Help me avoid the suburbs!
August 9, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

D.C.CommutingFilter: Moving to the city soon but stuck working in the 'burbs; is it possible for me to maintain my love for the urban lifestyle?

So after much debate (and VERY intense pressure from family), I finally caved and somewhat reluctantly agreed to the job offer I discussed here. However, one of the biggest reasons I held back is that I really enjoy my current living situation - is it possible to maintain it in D.C.?

As I mentioned in my earlier thread, I've been spending most of the last year working in Seoul and really want to continue the big-city lifestyle if at all possible. To give you some idea of what I'm used to, here's two photos I took outside my apartment building: the view outside and my building - as you can tell, it's a very dense, very walkable neighborhood that is pretty much the standard in Seoul. Like most neighborhoods here, there's numerous restaurants and businesses crammed into a tiny space, with a constant backdrop of high-rise apartment buildings that I have become used to seeing everyday. On top of that, car-free living is very much the standard here. I sold my car when I moved to Korea and have been utterly spoiled by the cheap, plentiful public transit. Overall it's a great place to live, and I really wish I could stay longer.

Unfortunately, the job I have been offered will, for the at least the first two years, send me to areas that are nothing like this. The job is scattered across several far-flung suburban locations - the 6-month training is mostly here, near Dunn-Loring with possibly some classes in Ft. Washington, and a 1-2 year assignment starting early next year, likely near Springfield. I did Google Streetview of these areas and instantly knew I would be miserable living near work - I need my city life!!

The best idea I've had is to get a place in D.C. proper and do the reverse commute, but I'm not sure how bad the commute will be. It seems like commuting via public transit might be an option, but would take 1 hour+ to Dunn-Loring (according to the WMATA website, at least) and might not even be possible for Ft. Washington. How bad is the reverse commute to these locations via car? Can it be done in a reasonable amount of time (say, ~45 mins or less)? Also, what might be a good neighborhood in D.C. to get my big-city fix but maintain a reasonable commute? I've been considering Foggy Bottom or maybe Logan Circle, but am open to other suggestions. I know they're expensive neighborhoods, but one bright spot is this new job will pay far better than I make now - even given the high cost-of-living, I will have no problem affording a place to live.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions and/or advice!!
posted by photo guy to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't drive out to the burbs, but a ton of folks do and I've heard that DC doesn't even have a reverse commute. Tons of ppl from MD work in VA and vice versa. The Beltway is jammed. It's one of the worst traffic areas in the country. I think it's no. 2 to rt 1 in Oahu.
posted by anniecat at 9:44 AM on August 9, 2010

Do not do not do not live in Dunn Loring.

The commute out there (and back) isn't too bad. From the Dupont Circle area, I'd cut through the city to Route 50, and just take that the whole way. Lots of lights, but not bad. Generally 20 minutes or so in the morning, 35 or so to come home.

(That said, I am very glad I don't have that commute anymore. As "easy" as it was, it's much better to not have to do it.)
posted by inigo2 at 9:44 AM on August 9, 2010

Agh. I hit post before I finished. I was going to say that there are a lot of fun urbanesque places out in NoVa (alexandria and arlington have nice places for young urban professionals).
posted by anniecat at 9:47 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I commute from Baltimore to Bethesda (right now I am working from home due to eye issues) . I have also worked in Rockville and in DC (Dupon Circle) while living in Laurel MD. I don't know the southside of DC very well.

However, Springfield does have a metro station, which will be helpful:
DC metro provides a map and a trip planner.

One thing to be aware of, if you use the light rail train. Most of the trains run into DC in the morning and out of DC in the afternoon so the light rail would not be a good option for a reverse commute. I think the Amtrack runs the same kind of schedule.
posted by Librarygeek at 9:53 AM on August 9, 2010

I'm not sure you'll be happy in any of the "urbanesque" places in NoVA. Arlington is slowly embracing urbanism, but is completely. devoid. of. character (think soviet-style apartment blocks). However, it's also very easily accessible to DC (moreso than some parts of DC proper)

Also, if you'll be working in far-flung suburban locations, you'll probably need a car. Metro's great, but there's very little to fill in the gaps between stations.
posted by schmod at 9:57 AM on August 9, 2010

I can't help you with your specifics, only share an anecdote (oh, helpful, yes. Sorry).

