High Speed Rail and California’s Mega-Commuters
New data from the US Census Bureau has found that Northern California has the largest proportion of “mega-commuters” in the country – defined as morning commutes of at least 50 miles and 90 minutes. The numbers aren’t huge – 2% of workers in the Bay Area core are mega-commuters – but it is a clear sign that something is not working in Northern California.
Since the 1970s, and especially since the mid-1980s, it has been extremely difficult to build housing near the region’s job centers. Housing demand has not kept up, and the result has been a serious affordability crisis. Workers who are getting well-paid in the tech industry could afford to rent or buy in a new building in San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley, but it’s difficult to get approval to build them. So these workers wind up having to compete with people making less money for housing. Landlords naturally want to make more money, so they’ll happily evict someone paying a lower rate in order to rent to someone who can afford a higher rate. Similarly, a property owner will gladly sell at a higher price if they can get a buyer rather than at a lower, more affordable price.
Because housing supply has been choked off in the Bay Area core, people have had to “drive until they qualify,” going further and further inland in order to find housing they could afford. Until the late 2000’s this model seemed financially sustainable, if personally frustrating – the commute was long but with low gas prices and low housing prices in places like Stockton, it made financial sense. And while the Bay Area had built out the BART system in the 1970s to what was then the “mega-commute” areas of the East Bay and Contra Costa County, there wasn’t enough funding to extend this to all the areas in need of rail.
In 2006 gas prices broke the $3/gallon barrier and this proved to be too much for most commuters. Family budgets were overstretched and homeowners began falling behind on mortgage payments. It’s no coincidence that places like Stockton were hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. But even after the devastation of the Great Recession, people are still making the mega-commute because the housing prices are so affordable:
Then there are the people who don’t want to break the bank to live here, like Trung Nghiem, who grew up in San Jose and works as a software project manager in Santa Clara. But he moved his family to Manteca largely because he could find a bigger house for cheaper there.
“On weekdays you get home, and the day’s already done. It can take a toll — I’ll be honest,” said Nghiem, 41, who spends about three hours a day commuting. “But I sacrifice it for my kids; I put them first. You got to do what you got to do to make ends meet.”
Some would argue these mega-commuters are making a bad decision. Surely the cost of gas wipes out the savings on housing. And the physical and mental toll of the commute, along with the lost time, has value too and that should be added to the overall total. We know from metrics like the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H + T Affordability Index that affordable housing far from an urban center is not actually affordable when you add in the cost of transportation.
And yet for many people, the Bay Area has stopped offering real choices in where to live. The finite and supply of housing, especially affordable housing, near existing transit and job centers means that prices will merely keep rising there unless and until more supply is built to help absorb demand. If that doesn’t happen, people are still going to drive further and further out to find affordable places to live, even if rising gas prices will undercut that affordability.
Northern California needs not just more housing close to transit and jobs, but more transit overall, especially passenger rail. One of the few new passenger rail routes inaugurated in recent decades was the Altamont Corridor Express. And sure enough, it is seeing big ridership gains:
ACE’s spokesperson said the number of riders increased 24 percent compared to last year.
Thomas Reeves with the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, the entity that runs ACE, said that there has been an increase in jobs in Santa Clara and Alameda counties.
Reeves said most of the commuters are heading to work in those two counties, specifically.
ACE is certainly helping more people afford their basic daily life. And ACE’s success is an indication that high speed rail can attract commuters to its route, especially as it will dramatically reduce commute times. One clear result is that new areas of the Central Valley will become available for Bay Area workers, including Merced and Fresno. While some worry that will produce sprawl, the future adoption of good land use policies as well as high prices for gas and credit as well as transit-oriented development in the centers of those cities should combine to prevent sprawl from taking place.
I was almost a mega-commuter myself. In 2008 I was offered a job near San Francisco, on the Peninsula, that would have paid very well and would have been a great career move. But my wife was happy at her job at a public library on the Monterey Peninsula, and wasn’t interested in moving. So I would have had to become a “mega-commuter” of exactly 100 miles in each direction. With traffic that’d have been 2-3 hours each way. I could have driven to Gilroy or San José Diridon and taken Caltrain, which would have helped, but the commute would still have been really long. I decided against taking the job because the commute would have been a soul-crusher.
The Bay Area is going to be a major center for jobs for some time to come. But until more housing and more transit is built around the bay itself, more people will struggle to afford a place to live and get to work. I don’t think pushing everyone to the Central Valley is an ideal solution, but people are already there, and the fact is that housing will always be cheaper there than the Bay Area core (and I don’t mean that as a criticism of the Valley). California as a whole needs a lot more passenger rail, whether it’s streetcars in Oakland, a second BART tube crossing the Bay, extensions out to eastern Alameda and Contra Costa Counties (and maybe even Solano County someday?), or commuter and high speed rail to the Central Valley and the Salinas Valley.