WASHINGTON – Swithin Kwamena-Poh laughed when he heard that Maryland’s average commute time, the second-longest in the nation, was 30.2 minutes in 2003.
He was standing in Union Station on a recent afternoon, waiting for the MARC train that would be the third and final leg of his two-hour trip home from Foggy Bottom in the District to Frederick.
“I knew what I was in for, definitely,” said Kwamena-Poh, who recently lengthened his daily commute when he moved from Gaithersburg to Frederick.
He is in good company: For the fourth year in a row, Maryland had the second-longest average commute in the nation, according to the Census Bureau’s 2003 American Community Survey. Maryland’s average trailed No. 1 New York state by only a fraction of a second and surpassed the national average by almost six minutes.
The ranking did not surprise Sue Akey, spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic branch of AAA. The auto club blames the congestion on population growth that has outstripped improvements in transportation infrastructure.
“(This) shows that we have done a terrible job, and it undermines our quality of life, wastes our time, burdens our economy, contributes to the number of crashes in our region and increases notoriety we can do without,” Akey said.
Besides the state, several Maryland counties also ranked high on the list of longest commutes, according to the Census numbers released last month.
Prince George’s County commuters had the worst average commute in the state and the sixth-worst commute in the nation — the same rank as the previous year — at 35.5 minutes, slightly higher than last year’s average of 34.6 minutes.
Montgomery County moved from 16th place to 10th place, as its average commute grew from 30.9 minutes to 32.1 minutes, and Howard jumped from 37th to 28th. Its commute time rose from an average of 28.8 minutes to 30 minutes.
Howard County officials said part of the problem for them might be the amount of daily traffic passing through on the way to jobs and homes elsewhere.
“We are the most passed-through jurisdiction in Maryland,” said Carl Balser, the county’s transportation chief. “We’re between Baltimore and Washington, between Westminster and Annapolis, so there are folks who drive through the county pretty much going in all directions.”
But among those likely destinations, Baltimore City, Baltimore County or Anne Arundel County do not seem to be experiencing any ill effects: All three jurisdictions dropped in both rankings and average commute times.
Baltimore commute times fell from 29.7 minutes to 29 minutes; Baltimore County travel time went from 27.1 to 26.3 minutes; and Anne Arundel County dropped from 29 to 27.7 minutes.
Baltimore City officials think the decline shows their new traffic-light program is working. The city began installing an advanced traffic-management system this year that will eventually control traffic lights from one central location.
The new system “allows us to change traffic patterns,” said David Brown, a city transportation department spokesman. “Say, for instance, we needed to put up a detour. We can change traffic patterns . . . and synchronize traffic lights.”
Dunbar Brooks, a demographer at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said that commute times may also have dropped because the number of residents using the city’s transit system dropped between 2002 and 2003. He said Baltimore has one of the country’s longest average commute times for mass transit users.
And Harvey Bloom, director of transportation planning at the metropolitan council, said the shift of jobs from the city to the suburbs has likely contributed to the drop in Baltimore County commute times.
“With a decrease in population in the city and an increase in Baltimore County, an increase of jobs . . . we’re seeing a better balance between housing-working locations,” Bloom said.
That “better balance” remains to be seen elsewhere in the state. Roughly 13 percent of Maryland’s commuters spend more than an hour getting to work each day, according to the Census Bureau.
For Kwamena-Poh, the state’s average commute time of 30.2 minutes seems like a dream: Each day, he takes a MARC and two Metro trains for his commute.
“You wish the commute was shorter, but this was the choice I made,” he said.
-30- CNS 09-17-04