For similar love-the-city reasons, I lived in Chicago while working in Lemont, IL, and found that my working hours plus commute hours left me too worn out to want to take advantage of my neighborhood. I could walk to a grocery, but much more often paused on the drive home to shop at the megamart. I could take the CTA to any neighborhood of town, but rarely got home from the easy 45-minute reverse commute feeling ready to change clothes and rush out the door again in time to catch the trains; I ended up driving around the city way more than I thought I would.

Now I live right by my work in a small-town suburb of Boston (which is, admittedly, nothing like midwest suburbs), and I do all my commuting for fun stuff. It's convenient since I can stagger to work, I can stay out later without worrying about getting up by 6:30 so I can drive 45 minutes and still be at work at 8. I also don't have my regular social activities all in the same place anyway - one night I'm heading to a bar downtown, another to a friend's house 15 minutes west, another to a dance class 25 minutes south... and even if I lived right next door to one of these things, I'd be long-commute distance from the others. My job is the one thing that doesn't change - every day in the same place - so I live near that.

Thus my advice - if you don't have a specific reason for wanting a specific neighborhood (your friends, their favorite bar, your dojo, etc), being just generally "in the city" might not be as fulfilling as you're hoping. But everybody's different, maybe it'll work out great for you.
posted by aimedwander at 10:02 AM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's also worth mentioning that I've noticed that 6-month leases seem to be much more common in DC than other cities, thanks to the largely transient workforce. It might be worth finding a cheap place with a short lease, and figuring out a more permanent situation once you've been here a few months.

Moving sucks, but much less so than being stuck in a neighborhood that you hate.

Personally, I'd recommend the U St (Midcity) neighborhood or Adams Morgan. It's a bit more of a commute, but also probably closer to what you're used to in terms of an urban area. Foggy Bottom is a bit bland.
posted by schmod at 10:02 AM on August 9, 2010

I'd argue that Arlington isn't quite as bad as schmod suggests, but then, I find DC as a whole relatively lacking in character so Arlington isn't too much of a step-down :) That said, if you look at Arlington I'd stick to the Clarendon-Rosslyn area. I enjoy the Court House area because it is super walkable (my walkscore is 92) with lots of food and the like around. We can walk to Georgetown if we want, too (about 2 miles).

We chose Court House because me and my roommate work in Tyson's... the commute from DC (car or transit) was just a bit too much for us to endure.

I'd recommend you think about Arlington or Alexandria, but you will most likely be happier in DC proper - just make sure you're near the metro!
posted by alaijmw at 10:02 AM on August 9, 2010

Also, just keep in mind that commutes in this area are absolutely soul-crushing. Working in the suburbs really sucks - either you live out there (yuck!) or you live in the city and deal with a god-forsaken commute. It is a crappy compromise to have to make but after 2 years of living in Fairfax I couldn't take the pain of suburbia and moved to Arlington. Much happier now.
posted by alaijmw at 10:05 AM on August 9, 2010

The best idea I've had is to get a place in D.C. proper and do the reverse commute, but I'm not sure how bad the commute will be.

For what it's worth, I've been doing this for eight months (living in Mount Pleasant in D.C., commuting by car to godforsaken Largo, MD), and so far it has been manageable. The drive is generally 35-40 min. each way, largely against traffic.

I've lived in Mt. P for eleven years, and love it - we have an easy walk to Metro, and to groceries, two farmers' markets, cleaners, coffee, etc., enough decent bars and restaurants nearby to keep us occupied, and a quick ride (and that includes biking) to both downtown and other interesting neighborhoods (e.g. Brookland and Takoma). It's nice having such easy access to Rock Creek Park as well.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:14 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I live in Springfield.

While we have the Franconia/Springfield metro station, it's about an hour commute door to door from downtown via Metro (I do the Springfield to DC commute). It's not the distance, it's all the train stops along the way, plus the added commute from metro to your final destination.

