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The Rise of San Francisco’s ‘Extreme Commuters’

A new series focused on the displacement of San Francisco workers, brought to you by the writer, creator and voice of  Vanishing SF


You may have noticed a story in The New York Times last month about a 62-year-old Stockton woman who wakes every morning at 2:15 a.m. to prepare for a staggeringly long commute to her job in San Francisco.

Photo: Andrew Burton, New York Times

Sheila James is a public health advisor for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in San Francisco. Before she was evicted, James set her alarm several hours later, which gave her plenty of time to sit with a cup of coffee in her Alameda kitchen and read the paper before heading out the door to the BART station.  There, she would catch a train that landed her in Civic Center just forty minutes later and walk a few blocks to her office in Federal Building.

These days, James’ commute from Stockton to San Francisco has her en route over seven hours a day. And while her story is extreme, it is only one among the swiftly rising population of exhausted San Francisco workers who have been priced out of the city and now spend several hours a day merely going from home to work and back again.

Thanks to hypergentrification and mass displacement, we can now add  ‘extreme commuting’ to the essential lexicon of Bay Area inequality.  And we need to start using it in sentences more often. Because ‘extreme commuting’ helps to define a broken city, where high-paid workers and their wealthy bosses occupy the former homes of displaced SF workers and commute to Silicon Valley via gratis luxury buses that pick them up within blocks of their front door, drop them at their place of work, and then ferry them back home again to the place where they live but do not work. No muss, no cost, and very little fuss.

‘Google Bus’. Photo: Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Meanwhile, the members of Sheila James’ cohort are left to make the hike on their own dime and wherewithal from the places they could afford to land—Stockton, Manteca, Davis, and other relatively far-flung locales.

The costs are disturbingly high for those who can ill afford to pay more. Just calculating the monetary investment for drivers made me gasp a little.  The current going rate for mileage reimbursement is 54 cents per mile. That means someone driving the 80+ miles from Stockton to San Francisco will be spending over $86 a day round trip, which is $1,863 a month. That means displaced SF workers are paying $22,360 a year just to get to work in the place where work, but are unable to live, and where the cost of commuting is $75 a month for a MUNI pass/Clipper Card.

Those who rely on public transportation pay considerably less than that, but it’s still an outrageous expense, especially on a family’s budget. Sheila James takes the Ace Altamont Corridor train from Stockton to Pleasanton. From there, a bus delivers her to BART, which takes her to the city. That’s somewhere around $22 a day by my calculations. For those who have to take MUNI from the BART station, that’s another $3.50 or $75 a month. You can do the math.

And as dear as transportation fees are, there’s a much higher cost — the psychological and physiological toll of super commuting — that really hurts.  These workers suffer significantly higher rates of chronic stress, which often has devastating effects on the body and mind. Loneliness and depression haunt workers who spend almost all of their waking hours working and going to and fro. There’s little or no time for exercise or what we like to call self-care.  Many extreme commuters are plagued by a host of stress and sedentary-lifestyle related illnesses and disorders—migraine headaches, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, accelerated aging, cancer and immune system disorders.

And then there are the extraordinary environmental costs of all this extreme commuting. Forget about the google bus taking cars off the road. Although I don’t have the calculations, the carbon footprint created by displacement likely dwarfs the SF-Silicon commute many times over. so much bigger. How often does westbound commuter traffic appear in public discussion and news reports about the collective costs and benefits of the tech shuttle program? After all,  “taking cars off the road” is chief among the goals touted by Tech titans and their advocates when arguing the public benefits of the shuttles. Which is how this became the norm.

SFMTA’s Commuter Shuttle Program provides permits to private businesses to use the public network of designated stops in San Francisco.  Photo: SFMTA

It’s not that westbound traffic is ignored. It’s just somehow operating on a different plane.

Less than two weeks before James’ story was published, an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Bay Area bridges see dramatic increase in early morning congestion.”  It was, more or less, an updated version of the same article that appeared in that paper in 2015, titled “Bay Area commute’s ‘awful’ ride now stretches to before 5 a.m.”

The earlier Chronicle story let us know that Bay Bridge traffic increased 75% between 2010 and 2015, and in the two-year update, we learn that ‘awful ride’ is now hitting critical mass around 4:00 a.m., while Bay Bridge traffic has grown another 36%.

All that data comes from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and the most recent article included an interview with MTC/Bay Area Toll Authority senior public information officer, Jon Goodwin. Unfortunately, Goodwin doesn’t appear to know that much about the subject, and the reporter doesn’t seem all that curious. Nothing at all is said about displacement of San Francisco workers, just vague references to the growing economy and job opportunities for lower level workers.

