When commuting, have you ever noticed that moving 500 feet can take almost as long as moving five miles?

As a region, we do a reasonably good job of moving people long distances quickly, especially via public transit. But it’s the first and last segments, as well as the transfers, that can sometimes add frustrating minutes to a commute.

I was recently chatting with a friend who once worked at the Pentagon and commuted from Maryland.

“The commute was a little far, but the biggest problem was that I had to walk a mile from the Metro to my desk. It took forever,” he said.

I experienced a similar phenomenon as a MARC commuter. The actual train ride from Odenton to Washington was usually smooth and took less than 30 minutes. But it would take me 10 minutes in traffic to drive the one mile to the station and another ten minutes to walk to the train platform. Then, when I arrived in D.C., it was another 10 minutes to exit the train, make my way through Union Station and hop onto the Metro.

Some of these small delays are unavoidable, but one wonders if our region’s transit planners and operators can do more to ease movement in these small legs of our commute.

Here are some of the things that can add frustrating minutes to your daily travel:

  • Long walks from parking to transit. Have you ever calculated the time it takes to walk from the top of the New Carrollton garage to the actual station platform? Or from the far end of the Greenbelt lot? If that takes 10 minutes each time you do it, that’s 20 minutes total added to your commute.
  • Parking lot traffic. You can say “It only takes me 15 minutes to drive from Shady Grove Metro to my house.” Perhaps that’s true, but how long does it take to actually get out of the lot? How long is the queue to get out onto Redland Road?
  • Walks from transit to the office. Your employer may boast about being “Metro-accessible” but that can still mean a solid walk of 20 minutes or more. There are a number of big offices in the District that are in Metrorail no man’s lands. Think of anything in Georgetown, for example.
  • Pedestrian bottlenecks. The scene at Union Station is a perfect example of this. Thousands of commuters arriving by various different modes, all trying to squeeze into a few narrow escalators and through a handful of fare turnstiles. Even exiting a MARC train and entering Union Station can take a solid minute, due to the narrowness of the platform and various things (poles, machinery, golf carts) in the way.
  • Transfers. It’s easy to say “well, it’s only 10 minutes on the green line and then eight minutes on the red line. So it’s 18 minutes!” Yes, but how long does it take to transfer trains? Do you need to go up or down a platform level to get on a different line? This can add 10 minutes or more, easily.

There is some evidence to suggest that the expansion of bike and scooter use can cut down some of these last-mile delays, validating efforts to expand Capital Bikeshare and dockless bikeshare in the region.

Consider this article from The Drive, titled “American Commuters Fail Miserably at Last-Mile Mobility.”

“A new study from the University of Southern California, for instance, found that the way people even get to and from transit stations is critical in speeding commutes and opening access to job opportunities, particularly in regions that have only marginal transit systems. The researchers found that driving or biking to a transit station more than doubled the number of jobs that could be reached, by transit, in a 30-minute commute.”

The design of transit stations may also play a role in these last-mile delays, and some cities including New York have taken a hard look at ways to move people through stations faster and reduce bottlenecks. In New York, the MTA announced a six-point plan las year to improve service that includes “streamlining passenger loading and unloading” and “targeting system” bottlenecks.

What are some of the most frustrating “last-mile” delays on your commute?


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