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Area drivers taking more trips beyond daily commute

With trips to drop off kids at day care, hit the gym and pick up groceries, area residents are taking many extra trips beyond the daily slog to work.

Commuting to work makes up less than a fifth of the daily trips local residents take, according to a survey of household travel habits scheduled to be presented this week to the National Capital Transportation Planning Board. That’s part of a steady decline, down from one-third of all trips in 1968.

Such a change marks a shift for the region that some experts say could have implications on transportation policies that have focused primarily on how to get workers to their jobs. To keep the traffic moving — and prevent air quality from suffering — transportation officials have tried all sorts of policies, including HOV lanes, car pooling and express buses.

“Historically, we’ve focused on commuting as the significant event,” said Robert Griffiths, who led the analysis for the National Capital Transportation Planning Board. “Over time, because some have more flexible work hours, less of people’s daily travel is involved in the commute.”

Now, he said, planners and government leaders will need to look at broader patterns to reduce the total number of trips — or find ways to encourage people to do those trips by foot or bike.

To Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, it comes down to how communities prioritize transportation investments and how they design their communities. Many transportation officials focus on expanding the capacity of roads for rush hour. But those roads are crowded at other times of day and on weekends.

“Can we design our communities so that we can take fewer trips by car and shorter trips overall?” Schwartz asked.

Still, Griffiths said, commuting remains a big concern because many of the trips to and from work are concentrated during rush hour.

Those commutes also tend to be longer than other trips, according to the survey. Trips to school, shopping, social events or personal business had median distances of less than four miles, while the median commuting distance was 9.3 miles.

“Even though there are fewer of them, they account for about 30 percent of the miles traveled in a day,” Griffiths said.