Driving time holds steady as population increases, report says

The D.C. region is growing by leaps and bounds, but when it comes to driving, it is actually holding steady with the same amount of drive time. That’s the surprising assessment from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

“The traffic is just deplorable,” says Elliott Nash of Sterling.

Between 2005 and 2011, the Washington region’s population swelled by nearly 350,000 residents, an increase of 7.3 percent. As a result, drivers on local roadways are convinced traffic congestion is getting exponentially worse.

“Takes more time. Where it used to take 10 minutes, it takes 30 minutes now,” says Johnny Stokes of D.C.

But according to researchers who reviewed state transportation data, total daily driving on area roadways saw almost no change during those years, holding steady at 110 million vehicle miles each day.

They say it’s unprecedented with the most-likely cause being high unemployment rates during the recession and recovery.

“And so if all of those people are back into the mix and back at work, would your trend show what this trend shows,” says Marc Elrich of the Montgomery County Council.

Researchers say they are unsure.

"It goes back to even World War 2. We’ve never seen anything like this, so if the economy picks up, then we’ll start to see the line go up again."

Telecommuting and e-commerce could also factor in with more Americans conducting business and making purchases online.

“Less of a demand to drive could lead to these declines,” says Ben Hampton, a Council of Governments transportation planner.

Some also believe we’re experiencing a dramatic, maybe generational, shift in commuting habits with more so-called “smart growth” around transit hubs.

“What I’m hearing more and more, particularly among people in their twenties and thirties, is they really don’t want to get in their cars,” says David Snyder of the Falls Church City Council. “They really want to be able to walk wherever it is that they work and wherever it is that they seek entertainment.”

But when the economy rebounds, AAA Mid-Atlantic warns thousands of more drivers will return to the roads because biking and Metro have their limits.

“All of that will help a little bit, but let’s beer clear. We need to continue to invest in our roadways,” says Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic.