Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Labor Day travel forecast reflects our bleak economy

September 2, 2011 - 12:56 PM
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Road to nowhere. (Photo: flickr/damian morys foto)

Despite all the grumbling about our commutes here in the mid-Atlantic region, one overwhelming dimension of transportation is the fun and possibility it affords. Transportation is travel — it's recreation, vacation, a ride to the beach or a flight to a new city or even continent. Yet traveling also requires money, and as our economy continues to flail weakly, our ability to enjoy our long holidays such as the coming Labor Day weekend has decreased — and this economic reality is reflected in travel statistics that are hardly inspiring.

According to AAA's big report on Labor Day weekend, travel from the Mid-Atlantic region is expected to fall by 2.3% compared to last year, much of the reduction coming from a drop in air travel. Automobile travel will presumably remain flat, AAA says, and overall travel numbers, measured in total millions of person trips, are down. Although the statistics reflects a national decrease in Labor Day travel, the Mid-Atlantic region still, at least, has fared slightly better than many locations. "The forecast predicts that 10.6 percent of the [Mid-Atlantic] region's population will travel at least 50 miles round-trip this holiday," the report says, "a slightly higher frequency than is expected nationwide (10 percent)."

Chocolate strawberries
2011 Labor Day travel forecast for Mid-Atlantic and U.S. (Photo: AAA)

Our part of the country hasn't been hit quite as bad by the recession. Mid-Atlantic unemployment rates tend to hover around 7.9 percent in 2011's third quarter, which AAA cites as around a full percentage point lower than the national average. But travel is still down, and the recession still has a real impact on a great many households.

Why might travel be down? The biggest reason, which affects the employed and the jobless, is probably the cost of fuel. Gas here costs  a whopping 38 percent more than it did last year, if you can believe it, according to AAA. 38 percent.

All this speaks to a much broader problem that's eaten away at American power and possibility in the last half decade. Multiple recent news stories highlighted the implications of the recession, the long shadow of which casts across transportation statistics as much as anywhere else. In The Atlantic's most recent cover story, Don Peck digs into the data and asks if the middle class can be saved. He points to the great stratification that's happened between those with college degrees and those without, and how the financial sluggishness is leaving the latter behind in a dramatic way. A new report showed that the U.S. added no new jobs in August — the worst showing in 11 months, The New York Times announces today. No wonder people feel like they can't indulge in a little recreational transit these days.

Is a Labor Day vacation vital to the average citizen's happiness?

Of course not. No one has any inherent right or need to go tumble around Ocean City or Baltimore or New York or any other place. A person can find satisfaction with good friends here, in a good book, movie, at a barbecue or pool party, and so on. But often people do want something a little more. Three days off is a major punctuation mark in the season, and a trip to visit family that live elsewhere or to see a new town or to just get away and relax ... those are vital in a different sense. Although only a tenth of the population will be traveling, that travel is often a time of emotionally healthy bonding and relaxation. The drop in travel already reflects additional stresses that the American people face; without these brief reprieves, what extra strain will build over time?

Even travel within the Washington, D.C. metro area will be complicated this Labor Day weekend, as stations close and buses replace trains on the Metro's Blue and Orange lines. If you're hoping to stay in the District and save money, don't expect to travel by Metro without delay on those two stretches. I'd suggest you enjoy the warm weekend by biking — a much more affordable option, typically — but Weather.com is predicting isolated thunder storms on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Pedestrians, remember your umbrellas.

Happy Labor Day weekend, D.C. I hope you have a great three days off, whether you're staying in town or leaving, no matter how you're traveling.

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