Car Commutes and Congestion Are Back in D.C.

Low transit ridership and a more dispersed daytime workforce are creating new headaches for car commuters in the D.C. area—in a story likely to be repeated all over the country as work returns to the office.

2 minute read

March 23, 2022, 8:36 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


A long exposure of Interstate 395 through downtown Washington D.C. on a busy night.

Interstate 395 through downtown Washington D.C. on a busy night. | JL IMAGES / Shutterstock

Since the beginning of the pandemic, prognosticators have pointed to the narrative about public health concerns and a new acceptance of telecommuting driving outward migration as a sign of congestion to come (Planetizen even mentioned congestion in its 2022 trends to watch post). With increasing numbers of workers returning to the office in recent weeks, it's time to check in again with the congestion beat.

Katherine Shaver reports for the Washington Post that traffic congestion has been getting notably worse in the D.C. area:

  • "Morning traffic volumes on some arteries headed into downtown Washington grew, on average, by almost 9 percent between late February and early March, according to the District Department of Transportation."
  • "Average morning speeds on northbound I-95 in Northern Virginia and part of the southbound Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Maryland have slowed from about 55 mph late last year to 46 mph, according to INRIX, a Seattle-area traffic analytics firm."

Shaver also provides the context for those congestion numbers by reporting other key factors:

  • "Some commercial property managers report office buildings near 35 percent to 50 percent of pre-pandemic occupancies, while their parking garages are at 55 to 70 percent. Metrobus has hovered around 70 percent of pre-pandemic ridership for months. But Metrorail, whose customers generally have more opportunities to telework and drive, has lagged at about 30 percent this month."

As a final component of the congestion mix, Shaver reports: "Regional transportation planners say they are hearing that some carpools and van pools — most common among auto-dependent commuters from farther-out suburbs — haven’t reformed as trips to the office have become less regular."

The article includes soundbites from commuters who report their automobile commute experiences and share why they are choosing not to take transit when returning to the office after two years of working from home. The article provides a substantial debate from numerous sources about whether congestion and high gas prices might push some commuters to more efficient mode choices.

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