Living in Springfield, even near the metro station, is a very suburban experience... if you want to get a city feel I'd go with either Ballston or Clarendon in NoVA, or just stick with the city itself. U-street corridor, Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Capital Hill - all good places for the experience you're looking for. 14th and K is becoming a district in it's own right with clubs, restaurants and high-rise apartments/condos.

If you get a car and do the reverse commute down to Springfield, it'll take you less than 20 minutes door to door. There is NO traffic on the reverse commute... but there's also no reverse bus service. The lines southbound don't start leaving Pentagon Station till mid-afternoon. You can drive down I-395 and laugh at all the people headed northbound into the city!
posted by matty at 10:17 AM on August 9, 2010

I live in Arlington and commute to Fort Belvoir. It's a pretty straight shot on 395/95S and the only thing that has been hanging me up lately is road construction. If you live in DC proper, I would think your biggest problem would be getting out the of city (you can probably take 66 without much problems -- there will be some slow patches around Arlington but it will clear up after that).

But like others have said, you'll probably need a car to reverse commute. The Dunn-Loring Metro station isn't really nearby to where you'll be working and the buses out in the suburbs are geared toward people going into the city. It may not be impossible, but it probably wouldn't be too much fun.

Still, if you can afford/want a car, I'd say live in the city and reverse commute. For me, the slightly longer commute (although with not much traffic) is a nice trade-off for being around stuff.
posted by darksong at 10:30 AM on August 9, 2010

A few notes about DC:

Even if you're reverse commuting on the metro, you'll going to be paying a TON of money. The metro during rush hour is VERY expensive, like $4.50 one-way. It may be cheaper to have a car. Plus, if you like korean/ethnic food, Northern VA has a well documented abundance of amazing ethnic food. Caveat: they're all in strip malls and you'll need a car to get there. Miss great Korean food? Go to Annandale. Generally, there's a lot of character in NoVA suburbs, but you'll need a car.

I'd like to nth Alexandria as the best fit. It's close to Springfield and on the Blue Line, so it's easy into the city, easy to Springfield (also on the blue line) , pretty easy to Dunn Loring (Blue to Rossyln and transfer to Orange backwards) and I like it better than yupptastic Arlington. Arlington isn't the worst though, and probably much better than around Dunn Loring. I grew up by there and it was generic suburban upbringing.

For DC neighborhoods, there's really only two cool/affordable neighborhoods: Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle. I hear great stuff about stuff off the Red Line in NE, but I haven't actually met anyone who lived there.

Good luck. DC is a love/hate city, but there's cool stuff around.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 10:51 AM on August 9, 2010

Whoops! Dupont's not affordable, but it's the coolest in my experience
posted by Michael Pemulis at 10:52 AM on August 9, 2010

I do the reverse commute from Crystal City out to Fairfax and being against traffic makes a world of difference. It's about 45m door to door for me and I take some more pleasant and leisurely choices rather than opting for pure speed.

I say a silent apology to mama earth every morning for choosing to do that rather than the 90m+ that the metro+buses would require but you may not have that problem for some of your destinations. The WMATA trip planner shows the 2B bus[pdf] going from the Vienna metro stop (end of the orange line) right past that address on Lee Highway. Or you can walk the mile from either the Vienna or Dunn Lorring station.

I suspect that what's going to be your two big driving chokepoints are getting to the bridges and the bridges out of the city. 395 was shitty even before they started tearing up that span, the Roosevelt backs up at the slightest provocation. Once you're past them, though, both those locations are largely painless highway driving.

66 is HOV-only during rush hour, but not the directions you'd be going. On the occasions I take it back in from Fairfax I usually find it sluggish even opposite the commute, but it's consistently moving which you can't say for the other direction. 395 is open both directions to all traffic and against the traditional directions it's rarely slowed at all.
posted by phearlez at 11:04 AM on August 9, 2010

Even if you're reverse commuting on the metro, you'll going to be paying a TON of money. The metro during rush hour is VERY expensive, like $4.50 one-way. It may be cheaper to have a car.

