A Guide for Area Commuters

Washington D.C.
capitol of the free world
and of potholes too

From Honku : The Zen Antidote to Road Rage by Aaron Naparstek.

Well before dawn breaks over the I-95, the race begins. A quick shower, a quicker breakfast, warming the engine, and settling into the chilly seat-- our commuters know the routine... the engine turns over, the heat comes on, and the open road awaits, at least until that bottleneck at Potomac Mills.

Day in, day out, week after week, the race continues for thousands of area workers. Washington dangles a carrot of higher salaries, more impressive jobs, and better benefits to workers who are willing to make the trek. The early mornings are just the start of it. By the time they come home in the darkness, they may easily have spent 12 hours away. Too late for a relaxing time before dinner, but still making themselves available to help their kids with homework, typical commuters work hard for their families and, by the end of the day, can feel the burn of exhaustion and subsiding dislocation as they drift off to sleep. In fact, according to a study from Rep. Anthony Weiner's office, our area has the fourth and fifth longest commutes, from a time perspective, in the nation.

All this rather begs the question, is it worth it? For the young ones who are fresh out of college with no commitments, it's not necessarily a bad deal, although it can be an unexpected, icy drenching of real world splatter. My first job out of school was with the Smithsonian Institution as an exhibition preparation specialist. To be more precise, we were preparing exhibits for storage in a new facility the size of the Pentagon. It wasn't glamorous work-- cleaning and repackaging a seemingly endless supply of grass skirts, feathered headdresses, and other bits and pieces collected by Captain Cook on his expeditions to the South Seas. But it went nicely with my B.A. in anthropology, and I was glad of the work.

I caught the bus into town, and, aside from the jolly smokers in the back of the bus (no longer an issue), it wasn't TOO hard to take. If it weren't for the fact that the job was classified as a temporary, five-year assignment with no hope of promotion or GS status, I might be there yet in some capacity.

Clearly, determined commuters do think it's a worthwhile venture. Housing prices in our area aren't getting any cheaper. Neither are the costs of college tuition. Those who are fortunate enough to find jobs that meet their needs and wants locally are truly blessed. For everyone else who kisses a sleepy-eyed spouse and fills a thermos with coffee in the wee hours, this guide provides some options to consider for making that commute a bit easier to take:

Commuting Options


Yes, it's possible to drive on your lonesome, but bumper to bumper traffic can kill any car, and the time spent sitting in traffic is a huge waste. Carpooling is a faster option. We have HOV lanes on I-95 for cars with three or more persons. At the moment, they pick up around Potomac Mills (hence the bottleneck), but there is talk of extending them all the way down to Fredericksburg. If a carpool doesn't naturally present itself at work (look for bulletin boards of ride seekers and drivers), see the Virginia Department of Transportation's RideShare page or GWRideConnect, its local affiliate. If you're still skeptical, try out their HOV calculator to see how much time you lose in standing traffic.

If the idea of a fixed carpool schedule doesn't work for you, consider, as I did, taking one of the many commercial buses that leave our area from the commuter lots in Spotsylvania and Stafford. These companies usually run multiple buses, so if you miss one, you may be able to make the next. Tickets are usually sold by the week or the month.

Vanpools are another option. Instead of traveling in close proximity with 50 people, you will be with less than a dozen. Or, you may consider slugging it. A slug is a person who joins an "instant carpool" at a commuter lot. People who want to drive on 95 in their own cars-- but who don't want to be stuck in the regular traffic lanes-- go to the "slug line," displaying a card with their destination. Total strangers bound for the same place hop aboard, first come, first served. This is the most economical way of getting to work as no money changes hands. For the trouble of picking up the extra passengers, the driver receives the benefit of vrooming along in the HOV lanes. Click here for more information about how slugging works and proper slug etiquette. Bear in mind that there is an element of risk to slugging as you will probably not know your driver, but the because it is such a popular form of transport, it bears mentioning here.

The Choo-choo Solution

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is a lifesaver to those who live considerably closer to a train station than a commuter lot. Certainly the train is more spacious than a bus. There's room to stretch out, get some work done, read, or nod off for a relatively quiet hour or so. This may be one of the pricier ways to get to the office, but for many, the simplicity and peace of mind is worth it. The train may not stop close to where you need to be, however, so consider that the quiet time may be offset be a brisk hike through downtown or the pressure to catch the Metro or a Metrobus to complete your commute. If you decide that the train is for you, the VRE does offer the New Rider's Kit which gives much information on schedules and ticket prices for first-timers as well as a list of do's and don'ts for the train. For example, you can bring your collapsible bike along, have food and (non-alcoholic) beverages, but smoking is a definite no on all of the trains.

I'd Like to Use Mass Transit, But What If Something Goes Wrong?!

Parents or part-time caregivers to the elderly may be especially concerned that the day will come when they simply must go home unexpectedly in the middle of the day to tend to a sick relation. The Guaranteed Ride Home Program (GRH) may be the solution. The program will make sure that you can get where you need to be in the case of an unanticipated emergency. People who use mass transit, such as the VRE, the bus lines, as well as those who bike, walk, or rideshare, can sign up in advance for a guaranteed ride home should they need one.

When choosing your commuting option, of course, you should consider the practical and emotional realities of your situation. If you know that things might suddenly come up to throw off your daily schedule by several minutes, a bus line or train that makes multiple runs in a morning will be a better bet than something more tightly scheduled, such as a small carpool. Your personality will also determine the best fit for a commute. The established etiquette of "slugging" calls for no chatting with the drivers unless they initiate it, but in a vanpool, continuous, pleasant conversation may be an expected part of the deal.

More Rea$ons to Group Commute

Many employers in the DC area provide their staff with a benefit called SmartBenefits. Money is credited for workers to use on more than 100 area bus and vanpool commuting services. This program is a 2008 revamp of the Metrochek system.

Are you the sort of person who enjoys being in charge? Consider creating your own vanpool with the help of Virginia's RideShare organization. The VanStart program gives money to beginning vanpools, subsidizing seats until they achieve full ridership. Their VanSave program gives emergency monies to vanpools that have unexpectedly lost riders. See RideShare's vanpool page for more information on the costs and savings of do-it-yourself vanpools.


A Kinder, Gentler Commute

There's no question that the long hours on the road or the rails lead to a unique combination of stress and boredom. Consider taking along some compact discs or cassettes to pass the time. The Central Rappahannock Regional Library has hundreds if not thousands of excellent choices for a more enjoyable commute. Listen to a bestseller, brush up on a foreign language, cruise with classic literature, or try a biography, motivational, or business book. Below are a few selections that may be of particular interest to drivers in the commuting crowd. Click on any title to go to our catalog and request the tape or book.


Honku : The Zen Antidote to Road Rage by Aaron Naparstek.
Your moment of Zen for the road: "The perfect gift for the frustrated motorist in all of us, this 'Zen antidote to road rage' is a collection of hilarious and supremely clever haikus about the vicissitudes of driving."
When the light turns green/like a leaf on a spring wind/the horn blows quickly
Create your own honku and post it online to share with other frustrated drivers at www.honku.org.


The Peaceful Driver: Steering Clear of Road Rage by Allen Liles.
A program to help you have a safe and enjoyable driving experience. It includes visualizations and affirmations to create a positive and pleasant emotional environment while you are driving, a 10-question quiz to find out if you yourself may be an aggressive driver, a practical checklist to prepare yourself for any drive, and a handy acronym to help you stay in control of your vehicle and your actions.
Available as a compact disc as well as an audiocassette.