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D.C.'s back-to-school traffic phenomenon explained

Friday - 8/31/2012, 1:25pm  ET

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The actual amount of volume on the road doesn't change much from August to September. The time people are traveling does. (WTOP File)

Adam Tuss, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Every September, the commute around the D.C. region becomes longer and more painful.

But why?

Sure, school is back in session and people are back from the beach, but that may not be the whole story.

The region's Transportation Planning Board has been looking over data that shows the actual amount of volume on the road doesn't change much from August to September. The time people are traveling does.

"There's plenty of traffic during the summer. What's happened is the time has changed. (Traffic) suddenly gets back to being during the peak period," says Ron Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Kids have to be at school at a certain time, and employees have to be at their desks. This creates a longer, and heavier rush hour period, particularly in the morning.

From the TPB report:

During the most congested part of the morning peak period on a typical weekday in August 2011, actual travel times were found to average 36% longer than the amount of time it should take to travel the same distance under free-flowing traffic conditions. In September, that number jumped to 60%.

"We want to make clear that there's plenty of travel out there in the summer, and it's not that the travel suddenly came back. It just changed its scheduling," Kirby says.

He says to combat the "back to school effect," staggered work hours and telecommuting can help.

"But there's only so much that can be done," Kirby says.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)