Although other forms of transportation are becoming more common, the Washington, D.C., region is still heavily car-dependent, which may be behind an increase in the number of people who use technology to work from home.
The number of commuters who telework has nearly tripled in the past 15 years, said Timothy Canan, planning data and research program director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
From 11 percent of commuters in 2001, the percentage of people who telework at least part of the time rose to 25 percent by 2010 and was up to 32 percent by 2016, he said.
“That’s definitely one of the big takeaways,” Canan said.
Increasing use of technology to work remotely and a rapid growth in bicycle and pedestrian travel, as well as more people staying in the region after they retire and efforts by planning officials to focus development around local centers of activity are among the factors that are likely behind people driving less, the latest report on travel trends from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has found.
Canan presented the report “Travel Trends of the Metropolitan Washington Region, 2018” to the council’s National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, ridership on Metro was at its lowest point in years, with its 613,000 average riders per day in 2017 the lowest count since 2000.
The number of miles that drivers in the region travel was also one of the highlights of the report.
Even as the region’s population and jobs have increased, the amount of vehicle miles of travel in the region have remained more or less flat since 2007, the report found.
That’s a change from the period of 2000 to 2007, when vehicle miles traveled increased at a faster rate than the rate of population and job growth.
But the drop in vehicle miles traveled shouldn’t be confused with a decrease in congestion in the area, Canan said.
The statistic tracks the number of total miles traveled in a 24-hour period, and may not mean much change in congestion during the morning and evening rush hours, he said.
There’s a direct relationship between the use of telecommuting and the length of a commute, Canan said.
Glen Ferguson, who founded Cowork Frederick in 2012, said he has a handful of clients at the East Patrick Street facility who telecommute to their jobs full time, and others who work from the space some of the time.
For people who travel down to Washington, it’s becoming more common for employers to allow telecommuting because they realize how bad the commute down from Frederick is, he said.
Ferguson said he had a customer from the Department of Justice who worked out of Cowork Frederick at least some of the time for about four years, and he sees other government-based workers as well.
People just don’t want to make the commute if they don’t have to, he said.
The WashCOG report also found that more retiring adults are choosing to stay in the Washington area when they retire, rather than moving to warmer climates.
The region’s population grew from 4.8 million residents to 5.6 million between 2007 and 2017, with older adult baby boomers the fastest growing group, according to a memorandum on the report.
That could be affecting the number of miles driven, Canan said, as retirees tend to take fewer and shorter trips.
Planning efforts by local governments have also led to better land use development and investment in transportation in the 141 regional activities centers: urban centers, transit hubs, and other areas that are designed to accommodate future growth.
Frederick County has several such centers, including Brunswick, the Urbana region, and locations in or around the city of Frederick.
Those are the areas where governments want to direct growth, and the number of vehicle miles driven may be dropping because people are able to move closer to where they work, Canan said.
Changes in the jobs that the Washington region attracts may also play a part in the miles driven statistics.
The region’s dependence on federal jobs and spending dropped during the recession and budget sequester years between 2010 and 2013, and has never returned to the levels seen before the recession.
In recent years, the region has seen faster growth in the leisure and hospitality and education and health services categories than in categories such as professional and business services or financial services.
The average wage of sectors such as leisure and hospitality tends to be much lower than in professional sectors, said Jeannette Chapman, deputy director and senior research associate at the Stephen S. Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region’s Economic Future, at Virginia’s George Mason University.
Leisure and hospitality jobs, such as those at restaurants or hotels, tend to be located more often outside of activities centers, which means that workers often have shorter commutes than people driving to office jobs, she said.
Generally, those workers live closer to their workplace, because people are less willing to drive as far for a lower-paying job, Chapman said.
Health and education jobs also tend to create shorter commutes, because schools, doctors’ offices, and walk-in clinics can be located anywhere and not necessarily in a regional activity center, she said.
But even with the steadiness in vehicle miles driven across the region and the various changes and demographic factors that are likely causing it, the WashCOG report suggests that the Washington area won’t be seeing a noticeable drop in traffic any time soon.
“Nevertheless,” the memo on the report said, “the automobile continues to be the dominant mode of travel in this region ... This can adversely affect quality of life, efficiency of commerce, and delivery of time-sensitive services.