As a real estate professional in the worst area in the U.S. for commuters (worse than Los Angeles) I often get asked, "how long will it take me to get to work from here?". The answer to that question is never easy. In a place where distance is measured in minutes rather than miles, commute times can vary with the weather, construction projects, and the dreaded fender-bender.
The first thing I tell my clients, especially out-of-towners, is that 16% of workers in our area travel over an hour to work. I let this sink in for a moment, and add that since that is an average, it means that depending on where they live and work, their commute might be less, or it could very well be more.
MANY COMMUTING OPTIONS
I also explain to them, that in general, the closer in to DC that they live, the higher the home prices will be. Fortunately, commuting options are many. Here are a few:
- VRE and MARC
- Traditional carpooling
- Guaranteed Ride Home
VRE AND MARC. Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC) are the two commuter trains that take workers from the outlying DC suburbs into the city. VRE has two lines entering into the city, one originating from the Manassas in the West, and one in Fredricksburg in the South. The MARC train network is much more extensive, having service on their Brunswick Line from Martinsburg, West Virginia, and Frederick, MD, to their Camden Line to Baltimore, and the Penn Line which goes to Baltimore and on to Perryville, MD, (near Harve de Grace.) Both commuter lines offer monthly packages which include discounts when used together with DC Metro. Many firms as well as the Federal Government offer "Smart Benefits" a program where employers give employees a fixed dollar amount to cover commuting expenses every month. These benefits can be applied directly to the employees "SmarTrip" cards on the web.
METRO. DC Metro is run by the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA). Although recently plagued with controversy over high prices, it is still the only choice for thousands in the area. Metro runs 5 (Orange, Blue, Yellow, Green and Red) lines to and from the city. A new Silver Line is currently being built and will take commuters to and from DC to Dulles airport and points in between, including Tyson's Corner, a major worksite for many government contractors. Metro service is more abundant in Maryland with seven terminal stations to Virginia's current three.
If bus and rail aren't your cup of tea, traditional carpooling might be the answer. Virginia and Maryland both have RideShare programs that serve workers in and around the Metropolitan area. Commuters who worry about having to leave work for an emergency, or having to work late can rest assured if they employ a service called Guaranteed Ride Home. The service is free, however, it is limited to 4 times per year.
SLUGGING. Lastly, there is "slugging". Slugging is a form of non-traditional commuter transportation that can best be described as "anonymous carpooling", or "legal hitchhiking". The major commuting routes of Interstates 66 and 95 in Virginia have what are known as HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes that can only be used by 2 and 3 persons per vehicle respectively, during morning and evening rush hours. I-66 between the Beltway (I-495) and downtown DC is HOV-only in ALL LANES during commute times. The fines begin at $125 for a first offense. Thus was born the slug-lines.
No one really knows when the first slug-line came to be. But most people agree that slugging was born out of the oil embargo in the 1970s, the government's efforts to reduce oil consumption, and the construction of the Shirley Highway and HOV lanes. Early sluggers were passengers waiting for buses who were picked up by drivers wanting to use the HOV lanes to get to the Pentagon and needed to fill their empty seats. Today, slugging is a normal part of life here. Thousands of strangers carpool together every day.
So, how does slugging work? In the morning, workers drive to one of over 20 commuter lots around town, park their cars and wait in lines behind signs designated for their respective destinations- Pentagon, L'Enfant Plaza, 14th Street, etc. Drivers pull up to the lines and the first people in the line fill up the vehicle and all go on their way. The driver drops of their passengers at the destination and goes on to work. It works the same way in reverse. The driver picks up passengers (rarely the same ones as in the morning) at a slug-line in the city, and then returns them to where they came from that morning.
Slugging is encouraged by city, county and state governments. Transportation offices even subsidize signage at the various commuter lots around the area. Its free, its efficient and most importantly, its safe. I myself was a slug-driver for a few years before I got into the real estate industry. So I can personally attest to its ease of use and safety. In 35 years, there has never been an incident involved in slugging. Slugging is organized and there is even a slugging "etiquette" for those who might be venturing out for the first time.
Although started in Virginia, a few Maryland slug-lines have popped up. You can find a map here.
MEDIAN HOME PRICES AND COMMUTE TIMES
Realtor.org recently launched an interactive map that shows the median home sales price and average commute times for your area. Zoom in on the map to show your area. Its a great tool to use if you are considering moving to an area you know little about.
A little known program is out there that helps prospective home owners find a place to live where they work. Called the "Live Where You Work" program, it offers buyers no-interest loans up to $5000 for down payment and closing costs if they are purchasing a home to eliminate or reduce their commute. State and local governments have grants and other incentives, for example, Arlington County offers up to $25,000 under their Homestride program.
CONTACT A REALTOR
There are many websites that consumers can access to find out information about commuting and home prices. A website is good for general information, but a good REALTOR really has the knowledge on the ground to give to consumers. Find one that knows the area well and can give you the skinny on what is happening locally.