Driving patterns of the past create problems for today Roads weren't built with suburb-to-suburb commuters in mind

March 02, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Gone are the days when city-bound commuters ruled rush hour. Almost half of the Baltimore region's work force now lives and works in the suburbs, and that's creating major problems for roads and mass transit.

As elsewhere in America, the transportation network in metropolitan Baltimore was largely designed for a previous generation of commuters: those living and working in the city or traveling from bedroom communities to the city.

But now commuters are bouncing increasingly in myriad directions from suburb to suburb, traveling roads that were largely intended to whisk people into the city.

Albert Boggs Jr., 35, of Towson exemplifies the changes.

For a decade, he commuted to downtown Baltimore. Then, he found himself out of work. Now he steers his Ford Explorer to his job as a special projects director at an energy company in Alexandria, Va., 75 miles and more than an hour from home.

In the process, he confronts three zones of congestion: Baltimore City, the Interstate 95 corridor and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Virginia. It can be dangerous. "I've seen my life flash before my eyes several times," he says.

In recent decades, jobs, like people, have moved to the suburbs, clustering in places such as Hunt Valley, Rockville, Columbia and around Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Seventy percent of the 19 million new jobs created nationwide in the 1980s were in the suburbs, says Alan E. Pisarski, author of "Commuting In America II," a study of national trends.

In the Baltimore region, jobs grew by 41 percent from 1970 to 1990, with all of the net growth in the suburbs, according to the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

As a result, secondary roads that were never intended to be major commuter routes are clogged with suburb-bound workers. And expensive fixed-rail systems, designed to speed riders into the heart of the city, find themselves underused and in trouble at the fare box.

"The world is commuting circumferentially," Pisarski says, "on a system that was designed radially."

Some national commuting trends are even more pronounced in the Baltimore region:

Almost half of all commuters are suburbanites who work in the suburbs, a higher percentage than the nation as a whole, according to 1990 census data from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council analyzed by The Sun. That's a substantial increase from 1970, when suburb-to-suburb commuting made up only about a third of the Baltimore region's traffic.

The percentage of the region's commuters living and working in Baltimore City dropped to 17 percent, almost half of what it was in 1970. Nationally, a larger share of metropolitan commuters still live and work in cities, according to Pisarski's study.

The relative percentages of suburbanites headed to the city and reverse commuters -- city residents heading to the suburbs -- remain almost unchanged. Suburb-to-city commuters make up 15 percent of the flow, while reverse commuters are at 8 percent.

The percentage of Baltimore-area residents who work in the Washington area has tripled since 1970, rising to 9 percent. Such "intermetropolitan commuting" is growing nationwide, and the Baltimore-Washington area may provide the best example of that, Pisarski says.

Lester Diamond and his wife live the Baltimore-Washington commuting life. He drives between 45 and 75 minutes from their Columbia home to his job in Alexandria. She drives 15 minutes to work in Catonsville. For Diamond, moving closer to work "is not an option" because of his wife's job.

But it could be worse. Diamond, 39, an information systems manager, used to spend an hour and 15 minutes commuting to Bethesda. Then, he had to contend with the chronically backed-up Capital Beltway or with local roads not built for high-speed commuter travel. "There's no quick way to cut across that region," he says.

Suburb-to-suburb commuting

To help move the masses into the cities, many major roads feed like spokes into the wheels of the Baltimore-Washington corridor's two beltways. But those roads often don't move suburbanites to suburban jobs in the most efficient manner.

Suburb-to-suburb commuting "makes it extremely difficult to develop a transportation system that addresses congestion," says Harvey Bloom, transportation planning director for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Just ask Columbia resident Carlton Haywood, 45, about getting to work. Like a third of all Howard County workers, he commutes to the Washington area, in his case 24 miles to Rockville.

He often avoids the guaranteed backups on the Capital Beltway by taking a more direct route along secondary roads: U.S. 29 to Randolph Road and Rockville Pike. There are disadvantages: stoplights, turning cars and greater variations in speeds. Driving requires constant vigilance. "It mentally wears me out," he says.

State Highway Administrator Parker F. Williams says the state is trying to address the needs of suburban commuters, but the solution is not as simple as it was decades ago when many major highways were built.

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