Some notes on car commuting, transportation, and living
I’ve become a car commuter for the first time in my life in August. All my other jobs had access via public transportation and/or allowed me to work from my apartment. This was generally because I lived and worked in the same city or worked via a remote internet connection because I was working in SF but the firm I worked for was in Southern California or had a very small office and it was easier to have me work from home. Here are some notes on my experience.
1. My commute is from San Francisco to the North Bay. This means I generally have a reverse commute and it is often rather sweet as Bay Area commutes go. More often than not, it takes me 35-40 minutes door to door.
2. My commuting cost have skyrocketed. When I worked in NYC or dowtown SF, my commuting costs were a monthly metro or MUNI card. Now my commuting costs are about 310 dollars a month (not including car insurance and wear and tear). This covers gas plus daily tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge.
3. There worst part about traffic for me is not the slow speed but the start and stop nature of congestion even in places where it is predictable. The 101 turns from four lanes to two lanes when coming back from North Bay to San Francisco in the evening. You can predict that this is going to result in congestion at the start of the Golden Gate Bridge but sometimes it does not and you can’t tell when it will and how long the congestion will last. Sometimes things speed up as soon as you are on the bridge, other times traffic can be start and stop congestion from the Golden Gate Bridge well into San Francisco.
4. If I ever need to go to somehwere in the East Bay, there is always horrible traffic on the Bay Bridge even though this is also a reverse commute theoretically.
5. I could theoretically take public transportation from my apartment to my job but it would turn a 40 minute commute into a 2.5 hour or 3 commute each way. The car-free commute would require taking a bus to downtown SF, getting on another bus, and then walking about two miles to work. I wonder what my public transport commute would be like if the allegedly expansive original BART plan came to pass.
6. Commuting in the Bay Area is pretty expansive. People in my office live in SF, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Sonoma, and Solano Counties. People seem to choose where the live based on a combination of factors including price, family obligations (there is a lot of triangulation when romantic partners work in different counties and picking a halfway point between the two job sites), and hobbies (the outdoorsy people generally don’t live in SF or Oakland.) This can result in some extreme commutes. I said I was very lucky in having a relatively painless commute. I’ve heard of people commuting from Sonoma or Marin in the North Bay to Silicon Valley/San Jose.
7. I can’t decide whether it is a form of insanity or not that so many people are willing to put up with extreme commutes. One thing I’ve noticed is that American living spots tend to be very segregated based on your age, income, and/or family situation. Cities tend to be for the young and/or single. Families who live in cities seem to be very rich and/or very poor. I have a lot of friends who have or are starting to have young children. The ones who stay in cities tend to have a lot of money or no money at all. My friends who are in the middle-class range depart of the suburbs early on or when their kids hit school age. This is largely because of school issues but it could also be space and not space for the kids because parents might also want not to be cramped into close quarters with their kids. A friend of mine from undergrad grew up middle class and in NYC. He lived in a two bedroom and two bathroom apartment with his parents and sister. I remember being over when his younger sister was having a very typical teenage argument with her parents about wanting to and not being allowed to go to a concert on a school night. I thought it was rather uncomfortable to be in such a small space when this argument was happening. Urban designers don’t seem to know how to design apartments for families. I recently went into an open house near my apartment for an alleged three bedroom and two bathroom apartment. The apartment had a very large kitchen/dining room/living area, a good sized master bedroom, and two small bedrooms. The only decent-sized closet was in the master bedroom. There was a shallow hall closet and the two small bedrooms also had shallow closets. I can’t quite understand how this was a three bedroom apartment except for the fact that the developers decided to market it as such.
8. #7 interestingly means that older (but not empty nester), unmarried, and childless couples like me are sort of in a nowhere land when it comes to housing. I don’t need a large suburban house that is meant for people with children and I am not interested in sharing a house with other single people. I also still like the walkability that SF and NYC give me. What I am getting tired of is listening to much younger neighbors blast music until 4 in the morning while I am trying to sleep. I can see staying in cities if I don’t have children but it is going to require finding a more quiet part of the city eventually.
9. Wonks seem to argue that people only live in suburbs because they don’t pay the full cost of commuting. I would argue that a lot of urban living wonks don’t realize how much the vastness of the United States is against them. I get the arguments about why density is better for the environment and commuting is a major stress and pain. But I also see why you wouldn’t want to live in an apartment with your kids unless it was a very large apartment. As Will has pointed out, the United States has a lot of space and this makes it sort of hard to encourage more people to a lot of density. Are there people who want to live in cities but can’t because of NIMBYism? Probably. I don’t think it is as many people as the wonks seem to think it is though.