter-assistance services of some fashion.
"We are more open to it than we ever have been before," says Cindy Sutton, human resources managing director for the consulting firm Accenture's Southeast region. "Work does happen everywhere."
Beyond telework, Accenture also moved an office from Reston to Arlington, in part to better accommodate the travel needs of both its employees and clients.
For Kirk Anderson, a shorter commute meant getting more of his life back. A decade ago, he lived in Reston and worked near Federal Triangle. Now he lives in Anacostia and works in Foggy Bottom. The move shaved 90 minutes off of his commute, and he noticed some other benefits.
"I was able to exercise, cook for myself. My friendships and relationships [were] better. I was able to volunteer, just kind of generally do things that I enjoyed," Anderson says. "It was all around a significant improvement to my life."
The pie chart titled "How Long Is Your Commute" was updated to reflect that 16% of respondents spend 11-20 minutes commuting.