State participates in what used to be called the Metrochek system; likely photo guy has an option to receive some reimbursement for his metro travel. Have you asked about this yet, photo guy?
posted by phearlez at 11:09 AM on August 9, 2010

There's really only two cool/affordable neighborhoods: Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle.

This is not even remotely true - Columbia Heights is, for the most part, not cool (relative, I know, but its most prominent feature is now a huge, ugly mall centered around a Target) and rents haven't been reliably cheap in Dupont Circle for over 20 years.

Beyond the neighborhoods I mentioned above, here are few more to check out:


Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:21 AM on August 9, 2010

D.C.CommutingFilter: Moving to the city soon but stuck working in the 'burbs; is it possible for me to maintain my love for the urban lifestyle?

Absolutely. I've been doing this for the past 4 years: my field just doesn't have a lot of jobs in the city, so i do the reverse commute from downtown DC to the Maryland suburbs. There are a couple things that make this doable for me: first, living near the metro, so I can go wherever I want in the city on the weekends. Second is proximity to major thoroughfares that get me out of the city.

For your commute, I would find an apartment in Foggy Bottom which makes it easy for you to get onto westbound 66 with minimal navigation through the city. I did know someone who lived in Adams Morgan who took Rock Creek Parkway all the way downtown during morning rush hour (with traffic) and then on to 66 westbound into the suburbs (against traffic), and she said it wasn't so bad.

For DC neighborhoods, there's really only two cool/affordable neighborhoods: Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle.

These are both good neighborhoods, but they are neither cool nor affordable. They're also somewhat challenging when it comes to getting to the suburbs in the morning.
posted by deanc at 11:45 AM on August 9, 2010

The second I saw Dunn Loring I immediately thought "Arlington, Duh." Getting out of the city in the morning is a huge, huge bitch. You'd be smart to move to Arlington. People like to hate on Arlington because it lacks the "grit" or "character" (or something) that their uber-cool neighborhood inside the District has, but fact of the matter is it's completely walkable and there's just as much cool shit to do there as anywhere else in DC (Galaxy Hut, Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse, etc). And it's like, a 10 minute metro ride to downtown if you ever get bored.

Hipsters like to shit on Arlington so they can feel superior to all of the "yuppies" that live there, little do they realize this is pretty much every neighborhood in DC. They forget there's a freaking Target in Columbia Heights.
posted by windbox at 2:18 PM on August 9, 2010

Getting out of the city in the morning is a huge, huge bitch.

Barring an accident or major construction, Mount Pleasant to the edge of Prince George's County, MD is generally a 35-40 minute drive for me (via 9th St., Rt. 50 and 495.) Depending on where you start and where you're going, it can definitely not be a bitch.
posted by ryanshepard at 3:21 PM on August 9, 2010

I lived in Logan Circle for three years and worked out in the suburbs for most of that time (Arlington, Tysons, Alexandria) - the reverse commute to all of those places does have traffic, but not nearly as bad as if you were living in the suburbs commuting into the city. I didn't mind it at all, so yes, it's a viable option.

I don't think you'll find any neighborhood in DC that is similar to what you're used to in Seoul, and I think you'll probably hate the metro based on your description of what it's like in Seoul. That said, I think Logan Circle is a great place to look (I loved it there), probably not so much Foggy Bottom, I think it's kind of dead in the evenings over there. Based on the picture and your description of liking the bustling, stuff going on all the time atmosphere, I think you might like the Chinatown/Gallery Place area (I personally think it's too crowded and touristy, but I don't like the busy). Also check out downtown around the Convention Center (I think some people call it NoMa). I also think these areas (and logan circle) might be a good fit for you because they're pretty central, it's easy to get to the highways (like 395 or 66 to get out to VA), and you can pretty much walk anywhere - that was what I loved about logan circle.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions.
posted by echo0720 at 6:15 PM on August 9, 2010

There's really only two cool/affordable neighborhoods: Columbia Heights and Dupont Circle.

