The Future of Regional Commuting
VRE trains are one option for Washington, D.C.'s regional commuters. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

VRE trains are one option for Washington, D.C.'s regional commuters. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

The Washington Post’s Get There blog announced yesterday that Virginia Railway Express is planning service upgrades due to the availability of additional train parking space at L’Enfant station. These will include a new early morning express train from Fredericksburg, which will stop at L’Enfant Station and Union Station (this express service would take one hour to reach L’Enfant instead of the 1.5-hour travel time of the regular service.) Additionally, VRE will add cars to existing trains.

While these changes on their own are unlikely to have a big effect on area commuting patterns, they raise an important question: How is the D.C. metro area approaching regional transportation, and how should it be?

This issue has grown increasingly relevant in recent decades. Commuting has become more regional, as suburbs — then exurbs — spread farther from city centers. We now not only have metropolises but megalopolises.

What’s more, exurban commuters overwhelmingly drive alone to work. For instance, according to the 2008 American Community Survey, 81% of Loudon County workers drove alone to work, and only 2% took public transportation. Similarly, in Spotsylvania County, 76% of workers drove alone, while 5% took public transportation.

With people settling in increasingly dispersed patterns, it is difficult to provide them with alternatives to the automobile. However, offering fast, convenient, high-quality options is key to shifting regional commuters out of their cars.

In the D.C. area, exurban commuters have limited choices. If Virginia residents live within walking, biking or driving distance of one of 16 stops along two VRE lines, they can take the train. Travel times are similar to driving times when accounting for traffic, but there are only six trains from Fredericksburg during the morning peak, six from Manassas, and none of those are express trains.

Suburban Maryland residents can take the MARC train, but except for the Penn Line, there are only a handful of trains with limited stops during morning and afternoon peaks. There are a few Amtrak trains usable by commuters, but they leave infrequently and fares are high. Additionally, travelers can utilize various commuter bus systems, but travel times are longer and transferring between lines or modes is often necessary.

President Obama’s high speed rail program may be a step in the right direction. $620 million in stimulus funding will go towards developing a high speed rail corridor stretching from Charlotte to Washington. This project will put many people to work on its construction, and once completed, it will serve as an attractive, efficient alternative to the automobile that will lure drivers out of their cars.

However, as a recent Washington Post editorial points out, high speed rail projects are massive, take years to build and cost tens of billions of dollars. Meanwhile, service cuts are threatened for some of the few regional commuting alternatives that do exist. This contrast begs the question: how are our transportation dollars best spent?

The Post asks why stimulus funds weren’t dedicated to improving the Acela’s infrastructure. Similarly, should more funds be devoted to the operating expenses of our existing transit services? After all, money spent on maintaining – and even improving – important services like the VRE and MARC has the potential to save jobs and cut carbon emissions today.

While you ponder these big questions, tell the VRE what you think of their proposed service changes before they finalize them.

Post script: if you’re interested in transportation in the L’Enfant Plaza area, you may want to attend the public meeting on proposed mobility improvements held by the National Capital Planning Commission tonight at 5:30 at 401 9th Street, NW.

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