'The traffic is horrible': Baltimore commute ranks among nation's longest

Erica Gray lives near Security Square and drives about 30 to 45 minutes each way for her job as an administrative services manager at a nutritional supplement company in the Inner Harbor.

Instead of sitting in daily rush-hour traffic on the outer loop of the Beltway and joining the horde of county commuters on Interstates 695, 95 and 395, the 25-year-old goes the opposite way — north, to Liberty Road, which she follows all the way east into the city.

“I can avoid all the traffic on 695 and half on 83,” she said. “The traffic is horrible.”

Her shortcut notwithstanding, Gray’s commute is roughly on a par with most workers in the Baltimore region, who spend an average of just over 30 minutes going each way — the eighth-longest among major metropolitan areas in the country, according to 2017 U.S. Census data. Baltimore’s average commute time is longer than in notoriously traffic-heavy Los Angeles and only a few minutes shorter than in New York and Washington.

As the overall population and the number of jobs have increased in the last 20 years, the region’s average commute time has grown five minutes longer, according to a report by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and Greater Baltimore Committee.

Drivers in the region spend about 47 hours stuck in traffic each year, according to the 2018 State of the Region Report, which was released last week.

Perhaps unsurprisingly to regular listeners of the morning radio traffic roundups, the Beltway is the biggest culprit.

The highway was home to four of the five biggest bottleneck areas in the metropolitan council’s 2017 Congestion Analysis Report: Interstate 83 and Interstate 70 on the inner loop, and Edmondson Avenue and U.S. 40 on the outer loop. (The other: Interstate 95 north at Route 100.)

To address the traffic, the Hogan administration plans to spend $461 million to add 27 miles of highway lanes on both loops of the Beltway and I-95 north, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said.

It will add a new lane on the shoulder of the inner and outer loops around the top of the Beltway between Interstate 70 and White Marsh Boulevard, extend the express toll lanes on I-95 north to Route 24, and reconfigure the triple-bridges interchange at I-70 and the Beltway.

“From state roads in communities to the express toll lanes north of Baltimore, the Maryland Department of Transportation is beginning to deliver real relief to commuters,” Rahn said in a statement.

Rahn also touted the state’s plan to spend $1.4 billion to add four toll lanes on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — a plan that is contingent upon the National Park Service’s turning over that highway to the state.

Investment in the region’s roads should be paired with investment in transit, said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of business and civic leaders.

“We have some catching up to do in that area,” he said. “We have to continue to make sure that our government is making transportation and mobility a priority, and that there are adequate resources to make those investments where needed.”

The Maryland Transit Administration did overhaul Baltimore’s bus system last year, a $135 million project designed to speed up the buses, improve reliability and add routes to job centers in the BWI Business District and at Tradepoint Atlantic.

But weekday ridership has been down about 10 percent, a trend reflected in peer cities such as Washington, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Miami, Rahn said. That may reflect the rise of ride-share services and low gas prices.

Baltimore’s highway system was built to carry drivers into, out of and around the city, and hasn’t changed much to account for job sprawl in suburban areas, said Mike Kelly, executive director of the Metropolitan Council.

Traffic congestion is a positive indicator that an area is thriving and attracting lots of new residents, Kelly said.

But the added aggravation has become “a daily fact of life” for the people who call Baltimore home, he said. The council’s congestion report, he said, “probably jives with the experience of everybody who drives on the roads in and around Baltimore.”

Kelly suggested carpooling, mass transit, adjusting travel and work hours, and increased telecommuting as potential ways the region could address the problem collectively.

“There’s no single solution out there,” he said. “It’s a range of things. I would guess over the next 10 years there are going to be a lot of changes to our workplace culture. It does certainly impact the quality of life.”

Traffic can have an effect on companies’ bottom lines, Fry said. If employees can’t get to work on time, or they begin and end the day frustrated, it can cause them to look elsewhere for jobs.

“Long commute times affect productivity, teamwork and overall employee satisfaction,” he said.

It takes AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Cooper Averella just as long to drive from her home in Bel Air to her office in Towson as it does to drive to headquarters in Wilmington, Del. — roughly 45 minutes.

Averella represents an auto club with 951,000 members in Maryland. She knows better than to take the Beltway during rush hour; she uses Belair Road and Joppa Road on her commute instead.

“There’s been congestion on 695 as long as I can remember,” Averella said. “We encourage motorists to carpool if they can do so, and encourage employers to allow that work-from-home option.”

Dwight Holmes, director of behavioral health services at the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center, commutes to the Glen Burnie hospital from Catonsville.

He enjoys having time in the car “to separate the alligators of the day before you walk in the front door to your wife and kids.” But people react to traffic differently — some depending on the day — and road rage is a real risk of constant congestion, Holmes said.

“A lot of it is about how people manage their traffic situation,” he said. “If you’re not one to have a high level of frustration tolerance, it’s not going to take a whole lot to frustrate and annoy you.”

“There’s no psychological test given when you get your driver’s license,” Holmes added. “Whatever your character is and how you view the world, you’re putting that behind the wheel of a car.”

Keith White, 38, works a 4 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift at the Nestle ice cream factory in Laurel. Because of the hours, he’s usually able to make the drive to and from his home in Woodlawn in about 20 to 25 minutes.

But he’s left late before and paid for it by sitting in traffic.

“If you’re not going to work as early as I am, it’s totally backed up,” he said. “If I’m an hour late, then I’m caught in it.”

Rob Seliga, a 39-year-old software developer, used to take Interstate 270 from his home in Frederick to Silver Spring every day. Some days, he said, traffic around the D.C. Beltway would keep him on the road for as much as three hours.

Now, Seliga takes I-70 to work in Baltimore, which he said is a small improvement: It takes him roughly 45 minutes to an hour.

“Some of the backups to get on 695 are just as bad,” he said. “I’ll take the back roads, if possible.”

Paul Dittmar, 63, of Towson, wasn’t at all surprised by Baltimore’s having one of the longest average commute times in the country.

He retired from his job at UPS, so he doesn’t have a daily commute anymore, but he still avoids the Beltway and I-83 during rush hour if he wants to make his tee times in Hunt Valley.

“The traffic jams that people in this area put up with are incredible,” he said.


Longest U.S. commutes

The longest average commutes among major U.S. metropolitan areas, according to 2017 U.S. Census data.

1. New York, 35.9 minutes

2. Washington, D.C., 34.4 minutes

3. San Francisco, 32.1 minutes

4. Riverside/San Bernandino, Calif., 31.8 minutes

5. Chicago, 31.3 minutes

6. Atlanta, 31 minutes

7. Boston, 30.6 minutes

8. Baltimore, 30.5 minutes

9. Bremerton, Wash., 30.2 minutes

10. Los Angeles, Seattle (tie), 29.6 minutes


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