FutureStructure

Faced with Increasing 90-Minute-Plus Commutes, Northern Californians Resort to Desperate Measures

As Silicon Valley's economy has boomed without new housing to match, a city 80 miles away has become the No. 1 city in the country for extremely long commutes.

by Marisa Kendall, the Mercury News / April 27, 2018

(TNS) — For Katrina Gonzalez, like so many others who toil in Silicon Valley each day, the trek to work is more of an odyssey than a commute.

The 25-year-old Stockton, Calif., resident traverses seven different freeways to get to her job as a restaurant manager at a San Jose Red Lobster, spending at least three hours a day on the road. It’s such a long drive that her favorite radio station fizzles out halfway through, and the GPS on her phone is constantly sending her on new routes down back roads to evade traffic and accidents.

“It definitely sucks, don’t get me wrong,” Gonzalez said. But, “I’m used to it.”

The Stockton region now leads the nation in its share of commuters who spend 90 minutes or more getting to work, according to a study released Wednesday by Apartment List. Ten percent of the region’s commuters made the grueling “super commute” in 2016 — up from 7 percent in 2005, according to the study.

Across the Bay Area, workers are spending more time sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic or squeezed into crowded trains and buses — further evidence of the intensifying struggle to balance a well-paying job with an affordable place to live.

“In the Bay Area, just the fact that so many people are commuting from these outlying areas and not necessarily from San Jose and San Francisco really demonstrates how severe the housing shortage is,” said Sydney Bennet, a senior research associate at Apartment List, which based its findings on U.S. Census commuting data.

“The fact that driving two hours or taking a bunch of different forms of public transit from Vallejo or Stockton or Modesto is a realistic commute that people do on a daily basis is surprising, and I think would have been hard to imagine 20 or 30 years ago. But that’s the reality if people don’t have anywhere to live,” Bennet said.

Modesto, another de facto Silicon Valley bedroom community, ranked second in the country, with 7 percent of commuters qualifying as super commuters, according to the study, which analyzed the nation’s 100 largest metro areas.

The San Francisco metro area, including the East Bay, ranked sixth on the list with nearly 5 percent of commuters enduring super commutes — and that share has more than doubled since 2005. The San Jose area, which ranked 23rd, almost doubled its share of super commuters in 2016, with about 3 percent of commuters traveling 90 minutes or more one way. Riverside, New York and Bridgeport, Connecticut also ranked in the top five.

Gonzalez and her husband bought a house in Stockton last July because they couldn’t afford anything closer to her job. The median value for a home in Stockton is $287,000, compared to $1.1 million in San Jose, $1.3 million in San Francisco and $760,000 in Oakland, according to Zillow.

Now, Gonzalez spends three hours a day in her car, and shells out $300 a month to fuel the long drives. But at least she’s not sitting in traffic, she says — her shift, which starts at 2 p.m. and ends around 11:30 p.m., allows her to miss rush hour. Even so, some days Gonzalez feels like she spends so much time driving that she doesn’t get to enjoy the four-bedroom house she sacrificed so much for. But she reassures herself that this won’t be forever.

“In the long run, it’s going to be worth it,” she said.

For now, sitting in her car is pretty much Gonzalez’s only choice, because public transit options are few and far between. The ACE train runs from Stockton to San Jose — but only on weekdays, and there are no trains after 7:05 a.m. As a result, 94 percent of Stockton’s super commuters drive to work, according to the Apartment List study. That compares to 62 percent of super commuters in the San Jose area, and 55 percent in the San Francisco area.

Wayne Flora, a construction superintendent who travels to job sites all over the state, recently spent five months commuting from the Central Valley to Mountain View for a Walgreens remodel. He left his house in Ripon by 3 a.m. to beat the traffic, arrived at the site at 4:30 and slept in his truck until it was time to start work at 7. Coming home, if he didn’t leave by 2 p.m., the trip took at least three hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Then he’d be in bed by 8 p.m. so he could wake up in time to do it again the next day.

“It’s not much of a life when you gotta do that,” Flora said.

Flora and his wife moved in with family in Redding two months ago, and now he spends his weeks at a job site in Oakley, driving the four hours there Monday morning, and another three or three and a half home Friday afternoon.

Commute times across Silicon Valley have increased by 17 percent over the past decade, adding an average of 43 minutes weekly per commuter, according to the 2018 Silicon Valley Index by Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

Several factors make the Bay Area’s commutes especially fraught — chiefly, the namesake bay that cleaves the region in half, said Ratna Amin, transportation policy director for SPUR, a local urban research nonprofit. Millions of commuters are forced to squeeze across just a handful of bridges or use BART, the only rail system that crosses the bay. Furthermore, the Bay Area’s job centers are diffused across the region instead of consolidated in one hub, posing added challenges for officials attempting to connect them via public transit, she said.

A few potential solutions are in the works, such as the long-awaited BART extension to San Jose. BART and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority officials recently resolved a disagreement over how to commence tunneling under San Jose for the project. Meanwhile, officials are adding express lanes to busy freeways, with the goal of having 550 miles by 2035.

Express lanes could be part of the fix, Amin said. She also would like to see the region encourage more carpooling, possibly by connecting groups of people in shared buses or vans similar to the private “Google buses” already on the roads.

“We should be able to get more people into a vehicle,” Amin said, “and let that car go faster.”

©2018 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.