Maryland commuters go it alone

Drive: Census data show workers spending more time on the road rather than carpooling or using mass transit.

May 31, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

As his family and neighbors sleep, Jimmie Mowder Jr. starts his commute - a 5:30 a.m. ritual that gets him to work an hour early, long before anyone but the janitor is around.

He's not looking for a promotion. He's trying to beat the traffic.

Even so, he has plenty of company on the road from others with the same idea.

Census data released this week show that Maryland residents spent 15 percent more time, on average, en route to work in 2000 than they did a decade before.

But most aren't dealing with delays by carpooling or using public transportation. Statewide, an ever-larger proportion of people - about three out of four - are driving alone.

Lured by cheaper exurban homes, people have been moving farther from their jobs over the past decade, planners say. Workers are coping with the distance - and trying to beat congestion - by heading for back roads, leaving early, staying late or rearranging their schedules.

That's why rush hour is getting longer in Maryland, said State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck (an early-to-work man himself who regularly gets in 45 minutes before his 8 a.m. reporting time).

Mowder, who teaches high school science in Columbia, has spent the past decade watching peak traffic times expand.

"If you take a look behind us, you'll see we're getting to a point where it's already reasonably full - and it's only 5:45 in the morning," he said, turning his van onto Interstate 70 this week, into a line of cars.

Numbers are partly to blame. Maryland had 109,200 more workers in 2000, according to the Census Bureau, and most of them were on the road. Though public transit use grew in most counties, growth in driving solo outstripped those gains.

Compiled from the "long-form" questionnaires sent in 2000 to one household in six, the new statistics suggest the average commute that year was 31 minutes, four minutes longer than in 1990. People living on the lower Eastern Shore had it best - particularly in Wicomico County, where the typical commute lasted just 21 minutes.

Still, many rural counties that look good in the commuting rankings saw sizable jumps in the 1990s: On average, trips to work in 2000 took seven minutes longer in Dorchester and six minutes in Caroline and Garrett.

The longest commutes were nearly all in the Washington suburbs, a reminder that Baltimore area residents could have it worse.

Typical workers in Calvert County spent 40 minutes getting to their jobs. In Charles County, the average was 39 minutes; in Prince George's County, 36; and in Carroll County, 34.

Three of those long-commuting counties have something else in common: the greatest number of multiple-car families. A third of the households in Calvert and nearly 30 percent in both Carroll and Charles own at least three vehicles.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group fighting suburban sprawl, blames zoning and development patterns. When people live in communities separated from job centers, they can't count on coming back during the day to ferry teen-age children to appointments. And stay-at-home spouses need a car, too, because nothing's within walking distance.

"In order to get a gallon of milk, you have to get into a vehicle," she said. "That is driving - no pun intended - the need for more cars."

But even though it's easier to walk or take transit to your destination in Baltimore, the average city resident spent five minutes longer getting to work in 2000 than in 1990 - the highest jump in the metro area.

That's likely because some people had to find new jobs outside the city as companies closed or moved in the '90s, said Harvey S. Bloom, director of transportation planning for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

"A lot of the job opportunities for individuals coming off the welfare rolls have a greater availability in suburban job centers," he said. "You're probably seeing a number of people in Baltimore City who are doing a reverse commute."

About 19,200 fewer people are using public transportation in Baltimore, according to the census. Without that drop, transit use would have gone up statewide instead of declining 7 percent. Sixteen of Maryland's counties saw increases.

According to Maryland Transit Administration figures, people boarded buses, trains, subway and light rail 1.8 million more times in the 2001 fiscal year than they did in fiscal 1992.

The year the census was taken, the state launched its "Commuter Choice" program, which encourages companies to pay for their workers' monthly transit passes by offering them a tax credit of up to half the cost. Fifty-nine businesses are participating, said Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

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