Via- SFgate.com:
But tracking down the reason isn’t easy.  Goodwin doesn’t think there’s a single answer
.

“One could point to the $6 toll that begins at the Bay Bridge at 5 a.m. That certainly is an incentive for some number of people who are driving across that bridge to do so before 5 o’clock,” when the toll is only $4.

However, because there has been an increase in ridership across other area bridges that don’t use congestion pricing, that can’t be the only factor at play.

You don’t say.  Then there’s this little nugget: “MTC is also proposing a toll increase of $2 to $3 on all seven Bay Area state run bridges,” which doesn’t appear to concern the reporter much. Which is why I needed to pause a moment to hurl my laptop toward 5th and Mission before I continued reading.

I don’t know whether or not that proposal has any life to it.  But it’s maddening to think anyone in power thought it might help matters to add to the burden of San Francisco’s displaced, and other lower income workers by charging them $8-9 a day (or $6-$7 if they can get their lazy bones moving long before 4:00 a.m.) just to cross the bridge. And there’s really no basis for thinking this would have any positive effect. “But, says Goodwin, it is a ‘difficult puzzle,’” this commuter traffic thing. Gee, who’s to say?

Meanwhile, tech shuttle riders are not happy about the now regulated shuttle program, which has reduced the number of stops to 110 from 123. We can’t have that, and you can bet the Chronicle got right on that story: “More tech workers driving solo after SF cuts shuttle stops.”

Reporter Wendy Lee spoke with several tech shuttle riders waiting at the 16th and Sanchez stop who “said they found the stop changes inconvenient.”

One of the workers spoke of the longer walk to her shuttle stop, which was now half a mile from her door [a half mile, by the way, is generally anywhere from four to six city blocks, about the same distance as the final leg of Sheila James’ journey to the Federal Building].

“If it were farther, I would probably end up driving,” she said. Indeed, more and more workers are choosing to drive from San Francisco to Silicon Valley rather than walk the extra few blocks. Cupertino City Councilman Rod Sinks had a stern warning for those who refuse to accommodate these workers: “We need these shuttles to work. It’s in everyone’s interest that they do. The roads would be one hell of a mess if they didn’t have all the private buses,” so keep your noses pointed south and west, San Francisco.

How did we get here? A fortune in fierce public relations, advertising, and lobbying  campaigns kept our noses pointed south and west, and our backs to the hair-raising clusterfuck behind us.  Well, it’s time to disrupt that orientation, and put the true human, financial and environmental costs of San Francisco worker displacement right up front, where it ought to have been all along.


Next up on the VanishingSF series:

Julie speaks with displaced San Francisco workers about what life is really like on the other side of the metering lights and dig deeper into the health consequences of extreme commuting.  And Erin McElroy from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project will share new stats about evictions and housing prices surrounding the current 110 shuttle stops.

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Julie Levak-Madding

Julie Levak-Madding

Julie Levak-Madding is a San Francisco writer and the creator and voice of Vanishingsf. She is also the former director of External Affairs at the National Endowment for the Humanities in California, and has worked with over a hundred nonprofits and advocacy organizations as a communications and development consultant.

Julie fell in love with the City of St. Francis as a kid. After a youth spent itching to get away from Portland, Oregon, she finally made it home in 1983.

  • David Turner

    Look, she did not have to move to Stockton. There are plenty of affordable places that are closer than Stockton. Richmond, Vallejo, Hayward, etc. all have considerably lower rents. Now regarding tech workers and the city. People have the right to live and work wherever they want, as long as they can afford it. That is how it has always been. Prices go up, rents go up, that’s life. Just an FYI, I live in Oakland and work in SF. What I can afford in SF is too small for my needs, so I looked further out. I don’t blame people who happen to make more than me for me not being able to live in SF. That’s just nonsense. SF is a world class city, and it’s going to cost you if you want to live there.

  • trinity

    Please go back to where ever the fuck you came from.

  • Kit McKnight

    Living in Oakland and working in San Francisco is not “looking further out.” Yes, SF is a world class city and one I have been proud to call my home for 32 years, but in the past 15 years, it has become gentrified and has lost what was once so special about it.

    Its citizens and government seems to have forgotten that what makes a world class city special is not how expensive it is to live in, but how diverse its population, how sound its values of equality and inclusiveness and how well it cares for its poor and elderly. World class cities have character; people living in them have a fundamental right to live with basic dignity, in decent conditions, and with prospects for economic mobility and social inclusion. World class cities foster growth in a holistic manner by harnessing the strength, creativity, and innovative capacity of all urban citizens. San Francisco used to be that way and that is what made it special.

