Smart Commute Success Story: Trading Traffic for the Train

Faculty and Staff
Sustainable Transportation

 

Olivia Dent's daily commute was leaving her frazzled and exhausted. Her drive between the university and her home in Columbia could take as long as two hours. After rethinking her ride, she began taking the MARC Train to College Park, and then the Shuttle-UM 104 College Park Metro route to campus. Several months of car-free commuting later, Olivia has saved $3,000 and regained her work-life balance. Read on to learn how and why she made the switch. 

Olivia Dent is the Assistant Director for Operations in the Department of Astronomy.

What was your commute like before you switched to the MARC Train?
Before taking the train, I drove to campus. I work regular business hours, so traffic is horrendous. There were days it could take at least an hour in each direction. Columbia isn’t that far away but the traffic between here and there is really bad at rush hour. There were times I would leave work at what I thought was a reasonable time, giving myself at least an hour and a half to get to our daycare before it closed. Some days, traffic would be so bad I would be panicking that I might not make it in time. While my office and the department itself is very flexible about work schedules, my particular job and my needs outside of work don't allow me to come in at off hours such as 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

What prompted you to change your commute?
A few things. Driving caused me a lot of stress. One, I don’t like driving in traffic— it’s very frustrating. Two, I didn’t feel like I had any decompression time between work and home. I’d go from work to sitting in the car, getting aggravated that I wasn’t doing anything for an hour, to home, where I’d be irritable. It wasn’t pleasant.

And three, it was expensive. Once you’ve added up a parking permit, gas, vehicle maintenance—which is something a lot of people don't think about—and insurance, which is based on the length of your commute, the cost is very high! Finally, there was huge appeal to just relaxing during that period of time between work and home, which I definitely get on the train, even if I am still doing some form of work such as emails. 

How did you choose the MARC train?
The first option I looked at was the commuter bus from Columbia. But the times didn’t work well for me when I have to do daycare pick-up and drop-off. Then I looked at rideshare but I didn’t want to have to rely on other people to be on time and to have vehicles that were working. I also didn’t like the risk factor of being in an accident with other people. I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. 

So, I looked at the MARC because I realized how close the station was to my house. Over the summer I did test runs. Then, I started taking the train more and more and eventually said “I’m giving up my parking permit!” I gave up my parking permit in August and I’ve only driven to campus a handful of times. I don’t think I've driven to campus since early November 2018. 

Then, I looked at the time commitment. A lot of people have this idealized vision of alternative commuting saving you time, and that’s not the case, no matter what you do. Whether you take the bus, whether you rideshare, you’re not going to save a lot of time. Where the benefits outweigh that drawback is the stress relief and financial improvement. I calculated it out and I'm saving almost $3000 a year by taking the Marc train.  

My commute isn’t any shorter than before, but I get to relax on the train. If I choose, I can continue working. That’s something my supervisor really supports because he knows that, when I walk out the office at 4 o’clock everyday (and I need to leave at 4), I’ll still answer an urgent email if he sends me one five minutes later. I'm not completely disconnecting from the world. The train gives me better use of my day overall.

Once you chose the MARC train, what considerations did you take in planning your new commute?
The Guaranteed Ride Home program helped me feel more confident in switching. I know if my son has an emergency and needs to be picked up, I can still get home. I also have back-ups closer to home for picking up my son just in case, either people who can leave work more easily than I can, or we have our babysitter who is able to pick him up with reasonable notice if needed.  

It’s helpful that, for the most part, the train stays on schedule. Sometimes there are delays but it's rarely more than 10 minutes. A lot of people aren’t aware of it but marctracker.com lets you see the status of all the currently running trains and it's updated every 10 to 15 minutes. 

Beyond childcare and the Guaranteed Ride Home program, do you have other back-ups for when something unexpected happens?
I do have the Lyft and Uber apps on my phone in case Guaranteed Ride Home doesn’t work out for some reason. I am also aware of coworkers on campus who live near me and who drive here and, if for some reason the train wasn’t running, would be happy to give me a ride. I didn’t do this all up front. I just thought about these options as time passed. 

How your commute experience has changed since taking the MARC train?
I’m less stressed. My husband has actually commented on seeing less stress in me and that I'm in a much better mood when I come home. I've also made some informal friends on the train. You see people you recognize on a daily basis and sometimes sit together. It’s nice having that informal train community that cares. And again, I've definitely seen the financial benefits.

What is your daily/weekly schedule like with taking the MARC train?
I'm not always in the office for eight hours flat every single day, but I make up my time with remote work on the train and at home when needed. This was a prearranged agreement with my supervisor. That is another thing I’d tell people. You have to talk to your supervisor and discuss this change in your commute. For me, it puts constraints on my work day. I can't have meetings that start at or go past 4 o’clock. My supervisor is OK with that. It's just about keeping communication open. 

I'm home by 5:30 p.m. most days, which is a lot better than before. Before, I could be home anywhere between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. depending on traffic. 

What has surprised you about your new commute?

I didn't think I would like it as much as I do. It's even playing into my considerations of where we'll move in the future. For me driving is not the primary option anymore—I don't want to drive. That surprised me. 

What sort of advice would you give to people who are unsure about switching their commute?
I encourage them to look at the different options and think about how each of those could work for them. I know a lot of parents are probably antsy about taking a train to work because of whatever commitments they may have in terms of childcare. I recommend thinking broadly about all their childcare options. Then, just give it a try. The nice thing about the MARC train or the bus is that you don't have to make a long commitment. You can do a couple of days and see how it goes. I encourage them to talk to somebody who is doing the type of commute they are considering.

And, work out the math. Once people work out the math, they may be more encouraged to say, "maybe I should consider this." Look at the cost of a parking permit, gas, insurance, brakes, tires, oil changes and filters versus 12 monthly MARC Train or bus passes (which can be taken out of your paycheck pre-tax!). My insurance even went down because, while they still count driving to the train station as commuting, for them it’s a few miles versus 30 to 40. I also only fill my big SUV tank every 10 days because I only drive within a small radius of my house now.

Final Thoughts?
I think it’s important to emphasize that alternative commuting options are not an idealistic, faster way to get to work. But, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks with just a few minor adaptations. For example, I keep all my work shoes at the office and wear weather appropriate footwear to the train. There hasn’t been anything significant enough for me to say, “I should think about going back to driving.”