Commuting on the cusp of closure

D.C. was lucky this time. The great Nor’easter that was forecasted only showered the area with its straggling remains of snow, allowing the city to function normally. But when big storms cause everything to shut down, getting around can be dangerous, and sometimes even impossible.

Many GW students live off campus and commute to school every day. Sophomore Monna Kashfi lives at home in Gaithersburg, Md., because of family obligations. Every morning she endures a 45-minute Metro ride after driving 15-20 minutes to get to the nearest Metro station.

On a normal day Kashfi said the commute is smooth and trains usually run on time, but delays on the Red line often frustrate her.

“If the trains aren’t delayed it’s usually fine – you know if no one decides to jump off the platform,” she said, in light of the recent accidents on the Red line.

When a storm hits D.C., Kashfi said the commute drastically changes for the worse. Because people prefer to take the Metro instead of driving when conditions are bad, trains are more likely to be delayed.

Kashfi said the worst part of a stormy day is driving to the Metro station, which she said can take her up to 45 minutes. The roads are dangerous because they become icy and crowded with traffic, she said.

Kashfi said people have an easy time getting around on campus because the city usually does a good job clearing Foggy Bottom roads and getting rush hour traffic moving. She said her concern is with the commute through D.C. suburbs.

“The weather makes (the commute) all that much harder, and it’s not the weather in D.C.” she said. “In Gaithersburg, they don’t clear the roads quickly enough and visibility is usually very bad.”

Kashfi said GW’s bad-weather policy needs improvement because GW tends to cancel classes less often than other schools in the area. She also said the policy is not well publicized.

Kashfi said she gets frustrated when GW remains officially open but professors cancel classes because they have a hard time getting to campus. By the time Kashfi finds out about cancelled classes, she has already made the long, hard commute and has to turn around to make it again back home.

“(Bad weather) is not so much an issue for on-campus students, but it is a major headache for commuters,” she said.

Freshmen Adam Donovan also lives at home in Potomac, Md., about 15 miles from campus, because it is more convenient for his family. Since he does not live near a Metro station, Donovan drives about 45 minutes to campus to attend class.

When D.C. experiences good weather, Donovan said he only has to deal with rush-hour traffic. But when bad weather hits, he said dangerous road conditions can stretch his commute to two and a half hours.

Donovan said he feels that D.C. is not well equipped for handling big storms.

“D.C. is incompetent with putting down salt on the roads, and D.C. drivers don’t know how to drive safely with dangerous road conditions,” he said.

Although Donovan said he has not attended GW long enough to judge the University’s weather policy, he said he has heard rumors that GW cancels classes much less frequently than other schools in the area.

“I understand (why GW might not cancel classes) because the dorms are so close to the classes, but on the other hand I don’t understand because not only are there a lot of students who live off campus but the faculty does too,” he said.

Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman is in charge of deciding when conditions are dangerous enough to cancel classes.

Lehman said the decision whether to cancel classes involves many complex considerations.

First, the campus must be able to handle traffic coming through the area, parking must be cleared and facilities must be able to function fully, he said.

Outside those considerations, a significant effort is put into determining whether it is safe for commuters on the roads of Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

Lehman said GW collects weather information from forecasts around the area. He also gets feedback from facilities management workers about the shape of the campus facilities.

“We try to make the optimal decision,” Lehman said. “We take into account that there are graduate students, faculty and administrators that commute.”

Lehman also commutes to work, hitting the road at 6:30 a.m. to make his way to campus. This helps him determine the level of traffic and types of road conditions on bad-weather days, he said. He also gets feedback from other administrators and faculty members that commute to GW.

“The objective is to have classes running and keep the University fully functioning, but at the same time (take) the students’ and faculty’s safety into account,” he said.

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