    Now? Many of us who have considered it home for decades are forced to live in less expensive parts of the Bay Area – or leave California altogether. Is it because those who live there earn more than we do? No. It’s because there is no room for those who earn less.

  • Andrew Smith-Garzón

    Broke Ass Stuart, I love your posts and have been following you since I moved down to San Francisco about 7 years ago. I originally moved down here with about $400 in my bank account, threw all my stuff in storage and slept on my buddy’s couch and big bean bag (yes, there are very large bean bags people sleep on). I was lucky enough to have people around me to motivate me and keep me pushing forward, but I worked extremely hard to create opportunities for myself. I got a job a startup (which was great), but after 3 months, the Founder brought everyone into a room and said “we have let to everyone go.” At that point in time, I was at a crossroads: 1 – I have little to no money, all my stuff in storage, I’m sleeping on a friggin’ bean bag and I literally just uprooted my life from Seattle to be in the best city in the world. I could ask my parents for some money (they were not rich at all – both were teachers but I know would help me in any way), but I didn’t want to do that. I moved down here for a reason and I wanted to make sh*t happen with my life. I literally interviewed at about 15-20 places, all got told ‘No, you don’t have enough experience, etc. etc.” until finally I got a yes. From there, I worked hard, got promoted, fell in love with my future wife, saved up a little money and now have 2 dogs. I married that amazing young lady and now live in a cool little apt in the Inner Sunet with a backyard (attic converted into an awesome apt). I still barely have any money and honestly do not make that much money for working at a tech company. I have multiple friends who do construction and make more money than me. My point is, change happens, some for the better, some for the worse. You can try and embrace it, surround yourself with positive people and make it happen. It’s how you respond to that change that defines you as a person. Secondly, Stuart, stop pinning this on tech people. There are TONS of other industries and high paying jobs that actually pay way more than tech that you can blame a lot of the inadequacies and unfairness of the current apt/housing crisis. That term is very blanketed and no longer rings true, so please change it. And finally, I am very open to my friends, family, acquaintances that something needs to happen about the housing crisis and homeless problem and people that make more $$ should pay more $$ to support less fortunate individuals. Local government also needs to wake the F up, etc. But pinning blame purely on the tech community is lame, not true, and something you need to analyze deeper. Keep on keepin’ on.

  • disgus

    “in the past 15 years, it has become gentrified and has lost what was once so special about it.”
    Don’t provide any real examples outside of empty rhetoric or anything.

  • Loran Watkins

    I used to commute from Walnut Creek to South San Francisco. To get to my desk my 8am I had to be on BART no later than 6:15 so that I could take one of the aforementioned shuttles to work once I hit the Glen Park station. Cost of the commute $11 per day plus the $3 to park. When my landlord sold the house I was VERY lucky to be able to purchase something but my budget put me out in the Martinez/Pittsburg area. My commute time increased to 2 hours each way per day. It now cost $12.20 for BART plus $3 for parking. My salary did not increase, there was no commute stipend because I was a contractor. So I gave away 4 hours of my life everyday to do a job that was really inconsequential. I found a new job in Oakland and am LUCKY to be able to leave the house everyday at 5:15, be at work by 6 and then leave between 2:30 and 3. My commute time is less than half what it used to be, I drive because that only costs $5.50 a day as opposed to BART which still runs $9.50 plus $3 for parking. And the worst of the commute was getting home and having no energy to do much but basic chores so that you could go to bed early to get up early and do it all over again. Now I have a life and a commute stipend.

    What is really sad is in the next few years Concord is adding 22,000 homes on the old Naval Weapons station site so that will add 40-50,000 cars to the roadway that is ALREADY FULL by 5:30. There are no businesses or industries for those new homeowners to work at out there so they’ll be commuting. BART, whose trains are full by the time they reach the Pleasant Hill station, is completely unprepared. It’s only going to get worse.

  • Un La

    Yeah, it’s always the rich tech workers’s fault. They ruined everything. Not the city that discourages new housing from being built. Not the NIMBYS who oppose every single new housing development. Not the housing activists who fight to keep imposing stricter and stricter rent control regulation. Not the idiots who work to stop housing development because he/she thinks reducing housing supply also reduces housing prices.

    I’m sorry to have to break it to some of you people, but you want rent control? It drives up rent prices.
    You want to stop housing development? It drives up housing prices.
    You want to make it hell for landlords to rent out units? They put their inventory on Airbnb and rent to tourists instead of us locals.

    What happens when you restrict housing? People start flocking to traditionally cheaper area when prices got too expensive, aka gentrification. They didn’t go there because they wanted to price some long time residents out of the neighborhood, they did it because they got few other options.

