When commuting in the D.C. region, distance doesn’t tell the whole story

If you work in downtown Washington, don’t have a car and want to keep your commute to under an hour, you could live in Gaithersburg, Md., or Reston, Va., both about 20 miles away.

But you’d have trouble doing the same from just across the Anacostia River in neighborhoods such as Bellevue, only seven miles away, or close-in areas of Prince George’s County, Md.

Metro, local bus systems and regional commuter rail combine to form an elaborate and expansive transit network for the Washington region. But data shows that wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs have an easier time tapping into it, while residents of poor and lower-income neighborhoods on the eastern side of the District and, farther east, across the border in Maryland face longer and often more-complex commutes.

A Washington Post analysis of travel times across the region illustrates stark differences in the commuting experience for transit users around the nation’s capital. Most striking, commuters in some areas in Southwest and Southeast Washington and close-in Prince George’s have longer trips to get downtown than more transit-connected locations dozens of miles away from the White House.

That problem will only be magnified in the coming months when Metro adopts truncated operating hours that will shut down rail service at 11:30 on weeknights. Those hours will hinder access from the downtown core to the wider region for an estimated 2,600 daily late-night riders, many of whom are low-wage workers, according to data.

For example, with Union Station as a starting point for a non-Metrorail commute, only the far reaches of Northeast Washington, a slice of Northwest Washington, and close-in Arlington County, Va., will be reachable within an hour by remaining transit.

“If you’re trying to get home from a job that lets out at 1  a.m., you work at a bar or a restaurant or something like that in downtown and you need to go to Southeast, you can’t do it in under an hour,” said J.D. Godchaux, co-founder of NiJeL, which describes itself as a “data storytelling” firm specializing in maps and data visualizations.

Howard Jennings, managing director of Mobility Lab, the research and development branch of Arlington County Commuter Services, said that on the basis of the Post analysis, Metrorail’s earlier closing represents a “severe curtailment” of transit service.

[How a National Transit Map could connect ‘transit deserts’ to the grid]

“This is cut back substantially,” he said. “People who are used to being rail riders, who are not bus riders, you’re going to have a real shift there in awareness of options. The onus is really going to be on providers of information.”

Others said the analysis points to the necessity of commuting alternatives for transit-dependent workers.

“What we’re confronted with, and there’s no easy answers, is how do we make sure that late-night labor can get home from work in an affordable way that allows our late-night economy to function?” said Adie Tomer, a policy fellow with the Brookings Institution. “This should be a motivator for us to think of a kind of set of alternatives for late-night laborers returning home, some kind of credit for them to use — in particular for [ride-hailing or taxi] services.”

The disparity in the region’s commuting experience might be illustrated most strikingly with the example of Shady Grove, Md. — a 28-mile drive from the White House. It is in a transit-rich corridor with substantial access to the wider region, with a footprint that roughly follows Metro’s Red Line.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Botanic Garden’s greenhouse complex in Southwest Washington, near the southern tip of the District, at about eight miles is physically much closer to the executive mansion. But the animated map, integrating real-time transit data, shows the greenhouses might as well lie 20 miles outside D.C. city limits. Because the commute from that part of Southwest requires a bus ride and rail transfer, the commute from Shady Grove beats the ride in from Southwest by several minutes. The Southwest example mirrors the experience in much of the District’s Ward 8.

Further contrasts are illustrated by King Street in Alexandria, Va., and Largo Town Center in Largo, Md., which are seven and 11 miles from the White House, respectively. Despite only a few miles’ difference between the locations, commuters from King Street have access to a wide swath of the region — including Arlington and Fairfax counties in Northern Virginia, the District, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland — within an hour by transit. Commuters in Largo can reach only the District and Prince George’s, with the exception of some isolated pockets elsewhere in the region.

Still, Jennings said, the data illustrates that the Washington ­region is a model for transit usage. Arlington, where Mobility Lab is based, presents a stark contrast to communities on the eastern side of the Anacostia River, which are far less connected.

[Metro late-night service hearing features scathing criticism, pleas and protests from riders, advocates]

“People focus a lot right now on the ridership drop on Metrorail, but they’re also failing to remember there’s still a huge ridership there,” Jennings said. “It’s the second-largest system in the country. . . . It’s not a failing, dying system by any means.”

At rush-hour peaks, nearly the entire region is accessible within an hour. But the transit footprint shrinks as the day goes on and service is reduced, until the District is essentially isolated from the wider region late at night, analysis shows.

Ward 8 residents, who live in Southeast and parts of Southwest Washington, have the longest average commutes in the District, with trips taking about 46 minutes, according to districtmobility.org, an initiative of the District Department of Transportation.

“That is astounding,” said Godchaux, observing a comparison between the Ward 8 commuting footprint and that of Montgomery County. “These folks are in the District, but they’re definitely more disconnected from downtown than these folks in [the suburbs].”

The analysis is also a dramatic illustration of an “east-west” divide in the D.C. region’s transit network, according to Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“Part of it’s wealth and the ability for the jurisdictions on the west side of the region to spend more money on local bus service,” Schwartz said, “and provide local coverage to all income levels of their population.”

[Developers are making billions off Metro. How that could help save the system.]

Schwartz said the data underscores the need for increased transit investment in the region’s eastern reaches. He pointed to a performance analysis of the 2015 National Capital Region Long-Range Transportation Plan, which showed that many areas, “mainly on the eastern side of the region,” will see automobile accessibility decline even further as more jobs are concentrated in the western half of the region between now and 2040. As a result, investment in transit needs to be bolstered, he said.

Further, the analysis showed that some of the region’s least-accessible areas also are the most transit-dependent. Northeast and Southeast Washington contain census tracts where more than 40 percent of households are both transit-reliant and lower-income, the only such corridor in the region.

These census tracts east of the Anacostia River are home to roughly 145,000 residents, most of whom are black and more than half of whom live in households making less than $35,000 a year, according to census data. And while Metro stations are fewer and farther apart in these areas, two stations — Anacostia and Southern Avenue — were among the stations where the most passengers exited late into the night.

The Anacostia and Southern Avenue stations, which border the District, are two of the 10-most-exited stations on average between 11:30 p.m. and midnight on weekdays, according to data provided by Metro.

Schwartz said the “building out” of transit stations on the eastern end of the system will play a part in easing the divide in the coming years. He pointed to development in Prince George’s, investments stretching from New ­Carrollton to College Park, both in Maryland, to the planned Prince George’s regional hospital near the Largo Town Center Metro station, as potential drivers of growth.

Prince George’s officials have flirted with the idea that the hospital could be a perfect impetus for a mass-transit line from Charles County and Southern Maryland to connect to Metro and MARC trains, but no serious proposal has been made.

Even as regional officials debate ways to better connect the region, the wide disparities in the region’s network are clear, policy experts said.

“It is a serious equity problem; there’s no question,” Jennings said.

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