- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

When science teacher Max Elias decided in 1973 to leave his Palisades apartment for a home in the country, he brought out a map and his compass and inscribed a circle with a 60-mile radius around the District.
"I figured 60 miles meant a 60-minute commute," says Mr. Elias, who wound up settling in rural Wolfsville, Md., "but I didn't figure on what was going to happen."
What happened, of course, was the explosion of development along the Interstate 270 corridor. Mr. Elias soon found his leisurely 60-minute drive stretched into a two-to 2 1/2-hour nightmare. If he wants to beat the traffic these days, he has to set out for his job at Washington's Georgetown Day School no later than 5 a.m.
"I'd rather do that," he says ruefully. "I just can't stand sitting in traffic and going nowhere."
Going nowhere is a scene that's repeated across the metropolitan area. Along with Los Angeles, the District leads the nation in gridlock. Forget the old notions of "rush hour." In fact, forget the hour. Today's rush hour is typically three hours or more, as commuters spend time, energy and trouble mired in traffic.
The average Washington commuter spends 82 hours and $500 worth of gasoline a year inching along area highways. And that squandered time and money doesn't even begin to account for what is lost in other areas.
According to Prevention magazine, the stress of maneuvering through legions of hostile drivers has left commuters with myriad health problems, including lower back pain, high blood pressure and increased anxiety.
The picture may not be as bleak as it seems, however. A bit of careful planning and preparation can cut down on commuting time. In addition, area jurisdictions are offering a range of incentives to get you to the office in record time. In some cases, you may not have to go in to the office at all. So, keep the commute in mind when shopping for a new house, but remember that distance doesn't have to be a deal breaker.
Clearly, the commute has changed since the days when former city dwellers started making the trek back into town. Washington is no longer the inevitable workplace destination. Many businesses and government agencies have offices throughout the Greater Washington area.
"We've seen a real increase in suburb-to-suburb commutes," says Nicholas Ramfos, chief of the Alternative Commute Program at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "Companies and corporations are moving farther and farther out."
Longtime commuter Eileen Lynch, who works as a federal contractor, recently purchased a home in Leesburg, Va. At about 1 1/2 hours out of the District, a house in Loudoun County would have seemed impractical for her just a few years ago. But Miss Lynch now travels to a new office in the Dulles corridor, a short, easy 20 minutes from her home.
Indeed, Loudoun County is the fastest-growing county in the region, close to the corporate offices springing up along the Dulles and I-270 corridors.
For some, the emergence of the suburbs as prime business locations has engendered another kind of trip the reverse commute. A favorite of singles, couples without children and empty-nesters, the reverse commute allows people to enjoy urban amenities that may be missed in the suburban environment.
"People are looking for night life and a kind of excitement that may be lacking in many suburbs," says Marc McGee, senior vice president and general manager of Pardoe ERA in Washington. "Washington, D.C., real estate is booming at a rate that we haven't really seen since the early 1980s."
Suddenly, Washington is cool again. Vacant lots are giving way to massive houses that threaten to overwhelm their modest neighborhoods. In neighborhoods such as Logan Circle, Adams Morgan and Shaw, old houses are being reworked for new occupants.
"Washington has very solidly constructed homes," Mr. McGee says. "It makes it much easier to rebuild and renovate."
For those commuters who remain steadfastly suburban, new regulations have been put in place to help speed them on their way. In April, President Clinton signed an executive order that granted Washington area federal employees up to $65 a month to defray their public transportation costs. The Department of Transportation estimates that 75,000 to 100,000 federal employees will take advantage of subsidies or new van-pool incentives when they go into effect Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Gov. James S. Gilmore III has mandated a similar subsidy for state employees who live and work in the area between Washington and Fredericksburg. Higher speed limits in HOV lanes are expected to encourage ride sharing, while a possible rail line along part of the Beltway is under consideration.
Rail may indeed be the wave of the future commute in the Washington area. In addition to successful MARC lines in Maryland and the new Virginia Railway Express in Virginia, the possibility of light rail in various jurisdictions also is being discussed.
"When I take the train, it may take a few minutes longer, but I come in feeling so much more relaxed," says Andy Green, who commutes to Washington from his home in Warrenton. "It's such a better way to face the day."
Then there are those who take the decidedly low-tech road to commuting. Biking provides a viable alternative for a number of area residents. The Capital Crescent Trail between Bethesda and Georgetown has its own "rush hour" every morning and afternoon as bikers hustle to and from downtown jobs. Many federal agencies in the area regularly provide their employees with updated information about bicycle routes and regulations. Some, such as the Naval Research Laboratory in Southwest, even offer mentoring services for first-time bicycle riders.
But suppose you don't want to commute at all? Telecommuting increasingly is becoming a viable option as more and more companies embrace the idea that working at home or at a telecommuting center is an easy, productive way to get work done.
"We've had a 65 percent jump in the number of people telecommuting, according to our latest numbers," Mr. Ramfos says. "That's the highest growth we've ever had."
For their part, area builders clearly are anticipating an increase in the number of telecommuters. New homes are being built with home office areas and high-speed wiring designed to facilitate home-to-office communication.
"It's really a quality-of-life issue," Mr. Ramfos says. "With telecommuting, you have more time at home to tend to your kids, your parents or yourself."
But if you still need to drive to work, ride-sharing programs offer a surprising variety of options. While car-pool ridership has fallen off nationally in recent years, the Washington area boasts the highest car-pool rate in the country.
Working with federal agencies, private companies and local jurisdictions, Commuter Connections, a free service of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, provides helpful commuting tips as well as ride-sharing programs.
Commuter Connections not only will find you a ride to share, it will fill you in on the full range of commuting options, from rail-line schedules to teleworking resource centers. An on-line form allows you to calculate your commuting costs instantly. If you have avoided ride sharing in the past, thinking that unexpected overtime or a family emergency could leave you stranded, Commuter Connections' "Guaranteed Ride Home" program might make you think again. It will make sure you get where you need to be in such situations.
"It's a real safety net for commuters," Mr. Ramfos says. "We'll make sure you get where you need to be, whether it's by taxicab or rental car."
So there are alternatives to that daily dose of incivility and inaction that consumes 20 percent of the workday. With a little careful planning, the time you spend battling Washington's notorious traffic patterns can shrink, or at least be made more palatable.

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