News & Politics

One DC Institution Unaffected By the Shutdown? The Commute

The shutdown should have been a dream come true for DC’s weary road warriors. It barely made a dent. Welcome to the new Washington.

The layoff of most of the nearly 400,000 civilian federal staffers in the area sounds apocalyptic—and certainly the region couldn’t withstand a long shutdown. But October’s commuter traffic signaled the deep economic and demographic changes taking place in Washington. Photograph of Metro by Marlon Correa/Getty Images.

The glum mood that followed the federal shutdown made the District’s streets feel a little empty, prompting some to recall the “ghost town” the city became during the last furlough, in 1996. But traffic monitors and veteran commuters say there’s no comparison.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” says Bernard Demczuk, who worked for DC mayor Marion Barry 17 years ago. (Now he’s George Washington University’s assistant vice president for DC government relations.) Then, Demczuk says, population was dropping and visitors were scarcer. “We had a crime rate that was going through the roof. We had neighborhoods that were virtually sterile because people were leaving for Northern Virginia and Maryland.” Nowadays, nightlife and tourism put more people on the roads, and at all hours.

More important, says Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, an influx of corporate jobs and a boom in downtown law firms have put thousands more private-sector workers on the roads. (More lawyers may explain why the Palm steakhouse has been packed despite the shutdown.) “We are a global business center,” Fuller says. “The percentage of the District’s economy tied directly to the federal government has declined. It’s still the major driver, but less important.” Those businesses also fill more seats on Amtrak and the airlines, whose passengers join the throng.

The effect of the furloughs didn’t go unnoticed. Because federal workers’ mass-transit costs are subsidized, they tend to ride the rails; overall, Metro ridership was down by about 20 percent during the shutdown. Car traffic, on the other hand, was prone to an uptick—thanks in part to recent efforts to reduce it. “Private-sector workers who carpool with furloughed federal workers were driving their own cars into town, creating more traffic,” Fuller says.

Gridlock, in short, has become Washington’s byword. WTOP’s director of traffic, Jim Battagliese, recalls that in 1996, after agreeing to reopen the government, the feds kept offices closed an extra couple of days while a snowstorm blew through. Says Battagliese: “I’m not sure if they would do that now.”

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.