People who live on the eastern side of the District, especially those east of the Anacostia River, have longer commutes than those on the west. Job locations and the river itself are probably big reasons why.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) just released a treasure trove of data about transportation in DC. Among the many things you can see on its new website are average commute times for people all over DC. This means the time from leaving one's home to getting to their job no matter if they walked, biked, took transit, or drove.
The average commute in DC is typically around 30 minutes. But depending on where a person lives, getting to work might actually take them a lot less… or a lot more time.
As you can see, people on the eastern side of the District, particularly in Wards 7 and 8, which are separated from the rest of the city by the Anacostia River, have noticeably longer commutes than people who live on the western side of the city. Both halves of the city are about equidistant from Washington's Central Business District (more on that in a second) so you would think travel times would be equal, all things considered.
But they aren't, which is especially unfortunate considering that most of DC's poorest residents live in the eastern half of the city.
The study does not definitively say why there is a mismatch in commute times, but I can think of a few things that are probably contributing to what's going on.
Jobs aren't just downtown
DC's Central Business District is roughly in the center of the city, but across the region most jobs are to the west, in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County. A job in Tyson's Corner is only a few miles away from someone's home in the Palisades, but it's much farther from someone in Deanwood.
This job imbalance between the two halves of the region adds a lot of strain and stress to our entire transportation system, and it hurts residents on the eastern side.
Another factor might be schedules. The study notes that people who work a typical 9-5 office job generally have quicker commutes thanks to rush hour scheduling on transit. But if your job is outside of that time window, which is the case for many residents who live east of the Anacostia, you may have a longer trip waiting for a bus or train that does not come as often.
The Anacostia River itself is a major geographic hurdle
Neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city aren't just farther away from some jobs. There are some physical obstacles in the way as well that add time to anyone's trip.
The biggest one is the Anacostia River. There are only eight crossings (six bridges and two Metro lines) across the Anacostia, so only so many people can get to downtown jobs at once. While Rock Creek park is certainly an obstacle on the western side of the District, the street gride there is more connected—there are 15 or so ways to cross from one side of the park to another.
If you think outside of just DC, you might consider that the Potomac is also a barrier; there are actually only seven ways to cross that. But fewer residents west of the Potomac depend on crossing it to get to work, as there are far more jobs to the west that just don't require commuting in DC at all.
More people east of the Anacostia depend on transit, but more cars aren't the solution
The study does note that car commutes are typically faster than transit commutes. Since fewer people own cars or use them for commuting on the eastern side of the District, would a solution be to get more people into cars?
Probably not—such a move would likely just lead to more congestion overall. In fact, some of DC's most congested roads—I 395, I-295, New York Avenue—are on the eastern side of the the city already. Anyone driving from that direction today already knows that adding more cars would likely slow down commutes overall rather than help make things more equal.
This congestion already slows down people who take transit to work, and when some choose to drive to avoid that, it just adds to the congestion. Focusing on strategies to speed up public transportation would help those who rely on transit as well give people more options.
There's no one cause for why there is a disparity in commute times between people who live in the eastern part of the District versus those who don't, and that means there won't be one solution that will make commute times shorter for everyone. But now that DDOT has identified who deals with congestion and where they find it, the agency can identify solutions to for cutting it. DDOT certain has its work cut out for it.