News & Politics

Driving in Washington Is Bad. So Is That Study That Says How Bad It Is.

A report about DC's dismal commutes ignores some important recent developments.

The Silver Line and the highway. Photograph by Flickr user Ron Cogswell.

Few things unite the DC area’s residents quite like an academic report assuring them of their widely held conviction that Washington is hellish for people attempting to travel from their places of residence to places of business. No wonder, then, that the release Wednesday of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s assessment of commuting trends—that ranked the DC metropolitan area’s traffic as the nation’s worst—was met with reader reactions like “No shit” and “I hate that place, so glad I left.”

But as justifiably infuriating as some of the Urban Mobility Report’s findings are—Eighty-two hours a year wasted in traffic jams! Thirty-five gallons of gasoline burned while idling on the highway! Individual losses of $1,834!—there’s reason to be just as mad at the study itself. While driving alone remains the overwhelming favorite mode of commuting in Washington (and everywhere else in the country), the Texas A&M publication uses its review of one type of transportation to diagnose the entire spectrum of urban mobility, and dismisses public transportation, cycling, and walking out-of-hand.

That’s a somewhat sloppy approach to evaluating commuting trends, and one for which Washington’s proponents of alternative modes of transportation are knocking the Aggies.

“TTI’s annual congestion report is great for grabbing headlines, but the report is deeply flawed and biased in not accounting for the congestion avoided by hundreds of thousands of DC area residents due to our smart growth policies and transit investments,” Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smart Growth, said in a press release slamming the Texas A&M study. “The report exaggerates congestion, underplays the major declines in driving by large demographic groups, and ignores the wide ranging economic, social, and environmental benefits of smart growth policies and transit, pedestrian and bicycle investments.”

We’re a long way off from realizing the smart-growthers’ bike lanes-and-unicorns fantasy, but Schwartz’s reaction—and Texas A&M’s response—backs up the criticism of the commuting study. So do many recent findings about Washington’s transportation habits that show the region is moving, albeit slowly, toward non-driving modes.

What’s maddening, though, is that the Urban Mobility Report’s authors ignore those data. “We have backed away from trying to make estimates of what is happening on the transit side because we don’t have very good transit data,” Tim Lomax, one of the publication’s authors, told WAMU. “We don’t have good data about how people are walking. So we concentrated on where we have the data.”

But Lomax’s stance is a bit of a punt, considering the report’s methodology insists it compares similarly sized regions to each other, and not big against tiny. “Los Angeles is not Peoria,” it reads. That dictum would be admirable if the report actually followed it instead of just calling for more highway construction. And while rural Illinois’s biking and walking trends might be difficult to chart, Washington’s are not.

A US Census Bureau commuting study published earlier this month reported that 75.7 percent of Washington-area commuters get to work by driving, the eighth-lowest rate in the country—or fourth-lowest if you remove the walking-heavy college towns that crowd the list. And a 2013 report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which uses a less-spread-out definition of the Washington region, found that 65.8 percent of local commuters were driving to work alone. Both data sets are easy to find.

The Coalition for Smart Growth also hits the Texas A&M study for overlooking critical demographic and infrastructural developments that are slowly shifting commuting trends, especially diminished appetites for driving among millennials and retiring baby-boomers. The Census Bureau found that between 2000 and 2013 the share of 18-to-34-year-olds across the DC region who drive to work fell by 7 percentage points. Then there are the newest public transportation options in the built infrastructure: Capital Bikeshare, users of which logged 4.3 million miles in 2014, and the Silver Line, which brought Metro to a large chunk of Fairfax County and triggered a massive revamp of Tysons Corner that intends to turn the exaggerated office park into a fully functioning city by 2040. Rush-hour congestion along Route 123 in Tysons—near the new Metro stations—decreased 15 percent in the new line’s first year, according to the transit agency.

To be sure, the kind of “smart growth” wanted by groups like Schwartz’s is also slow growth. Even if all of Washington’s transportation projects pan out, MWCOG still figures 57 percent of local commuters will by driving alone in 2040. But any reduction in that figure will only be achieved if commuters are encouraged to swap driving for something else. Complaining about crowded highways won’t do much on its own.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.