Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Well, automobile, train, bus, and airport, anyway.

As you may recall, I'm a development environment and process consultant. I wander from client to client teaching about software development process, installing development environment support tools, and mentoring/coaching projects to transfer knowledge about administering toolsets (like Rational ClearCase/ClearQuest). The nature of my job is that I mostly hang out only long enough to get a project up and running or to lend a hand to get over a hump. I don't really have a permanent place to call my workplace.

In many ways, this is exciting and interesting. I rarely get bored before I have to go off and do the next thing. I generally get to move on before inertia and disgruntlement set in. And sometimes I do get a longer (say 4-8 months) gig doing real work just to keep on top of the game.

But it doesn't make it easy to plan a commute. And sometimes the location of an assignment can put a strain on our commitment to remain a one-car family. (How sad. There were two years when we were able to be a no-car family. But that was a different job situation and a different country altogether.) This spring, Germantown was outside of reasonable public transportation (at least when originating in Greenbelt), but when the Brunette needed the car, she could at least drop me off in the same state we live in.

This month, I'm lending a hand to a company near Dulles Town Center. It's 40.2 miles from my home. That's a hike. The timeframe is a bit open-ended, but I think we're looking at six weeks. Oi. Even before Katrina, I looked at the gas prices over $3 a gallon and said: Surely $3/gallon and a 40.2 mile trip combine to make Metro a financial alternative? I doodled out the numbers and driving (including tolls but not wear/tear on the vehicle) was still two dollars cheaper than public transport.

Still, close enough to give it a try, eh? It is possible to get there by public transit: Train from Greenbelt to L'Enfant Plaza. Metro bus from L'Enfant to Dulles Airport (IAD). Loudoun County bus from IAD to the worksite.

I was worried that Metro reliability would let me down. The Metro bus runs only hourly (surprisingly infrequent considering it was crowded every time I rode it - at $3 per passenger, a pretty good cash flow for Metro). So, if the train was delayed, I was going to lose an hour in the morning.

But the four times in the week that I rode, the train-bus connection was flawless. The problem was on the other end. The Loudoun bus runs only every hour, too, and it does not sync well with the Metro drop-off. Of the four mornings, three had the little Loudoun county bus missing us. Twice, it came five minutes too early. Once it came 45 minutes too late (or was it 15 minutes early for the next run?)

Sorry, kids, but it just isn't possible to walk into a customer's office an hour late on a regular basis. And it certainly wasn't pleasant waiting around in the afternoon for the hour-late bus to show up. ("The bus driver says nobody was there when he drove by," said the receptionist when I called. "Nobody was here," I replied, "because he was more than 15 minutes early. I know, I was standing here.")

On the best day, the trip took 2 hrs, 15 minutes. The worst day: 3 1/2 hours. That's each way! I want to support public transport, but this just isn't workable. I believe the reluctance of most people to join the public transport crowd is not solely due to money. There's also the extreme inconvenience involved.

The best day of the next week driving? 1 hour, 5 minutes. The worst? 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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