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Archive for October 22nd, 2013

As the old saying goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn, and this is evidently when I will be heading to work from now on.

Part of the deal I made to be able to move to Virginia was to adopt a shifted commuting schedule. Because of traffic and the flexible work schedule the Observatory allows us to have, many people here opt to come in early and leave early. I already went to work early when living in Maryland to edge out the heaviest volume of traffic in the morning. But now it is imperative to leave early for multiple reasons.

First, I now commute primarily by interstate highway, whereas I took normal streets before. There are good and bad parts to both situations: previously, I had 44 stoplights between my home and work, but I also had the option of taking alternate routes around side streets if the flow of traffic was better. Now, most of my commute is interstate, and I only have 6 stoplights the entire way. With normal traffic (which appears to be steady but not bumper-to-bumper) I’ve cut my travel time from 40 minutes on an average morning to 25 minutes, which is fantastic. But if anything at all happens on the interstate, I’m stuck on a five lane highway with everyone else. Leaving early reduces the chances of that, though days where traffic is already a disaster at 6:00 a.m. will surely be inevitable.

The second reason I leave early is because I now take Rock Creek Parkway, a unique roadway that ducks out of the hubbub of the immediate downtown area and snakes up through the district along Rock Creek Park. This park is actually part of the National Park Service and runs many miles up through the district and into Maryland; in fact, our rent house was just a few blocks from the northern end of the park, and occasionally we would walk through it. Rock Creek Parkway, as well as other roads that run through the park, offer some alternative driving routes through the city while avoiding the busy grid of downtown. If I take the parkway up out of Virginia, I cut out dozens of stoplights and smoothly exit onto Massachusetts Avenue a mere two blocks from the Observatory.

It makes for an ideal commute, with one huge caveat: the Parkway changes to one direction into downtown at 6:45 a.m. Unfortunately, my commute takes me out of downtown, meaning that if I don’t finish my commute by 6:45, I have to find an alternate route to work. While it’s definitely possible, it’s much preferable to do everything in my power to make sure I hit it before that. Similarly, it switches the opposite way at 3:45 p.m., meaning I have to wrap up my workday before too late or face being stuck in traffic on the West End or in Georgetown.

In reality, having a shifted work schedule is kind of great. I get done early in the afternoons and have time to come home and enjoy a large chunk of the day. However, it does have its obvious down sides. First, I am not a morning person. Period. I hate waking up early, but evidently I’ve proven to myself that I can actually do it. I just don’t have to love it. It’s also apparently going to be dark for my commute all but for one or two months in the summer. I guess this will be okay once I learn the route, but right now, while I’m still learning what lanes to be in and how to merge into traffic, it’s a bit tricky. It’s also bizarre to be at work when it’s pitch black, like I’m somehow working the night shift. On the other hand, in the dead of winter when it gets dark barely after lunch, I’ll already be home.

My first two morning commutes and my afternoon commute yesterday went relatively smoothly, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve improved my commute time both ways by around 10-15 minutes, though I’ll need a few more data points to get a good average. As I mentioned before, learning what lanes to be in when is key, and it’s going to take me a week or two to get those down without accidentally ending up in the Pentagon parking lot or at National Airport. I’ve been using navigation on my Google Maps app to make my drive as foolproof as possible, but she doesn’t really tell you which of the four lanes you want to be in. I also need to purposefully learn those alternative routes reliably, because it’s guaranteed that on the rare occasion I’ll be forced to come in later or stay later and will miss out on the Parkway. Knowledge is power, and being comfortable with alternatives will ease the white-knuckle terror I usually feel when I’m forced off a known path and into the bowels of downtown DC.

I’m thankful the new drive has gone smoothly so far, and I hope my new routine gets even easier as we get more settled into our new place. But now excuse me while I go stare bleary-eyed at the coffee pot in the lab and wonder when after 31 years I’m going to finally be forced to start drinking the stuff.

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