The Daily Commute

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Driving on U.S. Route 19 north of Washington, PA
Driving on U.S. Route 19 north of Washington, PA
Photo credit: jmd41280/CC BY-ND 2.0

As people head back to the office after working from home for the last year and a half during the COVID-19 pandemic, things are returning to the new normal. What’s pretty much the same? What changes can people expect in their daily commute? How can people spend less money commuting, and enjoy their commutes more?

Before the pandemic, four out of five Americans drove to work every day or carpooled with someone else. That put a lot of cars on the road and created traffic congestion. That won’t change.

Most people who leave Washington County, PA for work drive to Allegheny County. 26,000 people who live here work there. Driving north from central Washington County on I-79 is for many people the most convenient way to reach Allegheny County. The closer they are to Pittsburgh, the slower the traffic on the interstate.

Traffic also slows in the construction zone for the Southern Beltway intersection with I-79.

The Southern Beltway is the largest construction road construction project around. When it’s done, the beltway is projected to connect Pittsburgh International Airport with the Mon Valley. Along the way, it intersects with I-79 near the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies and the Washington/Allegheny County line. PennDOT anticipates completing the intersection in mid-2022. Construction delays could happen until then.

Most people who live in Washington County also work in the county, which gives them a shorter commute. They might note that several constructions projects to reconstruct and modernize I-70 locally, widening it and making other improvements have been marked completed by PennDOT. Still, I-70 is a highly traveled corridor, and people will continue to see road maintenance, truck traffic and accidents.

Washington County has a stable population – it dropped by half-a-percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau. That makes road maintenance and safety improvements more important in Washington County than major new road projects.

“Those systems that are in place still need maintenance, resurfacing, redesign. Safety elements are always being explored,” Jason Theakston, a Land Use Planner at the Washington County Planning Commission, said.

The Planning Commission, which oversees the orderly development of land in the county, assists with transportation planning. They find funding for local municipalities’ road betterment projects. They maintain county-owned bridges.

On a broader scale, planning for a safer road system in Washington County actually falls to a number of organizations – the Washington County Planning Commission, local municipalities, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), the PA Turnpike Commission and PennDOT, which, by the way, is “installing roundabouts across the state and requires that this design be considered when a significant intersection update is planned,” per the PennDOT website.

A roundabout is a circular intersection. Drivers don’t have to stop before entering the intersection, just yield to traffic that already in the intersection. Two interconnected roundabouts have already been installed in Washington County along Route 519 at Brownlee and Thompson Eighty Four Roads near Eighty Four.

Spend Less Commuting

Commuting to the office every day on those well-maintained roads costs people. Part of the cost is lost time that could be spent with the family, doing enjoyable DIY projects, kicking back with a beer, playing a video game or watching a TV show. Another part of the cost is environmental, as all those cars put out greenhouse gas, which leads to global warming and changes in the weather and climate. Then there’s the cash cost of keeping a car on the road to get to the job.

Owning and maintaining a private vehicle is expensive, and one of the reasons transportation is the second-highest average expense after housing.

America’s commuting choices: 5 major takeaways from 2016 census data from the Brookings Institution

The dollar cost of commuting can be reduced by doing preventive maintenance on the vehicle. A well-maintained vehicle is also less likely to break down during the drive. Many people can check the tire pressure once a month – the right air pressure means less spent on gas, change the air filter and the cabin air filter, and replace wiper blades. When changing the wiper blades, how about cleaning the windshield, too?

Most people aren’t going to change the oil themselves, check their brakes, rotate the tires or change the spark plugs, all of which hold down the cost of driving to work. Reading the owner’s manual can help. Set up a preventive maintenance schedule with an auto repair shop.

Adjusting the car seat just right can make for a more enjoyable commute, because the back support being wrong, not having enough leg room or driving while the height is off is just plain uncomfortable. Adjust the car seat when the car isn’t moving. Raise the height of the seat to provide a clear view through the windshield without bumping the legs into the steering wheel. Push the seat back and forth until the legs aren’t cramped up, the knees slightly bend and the pedals are easily touched. Tilt the seat until it gives equal support to the butt and thighs, and there’s no pressure point against the legs at the edge of the seat.

Having the right accessories can improve the commuting experience – putting on a steering wheel cover or seat covers, subscribing to a music service, adding a phone holder, even installing an air freshener.

Another way to improve the commute is to fill out the Commuter Profile that SPC offers through its service. Scroll to the bottom of the page, click on “Send Me My Commute Options” and fill out the form.

The longer the commute is, the more important it is to enjoy the commute. Enjoying the drive is crucial for the estimated 2,500 people who live in Washington County but drive to work in West Virginia or Ohio.

Whatever the length of the commute, much of it is going to be like it was before the pandemic sent so many people home. Still, it makes sense to do the preventive maintenance to save money and set the vehicle up to make it an enjoyable commute to work and back home again.