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The Rise of San Francisco’s ‘Extreme Commuters’

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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.

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.

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