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have rent control and limited housing; AND at the same time expect prices to be affordable.

    If you want to do something about housing, let’s hear you guys say something next time a housing development is canned, or why the city takes so long to approve a housing development, why the city don’t allow more multi-units to be built, why they zone a large area (for example the Design District) to have NO residential housing, etc, etc.

    And while we’re at it, we need better public transportation infrastructure so it doesn’t take 2 fucking hours to commute 40 miles. Why do people flock to West Oakland?? Because the commute from other places are a nightmare. Fix the housing development, fix rent control, and fix our infrastructure and housing prices will come down.

    Oh yeah, I’m sure I will be called all sorts of names for saying that increasing supply and increasing accessibility will drive down prices. Evil me.

    –Frustrated in the Bay

  • Kit McKnight

    Empty rhetoric? OK. Fair enough. Maybe so. I tend to think in big picture personal history terms, as I’ve lived here a long time. That being said, I do have research to back me up:

    This one discusses housing in San Francisco, and its role in gentrification in the Mission District: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/23/us/high-rents-elbow-latinos-from-san-franciscos-mission-district.html?_r=0

    This one explores the role of the tech boom in gentrification: http://www.newsweek.com/2014/04/25/tech-boom-forces-ruthless-gentrification-san-francisco-248135.html

    This one is a good big picture article exploring all the different contributing factors to gentrification. As you will see, there is no one aspect that is “to blame”:
    https://cjjc.org/publication/heart-of-sf/

  • DragonflyBeach

    San Francisco blocked housing growth, and that’s why its lost its “culture” and whatever. There’s no room because residents wanted more jobs and no new housing–they got it. It didn’t work.

  • David Turner

    Well lucky for you, I am where the fuck I came from. Don’t you feel like a complete fucking loser?

  • David Turner

    Well I’ve been here for 30. Born and raised in DC. SF does have character! Some of the most amazing things have happened in last few years. Just 10 to 15 years ago you wouldn’t dream of walking down the mid market area at night, now, it’s full of great restaurants and bars. You see people out enjoying themselves. When I graduated college I moved to Soma. Soma was nothing but warehouses and crack heads. Now there are actually families out and about. Growth is good. Our economy is booming because businesses decided to invest in this city. Get off your high horse. This isn’t utopia or something, this is the real world, this is capitalism and this is America. Get used to it or move to Modesto.

  • David Turner

    Dude you are spot on. Limiting supply does NOTHING for prices but drive them up.

  • David Turner

    You say gentrification like it’s a bad thing….

  • Heisenburg Blue

    There appears to be a valid reason why Stuart is broke-ass, and it has to do with his skewed perspective. More supply would not lower prices, it would just draw more well paid employees for Stuart to further complain about.

  • Heisenburg Blue

    David: California Native here (see: spanish land grants), whose family has been in SF since 1800’s. I agree with you fully.

  • Heisenburg Blue

    Cause that shpiel is BS! Gentrification happened when the white people removed the indigenous residents of San Francisco in the 1800’s, Mark Twain wrote about it. It happened again in the roaring 20’s, with the influx of out of staters seeking a better way of life. Again after the new deal, Again after world war 2, during the 60’s with the hippies, in the 80’s when Reagan made up the new economy, then in the 90’s when computer techies and people seeking the jobs they created displaced the hispanics from the mission and Blacks from Oakland, and since 2005, the biotechies. The only ones complaining are the ones who are refusing to accept these jobs. Im a punk who lived on the street but went to achool and am now a hated techie. F* thoae who don’t want to take what is being handed them, and instead sit around complaining that others did.

  • Michael Doran

    “Forget about the google bus taking cars off the road. Although I don’t have the calculations, the carbon footprint created by displacement likely dwarfs the SF-Silicon commute many times over. so much bigger.” – This is just lazy writing. We don’t need or want your assumptions in an article. We want data and facts. I stopped reading right at this point.

  • David Carr

    Yes, I want rent control. Looking to market forces to magically usher in social protections is a big dead end and I suspect you know that but don’t at all care.

  • Paul Schmidt

    Looking to tighter government regulation over rents to magically create affordable housing is a big dead end, and I suspect you haven’t the faintest clue why that is.

  • Paul Schmidt

    More supply will lower prices, but you’re going to have to create a whole *lot* of supply to push San Francisco rents down into the affordable-by-regular-people range.

  • Vytautas Valancius

    “How did we get here?” – NIMBYs.

    We need to increase housing supply, no other way. Sure, that will change the ‘character’ of the city, but there is not much else one can do. You can’t cheat laws of supply and demand.

