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Survey: Mass transit more popular, but most still drive by themselves

Thursday - 9/19/2013, 5:34am  ET

WASHINGTON - Most people continue driving to work, but more and more are looking to telework and mass transit options, a new survey finds.

From the Transportation Planning Board's Commuter Connections program, the new survey finds mass transit and teleworking are becoming more popular, but most still drive a car into work and are the only occupant in that car.

However, the survey finds that the numbers vary greatly depending on where you live.

In D.C., Arlington and Alexandria, 45 percent commute alone in a car, with 34 percent using mass transit options and 8 percent biking or walking to work.

"It makes sense to see these numbers because there are so many options in the inner core to get around," says Nicholas Ramfos, director of commuter connections.

All three jurisdictions have Metro, VRE and Capital Bikeshare. With rail, bus and bicycle options, commuters have several options at their disposal that are close to their homes and convenient to use to get to their office.

But in Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties, the numbers drastically change. According to the survey, 70 percent drive alone into work, whereas only 15 percent take mass transit. The numbers could be considered a little surprising only because there are mass transit options in the three suburbs from Metro, MARC and VRE, as well as local commuter bus systems like Montgomery County Ride-On and the Fairfax Connector.

"There are a lot of Metro stations, but you also have to look at the population base, too. The population base is much larger than you would maybe see in some of the inner core," says Ramfos.

Three counties have about three million residents combined, compared to about one million in Arlington, Alexandria and D.C. Also, while several parts of Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties do have easy access to Metro, MARC or VRE, there are other locations where that's not the case.

"There a lot of factors that go into what mode of transportation you use to commute into work. It depends on where you live, where you work, what your work hours are, and the availability and convenience of different travel modes near you," says Ramfos.

For example, the survey finds that in the inner core (Arlington, Alexandria, D.C.) 84 percent of people live less than a half-mile from a bus stop, whereas the number in the inner suburbs is 53 percent. When you expand it to the outer suburbs like Loudoun and Prince William counties and Viriginia and Charles, Calvert and Frederick counties in Maryland, the number is 15 percent.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey finds a vast majority of commuters from those outer suburbs drive into their office. The survey finds 75 percent drive, whereas only 8 percent use mass transit. While there are commuter bus options in these counties, along with VRE in Prince William County and MARC in Frederick County, these options are not nearly as popular as taking the car.

"The bigger message here is giving people options, so that you're really not just boxed into just getting into my car and being stuck in traffic for an hour-and-a-half each way," says Ramfos.

It's a popular idea in the transportation community to fund projects to make mass transit options more attractive, hoping it'll convince drivers to shed the car for a bus or train. For Loudoun and Prince William counties, such an achievement could make a big difference on the congestion problem along Interstate 66, Virginia Route 7 and U.S. Route 1. In Frederick County, it could result in drastic improvements in the congestion problem along Interstate 270 each day.

"While there has been a lot of work on offering better options for commuters from these outer suburbs, the trend that more people will drive the farther out you go will likely continue in the future," says Ramfos.

The "State of the Commute" survey is done every three years and helps the Transportation Planning Board and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments predict future travel patterns and suggest ways to better tailor transportation to the growing population.

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