Xtreme Commuting

Alec MacGillis with the Washington Post describes the daily trek of Shenandoah Valley residents to jobs in Fairfax County: gathering in the park-and-ride at 3:50 a.m. and piling into vans for a 77-mile trip. Writes MacGillis:

It has come to this in the Washington region, where an imbalance of housing and jobs produces commutes that stagger the imagination and confound the biological clock: Every weekday, seven vans set off from Luray and six other far-flung locations with 55 passengers bound for a single workplace: the physical plant shop at George Mason University in Fairfax. The college looks so far afield for carpenters and electricians that it has started letting workers use campus vans for the commute. …

George Mason’s predawn van pools may seem like just another example of the extreme commutes in a region where roads are illuminated with brake lights well before sunbeams, but they challenge the assumptions behind the trend. The conventional explanation is that people are moving farther out for tranquility and more affordable homes and paying for them with a long commute.

The Luray riders serve as a reminder that there is another dynamic. They are not exurban wanderers but people with lives deeply rooted in towns far away who would have nothing to do with the Washington area if not for this: It’s the only place they can find work.

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6 responses to “Xtreme Commuting”

  1. Politicl.Animal Avatar

    A friend of mine teaches at an elementary school in Page, and he has kids in his classes whose parents work at the Pentagon. This kind of commuting is not rare.

    One of the things people overlook when they talk about Harrisonburg’s low unemployment rate (under 3%) is that the jobs do not pay well. If Harrisonburg is such a mecca for jobs, why is someone from Elkton (15 miles from Harrisonburg) driving to GMU?

    And people wonder why young people leave the valley …

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Such commutes may not be rare, but they are not the norm either. The average Virginia commute is less than thirty minutes.

    Jobs in Harrisonburg may not pay much because they don’t have to. Jobs in and around the Pentagon have to pay a lot because otherwise people would never put up with going there, let alone live there.

    When I was working at the Pentagon there was a young lady not long out of school, and recently married, working in my department. She lived in a very nice condo at Crystal city, one stop away. I recall the day she she cam to the office bubbling with joy. “We got a house! We got a house!”

    It was actually a townhouse, and not such a bad commute, but you get the idea.

    I couldn’t do it, but apparently the drive is worth it for the extra goodies you can buy with the higher wages. I think I’d have to make do with less and find some other path to happiness. However, this story shows how difficult it is to uproot people.

    I’ve said before that I believe part of the reason is that tranaction costs for exchanging homes are outrageous, as are the penalties for trading down.

  3. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Ray: You need some indoctrination from the Tysons Corner landowners and their lackeys on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. You have this idea that many people value affordable, detached, single family homes and will continue to seek them further and further out from Washington. The “official” truth is that everyone wants to live in condos, which, of course, means no one will drive to work anymore!

    Another fundamental “truth” is that all jobs must be in Fairfax County (or, possibly, Arlington or Alexandria). It borders on unpardonable heresy to encourage job development in places such as Harrisonburg and Page County.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    I worked in DC and lived in NoVA, mainly Alexandria, for around 35 years before retiring to Blacksburg, VA in 2002. I occasionally run into folks down here who lived and/or worked in NoVA for a while or who had to go there on business. What do they complain about the most? Traffic. I don’t think I ever had a person mention anything else as a first complaint.

    Deena Flinchum

  5. RedBull Avatar

    The first poster nailed it right on the head – there are very few jobs in the valley that justify the cost of living in the valley. -$30,000/year won’t cut it anymore.

    You should see rt. 7 & rt. 50 leaving Winchester each day. I think the latest stats are that over 60% of the people commute to NOVA….and the number is going up each day!

    It takes 2 – 2.5 hours to go from Winchester to Fairfax County.

  6. Jim Patrick Avatar
    Jim Patrick

    The average commute time – of the world, the US, or Virginia— has nothing to do with it. The enormous numbers of commuters living far, far outside the Metroplex are a fact; as are the hours-long commutes they make.

    As early as 1965, 5 AM traffic at Stephens City (Route 11 onto 277/340) was almost exclusively eastbound to Fairfax or DC. At Berryville (Route 50) it was a steady stream eastward. Small potatoes by today’s standards, the traffic was less than half of today’s I-66 load. Of course the Valley population was about half what it is today too.

    A recent survey by the town of Strasburg shows that almost half of new residents are two-income, full-time commuters to NOVA. An earlier workforce survey by Frederick/Page/Shenandoah backs that up. Long distance commuting is the norm.

    In 1996 two (textile) corporate closures eliminated almost 20% of private sector jobs in Shenandoah County. No surprise there; the shocker was the unemployment rate – below 3% — didn’t budge. Folks just got another job, usually a long way away. The Valley’s low unemployment rates are because of good work ethics and long drive times.

    The NOVA metroplex exists by virtue of low-tax revenue/high service cost of housing in the west; while it retains the high-revenue/low service industry for itself.

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