Also. This is so, so wrong. I completely disagree.

posted by echo0720 at 6:16 PM on August 9, 2010

Thanks everyone. Think I'm going to be in a short-term apartment in Rosslyn for the first 1-2 months since I won't have a car and my orientation is nearby. Guess I'll see how much I like/hate being in NoVA while I'm there. Long-term, I'm still leaning towards moving somewhere in NW D.C. with reasonable highway access to make my commute more manageable.

A large part of it for me is that I haven't even driven a car (let alone commuted) in over a year - I have no idea what to expect. However, I've talked to a couple of friends in D.C. and they seemed to think the reverse commute isn't too bad. It sounds like the commute out of the city can be done in 30-40 minutes by car; does that sound accurate? Also, how difficult is it to own a car in D.C? For those of you who do a similar commute, are you able to get street parking or do you pay for a garage?

@echo0720 - I'd love to be in Chinatown or Logan Circle if the commute's reasonable. Can I get out to Springfield or Dunn-Loring by car in less than ~45 mins? And you're right; Seoul Metro is one of the best in the world so I'm expecting a major let-down re: mass transit.
posted by photo guy at 6:48 PM on August 9, 2010

I'd love to be in Chinatown or Logan Circle if the commute's reasonable. Can I get out to Springfield or Dunn-Loring by car in less than ~45 mins?

I did the commute from close to Logan Circle to Dunn Loring (about a half mile from where you'll be going) for over a year. I cut through the city to get to Route 50. It took, on average, 20-25 minutes from what I remember. The lights through the city were timed decently, and 50 tends to move pretty well going west in the mornings. Coming home, 50 still moved well, but once you hit the city traffic is worse and lights are worse. I'd say it averaged 40ish minutes coming back home, though some of that was time finding a parking spot.

On average, I'd leave home between 8-8:30 in the mornings, and leave work 5:30ish in the evenings. The later the drive home, the worse it gets because there's a lot of places that have no-parking rules that end at 6:30, so you lose a driving lane (starting around 6:20, usually).

Some days were worse, some were better.
posted by inigo2 at 8:46 PM on August 9, 2010

how difficult is it to own a car in D.C? For those of you who do a similar commute, are you able to get street parking or do you pay for a garage?

It's not difficult to own a car in the city (eg, not much street cleaning or other inconveniences to worry about), but parking absolutely depends on the neighborhood. Where I live, there's street parking available right in front of my home every night when I get back from work. But I used to live in Adams Morgan, and you must have a parking spot (going rate: $200/month uncovered) there unless you want to spend 20 minutes each night searching for parking. Logan Circle has become kind of challenging to find parking in over the last couple of years. Maybe if you make sure to get home before 7 each night it won't be so bad.
posted by deanc at 9:12 PM on August 9, 2010

@inigo2 - 20-25 minutes would be great, way better than I thought! That's shorter than the commute at my last job, and definitely quicker than the Metro/bus combo I was originally planning to use. I was just worried that I would be facing a parking lot each morning, particularly after hearing so many horror stories about D.C. traffic being so bad.

@deanc - I have friends in Adams-Morgan (part of the reason I want to live in D.C.); they said they usually spent 15-20 minutes hunting for a spot as well. At this point, I'm assuming that I'll have to pay for my own space, which isn't a big issue.
posted by photo guy at 10:19 PM on August 9, 2010

Yeah, I very very rarely had problems going out via 50. I wouldn't touch 66 with a 50 foot pole anytime after 8am or so, though. (And really, I think I mean 7:30.) Or between 4-7pm. (Or pretty much any other time.)
posted by inigo2 at 5:39 AM on August 10, 2010

I'd love to be in Chinatown or Logan Circle if the commute's reasonable

Do you have any experience with our Chinatown? It's really more Verizon Center-town now, having been taken over mostly by the 7th street revitalization and all the chain stores and restaurants. The asian influence is pretty wan there now.

If you want a pretty lively stretch with a lot of smaller shops and restaurants you might be better off around the U St corridor. It may be on the way to the same thing (I hope not) but it's a lot less corporate at the moment.
posted by phearlez at 7:09 AM on August 10, 2010

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