Maryland ranks dead last among states in quick commutes

Relatively few here can get to work in 15 minutes or less

  • Traffic is at a at complete standstill on the beltway.
Traffic is at a at complete standstill on the beltway. (DAVID HOBBY, Baltimore…)
December 17, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Enrique Villa can walk from his condominium on Water Street to his job at St. Paul and Baltimore streets in about five minutes. In Maryland, that's rare.

Villa and his wife, Kathryn, a physician whose commute by subway to Johns Hopkins Hospital is nearly as short, say they can't stand spending their spare time in the car. Villa, a 34-year-old architect, used to spend an hour getting to work, but cut it short by moving closer to the office.

"We saw our standard of living, just from a personal psychological perspective, improve dramatically," he said. "As soon as we reduced the commute, the improvement was radical."

The Villas' story is hardly typical of Maryland, which helps explain why the state has some of the worst commutes in the country. Maryland has the second-longest average commute in the United States, and ranks dead last in its percentage of workers who enjoy easy commuting times.

According to the 2005-2009 U.S. Census American Community Survey, fewer than 19 percent of Marylanders who work outside their homes can get from home to work in less than 15 minutes. That compares with a national average for short commutes of 29 percent.

At the same time, the state ranks behind only New York when it comes to the percentage of people who need more than an hour to get to work. At 14 percent, Maryland more than doubles the national average.

Why does it take so long for Marylanders to get to work? Several factors seem to be at play, including traffic congestion, a relatively small employment base in the state's rural counties, the lure of higher salaries at a distance from modestly priced homes, a range of transportation choices and the willingness of Marylanders to look outside the borders of their state for work.

Larry L. Willis of Port Deposit, literally wrote the book on marathon commuting in a volume called "The Perryville Commuter." In it he chronicles his daily trek to Ballston in Northern Virginia via car, MARC train, Metro subway and shuttle bus.

It's a journey that takes him 31/2 hours each way, but the retired Air Force officer insists it's worth it to live in his "nice and quiet and peaceful" dream home and draw a comfortable federal salary.

"I don't have one regret. Not one," said Willis, 49, who has been spending seven hours a day going to and from work — leaving home at 4:10 a.m. and returning at 6:30 p.m. when MARC is on time — since 2006.

"You've got to remember you're doing things for your family," he said.

Census figures show 17 percent of Marylanders draw their paychecks from an out-of-state workplace — more than any other state. Only the District of Columbia, more a city than a state, has a higher percentage.

Lengthy commutes are especially prevalent in the Washington area, especially the burgeoning outer suburbs. Charles County residents have the most protracted commutes in Maryland at an average 40.5 minutes. Calvert County, its Southern Maryland neighbor, is just behind at 39.3 minutes.

Baltimore-area commuting times are slightly more moderate, ranging from 27.8 minutes in Baltimore County to 34 minutes in Carroll County. The lowest average of 21.4 minutes is in Allegany County — where one of the largest employers is the state prison system, with several facilities just outside Cumberland.

The statewide numbers illustrate just how different Maryland is from other parts of the country. For instance, the state with the population closest to that of Maryland is Wisconsin. There in the heartland, almost a million Wisconsin residents can leave home and arrive at work in fewer than 15 minutes. In Maryland, slightly more than half a million can do so.

The numbers at the extremes help explain why Maryland's 31-minute average commute is second-highest in the country. Even New York has a higher percentage of residents — 23 — with commutes of 15 minutes or fewer.

Those Marylanders who do enjoy brief commutes appear to be a contented group — especially those who have seen life from the other side.

Malcolm Johnson of Columbia used to commute from Ellicott City to a job in Northwest Washington, a trip that would take him 11/2 to 2 hours each way. He improved that by moving to Silver Spring, where he cut his commuting time to an hour each way.

Now Johnson, 25, has a new job with a media company in Columbia and lives 1.3 miles away from his workplace. On good days, when he hits the green lights, he's one of the estimated 57,000 Marylanders with a commute of five minutes or less.

"It's great. I come home, I have lunch, watch TV for 30 minutes and go back to work," said Johnson, who now fills the tank of his Jeep once every two weeks. "It's almost like hitting the lottery."

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