  • River Beck

    Rent control does not drive up rent prices, the flooding of an economic area with individuals from outside that area with a significantly higher income drives up prices. It’s not housing development that people are against, its housing development that is not AFFORDABLE that people are against- the devil is in the details. Why dont you advocate from within your community and work to get more money to build public transportation? or did you not realize that you guys have been taking busses that have been using public bus stops as stops without paying taxes? Did you realize that the cash saturated buyers housing market (due to the influx of high tech income) is now barricading individuals even with loans from being able to buy a home? Frustrated in the bay? When did you get here? I have been here 15 years. I am transgender. I work with homeless youth. Dont tell me you are frustrated in the bay when you are basing your frustration on CONVENIENCE and the rest of us (black people, trans people, poor people) do not have a CHOICE but to leave. so fuck your frustration, and suck my OPPRESSION.

  • Kit McKnight

    Maybe gentrification means something different to me than it does to you. I don’t think in terms of good/bad/right/wrong…I just miss the “old days”, that’s all. If you don’t. then more power to you!

  • Kit McKnight

    Re: ” Get off your high horse. This isn’t utopia or something, this is the real world, this is capitalism and this is America. Get used to it or move to Modesto. ”

    Why you are on the offensive with the tone of some of your comments to me? It’s not necessary, and you can make your point without them. Besides, I don’t deserve it so why not try to be a bit more civil? It won’t kill you!

  • Kit McKnight

    Excellent point! No “affordable” housing, either! Just places like Millennium Tower, San Francisco’s Leaning Tower of Pisa…

  • jrwlsju

    Part of the problem is the restriction of housing in Mountain View, where Google and the other large tech companies are. You can’t build enough housing in San Francisco to solve the issue, even if you paved over every green spot in the city and made every new development look like Cabrini Green or Stalinist apartment blocks. The NIMBYism is Bay Area-wide. Older people with money and families, like the folks on the Peninsula, will always vote against high-density living. The same thing will happen when these millennials reach their 40s. The invisible hand of the free market lifts some and crushes others. The key question is, “Do you care about those who are crushed.” I suspect the answer is “No.”

  • jrwlsju

    There is not enough space to build enough housing in San Francisco to bring prices down far enough for ordinary people and it doesn’t strike me that a Manhattan style skyline in an earthquake prone city is a good idea.

  • jrwlsju

    Do you want high-rises in a city surrounded by three earthquake fault lines?

  • jrwlsju

    Mountain View allowing more density would take the Google buses off the road and we’d all be happier (except for the middle-aged suburban curmudgeons in Mountain View)

  • Vytautas Valancius

    How are fault lines relevant here? It’s a solved engineering problem.

    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/place/article/How-safe-are-rising-S-F-towers-in-wake-of-Napa-5714511.php

  • Paul Schmidt

    That all rings true, and is a good indication that rents aren’t going to be affordable for most people any time soon.

  • David Turner

    You could get a better job.

  • River Beck

    No. I love working with homeless youth and my heart is full. I dont need money to be happy. Id rather be broke than a heartless douchebag who sits behind a desk. Next!

  • Un La

    Yes, San Francisco will probably never be “affordable”, it was unaffordable in the 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, and now. That’s why we need better transportation in addition to more housing, so that we can live in places like El Sabrante, Hayward or San Bruno and not have to deal with 1+ hour commute.

  • Un La

    I am all for helping those who are crushed, but something is seriously wrong when helping those who got crushed mean they get to live in posh San Francisco neighborhoods paying dirt cheap rent while people like me have to commute from Hayward and paying through my nose!! (No offense to Hayward, it’s a great community, but you get my point).
    The problem is that helping those who got crushed = CRUSHING ME in the process!

  • DragonflyBeach

    Along with the rows of million-dollar Victorians and ugly boxes in the Avenues. At least those new towers contribute some BMR. Rather have some than none.

  • Un La

    Except, this heart full of gold who doesn’t need money to be happy thinks living in a million-dollar posh San Francisco flat is a right. If money is of no importance to you, then why are you so hung up on money?
    I can’t afford to live in SF either, just as I can’t afford to drive a Ferrari, cant’ afford to dine at a three stars Michelin restaurants, can’t afford a first class plane ticket, and can’t afford to live in a nice SF flat overlooking the city. The difference is that I don’t expect other people to pay for me to enjoy those luxuries.
    I work behind a desk, live in the East Bay, and I live within my means. So fuck you entitled self-aggrandizing asshole. You are the last person I want to be working with homeless youth.

  • jrwlsju

    I know enginners think they are omnipotent. Mother Nature keeps reminding them that they are not.