Image from Dulles Corr. Metrorail.

A new Washington Post poll shows large majorities of residents favor transit expansion and are generally pleased with the quality of Metro.

62% of respondents said the region should focus its resources on “providing more public transportation options, such as trains or buses,” while 30% favored “expanding and building roads” (question 16).

Residents said this despite more listing traffic as the greatest problem facing the region (38%) than any other (question 1), and 65% of those who commute to work driving alone (question 3).

Residents, even those who themselves drive, seem to broadly support the idea that our region must accommodate its growth through transit and transit-oriented development to avoid even greater traffic. 43% of respondents reported not being able to take transit to work (down from 56% in 2005), but still support building transit.

One of the commonly heard arguments against Smart Growth or improved transit is, “I drive, and many people are going to drive, and some people want to live in low-density areas, so we have to spend most of our resources on roads.” This poll shows that significant numbers of drivers don’t fall into that trap. We have roads, and we have transit. If one-third of commuters don’t drive alone, that’s a lot of commuters not taking up much space on the roads. For every percentage point the Washignton region improves its mode share, it can add more jobs without adding traffic.

An Action Committee for Transit press release pointed out, “The priority that area residents favor by a majority of more than two to one differs drastically from current spending patterns.  The cost of highway expansions now being built in the area, including the Intercounty Connector, the Virginia Beltway toll lanes, Montrose Parkway, and numerous lesser road widenings, dwarfs investments in transit.  The only major transit project currently under construction is the Metro Silver Line to Tysons Corner and Dulles Airport.”

A Transportation for America survey found similar preferences nationwide, with a supermajority preferring transit expansion to highway spending.

The Post survey also revealed that residents generally feel positively about Metro despite the recent mishaps and constant negative press coverage, sometimes warranted, sometimes not. 80% of Metrorail users and 70% of Metrobus users see their systems positively.

Rail users gave high marks for reliability (75%), comfort (78%), value (72%), and even safety (67%) (question 7). Some of these have declined since 2005, with reliability taking the greatest hit from 87% to 75%; “convenience to your home” and “going to the places that you want to go” increased by one (probably statistically insignificant) point.

Metro is also back to regularly breaking ridership records, recording its second highest ridership day on Friday, beating out the previous #2 record-holder, set the day before. And today is Opening Day for baseball.

Will these results shift the tenor of press coverage? Metro’s harshest critics don’t seem moved, like Unsuck DC Metro who Tweeted, “April Fools’ was last week, guys.”

Finally, the poll has sobering news on distracted driving, which U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls “an epidemic.” 80% of drivers reported frequently seeing others not paying attention on the road, with 61% saying they see it “very often” (question 17). 80% also say they see others driving aggressively.

Of course, few people believe that they are the problem, though some actually do admit to it: 16% say they “very” or “somewhat” often don’t pay enough attention, and 12% say they drive aggressively (question 18). But many more admit to certain behaviors that fairly clearly involve not paying attention some of the time: In stop-and-go traffic, 54% say they talk on the phone, 42% say they eat, 23% say they email, text or use the Web, and 14% of women say they put on make-up (question 19).

Large majorities agree it should be illegal to read (92%) and send (94%) text messages and talk on handheld cell phones (76%) while driving (questions 20-23), but 68% still feel it should be legal to talk on a hands-free device despite highway safety groups saying it’s just as dangerous.

Update: Added mention of Transportation for America survey.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.