Public transit ‘completely impossible’ for some trips around the DC region

When you think of transit, you probably think of the daily commute. But the coronavirus pandemic may change the way it looks in the future.

“Considering the fact that transit most often takes people to work and there’s lots of evidence people will not be traveling to work as much, it’s safe to say transit cannot wholly rely on the commuter going forward,” said Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, in a presentation to members of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission at the group’s Thursday meeting.

Trips to and from work were never the majority of transit usage, accounting for between 20% to 30% of trips, Osborne said. Yet it was the overwhelming focus of the entire transportation program.

Unfortunately, she said, there are many areas where transit options are lacking for people, especially when they aren’t traveling to work.

Osborne recently conducted a transit exercise in which she examined transit options around the region. The scenario involved a parent with two children who live in one of three neighborhoods with good transit options, one in the District, one in Virginia and one in Maryland.

She first conducted a study on what it would take to get the parent to work using only transit.

“We found the parent could get to and from work quite easily with transit in all neighborhoods,” she said.

But when that parent had the responsibility of dropping one child at day care, another at school and then getting to work in the morning and back in the afternoon — strictly using public transit — things changed dramatically.

“In all three neighborhoods, this was almost impossible in the morning and absolutely, completely impossible in the evening. That’s because we’ve been too focused on the work trip from the beginning,” Osborne said.

According to Osborne, the pandemic has shined a light on the problem. Thanks to federal funds to keep transit afloat during the pandemic, transportation entities can now work to fix it.

“We can take this time to re-imagine transit so we supply the other 70% to 80% of trips,” she said.

Osborne said Virginia already has transit-analysis systems in place that would give it the opportunity to lead the country in offering the best transit to the public, if it moves forward to do so.

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