More commuters race the dawn to beat traffic

Driving: According to the census, more Marylanders avoid the morning rush by leaving for work long before the sun rises.

April 12, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

If Larry Klimovitz had roosters, he'd never hear them.

The Harford County resident is up at 4:20 every morning and out the door an hour later, part of a growing number of Marylanders who leave for work before 6 a.m. The state hasn't had an influx of morning people. Instead, these commuters are hoping to beat the rush and enjoy a stress-free commute.

"The drive in is a time of solitude," said Klimovitz, whose commute from Fallston to Canton takes about 40 minutes. "If you don't have to worry about school buses and other traffic, it makes the commute a lot less stressful."

But Klimovitz has noticed a lot more people joining him on the road in the gray pre-dawn hours, an observation confirmed by recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau. From 1990 to 2000, the census reported, 18 percent more Marylanders left their homes between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to go to work.

The biggest jump came in outlying suburbs such as Carroll and Harford counties, where workers have farther to go to reach traditional job centers, and where road and transit improvements have not kept pace with population growth. But closer-in suburbs also saw many more early risers.

In Baltimore County, where 95 percent of the residents work in the Baltimore region, a third more workers leave home between 5 a.m. and 5:29 a.m., and 20 percent more leave between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. Experts say congestion and construction on the Beltway and the unpredictability of rush-hour traffic are contributing factors.

"People are getting on the roads at 5 in the quest for a consistent commute," said Bob Marbourg, a traffic reporter for WTOP Radio in Washington. "If you are in the heart of the rush hour, then there is no guarantee of any consistency. Folks are always looking for that edge to figure out when they'll be just on the outside of the envelope."

Some early-morning commuters say the reason for their behavior is a desire to be at work before anyone else and have a chance to respond to e-mails and clear their desks before the phones start ringing. But they say the reduced stress helps, too.

"Dealing with the traffic and then dealing with the stress of my job, I don't think I could do it," said Dee Strausser, chief of the State Highway Administration's motor carrier division in Linthicum, who gets up at 3 a.m. She lives near Denton, on the Eastern Shore, giving her a 60-mile one-way commute.

Strausser, 54, is among the earliest of risers. She and her husband go to bed at 8 every night - "There is no such thing as watching TV" - so they can wake at 3 a.m. Her husband, Robert, is a retired construction worker who still gets up early out of habit and so he can see his wife.

Strausser is on the road by 3:45 a.m. and at work by about 4:45 a.m. Even at that ungodly hour, there is traffic, and it's growing, she said.

"I don't really hit commuters until I hit Kent Island," she said. "I hit the island after 4, and that's when they're just coming out. I came in late one day, and I'll never do it again. It ruins the whole day."

The only jurisdiction in the Baltimore region that didn't see an increase in residents leaving early for work was Baltimore City, which saw decreases throughout the morning rush. Experts say that's because the city lost 60,000 jobs and 85,000 residents in the 1990s.

From 1990 to 2000, the number of people who leave for work between 5 a.m. and 5:29 a.m. increased by 24 percent in Anne Arundel County, 33 percent in Baltimore County, 58 percent in Carroll County, 40 percent in Harford County and 33 percent in Howard County.

But the increase in those counties was much less, if not nonexistent, during the traditional morning peak - 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. During those hours, the number of people leaving home for work in the Baltimore region declined by 17,000 people, or about 2 percent.

However, the data show that an increasing number of people are taking to the road later in the morning, perhaps in an attempt to wait out the rush. Eleven percent more people in the region left home for work between 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.

"The peak hours are starting to spread because people are getting up earlier or starting work later," said Dunbar Brooks, head of data for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. "The heaviest part of the day is still the 7 to 9 a.m. peak period. But maybe just because of congestion, people are choosing, no matter where they live, to try and beat that traffic."

Transit agencies have responded to the changing lifestyles. The Maryland Transit Administration's first commuter train to Washington now leaves Baltimore at 4:45 a.m., compared with 5:03 a.m. five years ago. And the Washington Metro, which bumped its start time from 6 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. in 1988 considered moving it up to 5 a.m. last year.

The proposal died for lack of money, but the agency did move up the weekend opening time last year from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m.

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