More Md. drivers are in for a long haul

Report notes trend of more commutes that cross counties

October 16, 2006|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Gary Segal's father commuted every day from Randallstown to Greenbelt, and the Ellicott City engineer swore he'd never drive in his dad's long-distance tire tracks.

"I always told myself I'd never do that," he said.

But now Segal is nearing 50, with two kids who like the schools they're in, and he's driving 75 miles and crossing five county lines each way, each day, to his job with W. L. Gore & Associates in Elkton. He's been making the trip for 13 years.

Segal's travel pattern is a somewhat exaggerated version of what is rapidly becoming typical for Americans in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, according to a report issued today by the Transportation Research Board, a Washington-based arm of the National Research Council.

And according to the once-a-decade study, Segal's story is particularly common in Maryland, where commuters cross county lines to go to work at a rate higher than any other state except Virginia.

A steady increase since 1990 in cross-county commuting is one of the trends researchers identified from the 2000 U.S. census and subsequent demographic studies.

Among the key findings in the report:

Travel directly to and from work, which once made up 40 percent of total travel, is a steadily diminishing percentage. The study put work travel at 16 percent of total travel, mostly because other forms of travel have increased.

Carpooling, which dropped sharply during the 1980s, leveled off in the 1990s. The primary force arresting the decline was the increase in the Hispanic population. The study found that 23 percent of Hispanics went to work in car pools, more than twice the rate of non-Hispanics.

Driving to work continued to be the dominant form of commuting, representing 78 percent of the total in 2004 compared with 73 percent in 1990. The rate of growth in solo commuting slowed significantly, however, from 35 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent in the 1990s.

Mass transit use, which fell in the 1980s, leveled off in the 1990s in terms of numbers using it but continued to decline as a percentage of commuters at about 4.5 percent. African-American commuters, 12 percent of whom use public transit, were four times as likely to use mass transit as their white counterparts. Rates of mass transit use are significantly higher in the largest metropolitan areas, including the Baltimore-Washington region at 20 percent.

The percentage of African-American households without vehicles, while still larger than other ethnic groups, dropped sharply over the past decade, going from 31 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2000. The report called the increase in the number of blacks with cars "the most significant event regarding auto ownership" during the period.

While fewer new drivers joined the traffic flow in the 1990s than in the 1980s, the transportation infrastructure did a poorer job of absorbing them. Between 1980 and 1990, 23 million new drivers got on the roads and the average commuting time increased by 40 seconds. From 1990 to 2000, the country added 13 million new drivers - and the average travel time increased by three minutes.

Alan E. Pisarski, lead author of the report, said that statistic indicates that the existing road network is reaching a point of saturation. "We're using up what has been bequeathed to us by a previous generation," he said.

Longer commuting times are compounded by an increasing tendency of workers to take on long commutes.

Where 24 percent of workers commuted out of their home counties in 1990, 27 percent did so in 2000, according to the report. The trend was noticeable in the mid-Atlantic, with more than half of Virginia workers and nearly half of those in Maryland leaving their home counties.

The traditional daily trip from bedroom-community home to central-city business is continuing its slow fade as the model for workday travel as close to half of American workers commute from suburb to suburb. Nationally, about 17 percent of workers commuted from a suburb to the central city in the same metropolitan area.

Pisarski said the Baltimore-Washington area is a "poster child" for that pattern.

The region is also a hotbed of so-called "extreme commuting" - with one-way trips of more than 90 minutes. Metropolitan Baltimore is tied with New York for the highest rate of extreme commutes, 5.6 percent.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Rick Cruz of Glen Burnie is one of those long-distance road warriors. While his morning commute to Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia takes about an hour and a quarter, the evening drive home frequently take about two hours.

The result: "I'm always tired," he said.

Cruz, 26, is also part of a burgeoning number of commuters leaving their homes long before dawn. To get to the fort, south of Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, he routinely leaves Glen Burnie at 4:45 a.m.

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