By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
8:48 PM EST, December 17, 2010
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."
Johnson said that in his experience, the rigors of commuting have more to do with congestion than distance. He said that when he lived in Silver Spring, he and his girlfriend both had 16-mile commutes — his to Washington and hers to Elkridge. Hers took 25 minutes, Johnson said, while his took more than an hour.
Aldona Glemza of Catonsville has had a similar experience. She said that for 18 years she drove 17-18 miles from her home to Towson via the congested west side of the Beltway, with a commute averaging 45 minutes but often exceeding an hour. Now she works in Linthicum and says she averages 13 minutes using back roads.
"This has changed my life," she said. "My stress levels have gone down and I have more time in my day for other things."
At the other end of the spectrum are commuters such as Rafi Guroian, one of more than 100,000 Marylanders with a commute of 90 minutes or more.
Guroian starts his morning by leaving his home in Southeast Baltimore around 6 a.m. He drives 10 minutes to 15 minutes to Penn Station and catches a 6:17 a.m. MARC train to Washington. From Union Station he typically walks a half-hour to his NASA job near L'Enfant Plaza, finding that the Metro doesn't get him there much faster. He usually arrives about 7:30 a.m. In the evening he reverses his steps — taking another 90 minutes out of his day.
But the 32-year-old Guroian, who also finds time to chair the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said the slog pays off.
"The salaries in Washington are in many cases much higher than what you get in the Baltimore area, and the cost of living is so much better [in Baltimore], it's almost a no-brainer," he said.
Guroian accepts that three or four times a year he's likely to run into major MARC delays that will make his commute far more brutal. "I reason that it's no different than if I were living in Columbia and stuck on [Interstate] 95 or [U.S.] 29 because of some accident," he said.
Anirban Basu, chief executive of the Baltimore-based economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group, said there are many reasons for the commuting patterns in Maryland but that they differ around the state.
In the Washington suburbs, he said, the percentage of time-consuming commutes is inflated by the area's high dependence on mass transit, which typically takes longer to make connections. He said it's exacerbated by virtually standstill conditions on several major highways — such as Interstates 495 and 270 — at peak travel times.
In Baltimore, Basu said, development patterns tend to lengthen the time it takes to get to work.
"Commutes have become longer as more people move to the suburbs and a significant number of jobs have remained in the city in government, finance and health care," he said.
Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state is using "every tool in the toolbox" to promote shorter commuting times and ease the longer ones. He pointed to the state's commitment to promoting transit-oriented development, which is intended to cluster employment centers and housing around transit hubs, as a way to let people live closer to where they work.
To ease longer commutes, Cahalan pointed to such projects as construction of the Inter-county Connector — intended to reduce drive times between the Interstate 95 and 270 corridors — and the Express Toll Lanes being added to I-95 outside Baltimore. On the mass transit side, he said, Maryland is moving forward with light rail initiatives such as the Red Line in Baltimore and Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.
Cahalan said the state's commuting times are more than a matter of transportation policy. He said they are affected by land use, planning, personal choices, the proximity of Washington and Maryland's overall prosperity.
"A vibrant economy in a region with wealth places substantial demands on a transportation network. That is, in many ways, a trade-off that we and other regions of the country in a similar situation have to face," Cahalan said.
But Basu said there is a significant downside to Maryland's penchant to drawn-out commuting.
"There is the cost in time away from family and from work, which reduces happiness and productivity," he said.
Those costs are likely to increase over the years, Basu said.
"One of the things we know about Maryland's future is that there will be more people living here," he said. "As a result, I expect more sprawl and more traffic in the decades ahead."
One person who doesn't expect to join in that lifestyle is Villa. He said that in the three years since moving closer to work, he's lost weight because he has time to work out, saved money by selling off one of the family's two cars and is enjoying the freedom to go to restaurants and travel with his wife. Even if they decide to have children, he said, don't look for them to leave the city.
"We're part of that generation that will not go to suburbia — absolutely not," he said.
Short commutes by state:
North Dakota 56 percent
Wyoming 56 percent
South Dakota 52 percent
Montana 51 percent
Alaska 48 percent
Maryland 19 percent
New York 23 percent
Florida 24 percent
Virginia (tied with five others) 25 percent
Source: 2005-2009 U.S. Census American Community Survey
Rankings based on percentage of commuters who travel 15 minutes or less
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