Ask a Canadian: Bay Area Traffic and Your Commute

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: your commute here in the Bay Area will likely be difficult and time consuming, and an endless topic of conversation.  And a part of being a true Californian.

You can take comfort in the fact that San Francisco ranks #8 in worst commutes nationally (The article doesn’t measure the Bay Area as a whole and I think understates commute times generally.)

Bay  Area GridlockIf you have a 1.5 hour commute and can cut it to 30 minutes each way, you will spend 5,000 less hours commuting over 10 years, or about 2 work years or three full months of your life (imagine living in your car or on the train for three months).

If you’re coming from Toronto you may have endured commuting hell on the 401, 427, Gardiner and other expressways, so much of this may be old hat.  However, if you’re from Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver, or a smaller town on the Prairies, consider this blog your primer on commuting pain.

 Some Factors to Think About

 Length.  It is best to think in terms of length of your commute in time taken, not distance.  Focusing on distance will inevitably lead you to think about  distance over time (speed), which can be somewhat depressing to consider.

Mental Ease.  Even though similar in commuting time, some commutes are easier on you than others.  A ferry ride, for instance, is pretty darn easy (if you’re lucky enough to be able to commute doing so); and taking the ferry home with a drink from the bar on a Friday evening is pretty darn sweet.

BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which is only available in certain parts of the Bay Area, at peak rush hour is like being a sardine in a can, but at least you’re not driving; the platforms at rush hour are insanely crowded but folks are good at queueing.

Driving on the 280 is scenic, even when the traffic is heavy; in part, you’re driving up the San Andreas fault so if the big one hits during your rush hour, you’ll have a front row seat as the earth rearranges itself.  Driving 101 and 880 can be a grind and 880, with all the trucks and urban sprawl, can be just as tough.  (I am partial to 880, having driven if for years, including seven years of an intense commute, but it is a lot of work.  I would get a flat or leaking tire about once every two months, an find a nail, screw or other scrap of metal nicely embedded in the rubber.)  880 is one endless line of suburbs and exurbs; inexplicably the section along the Bay in Berkeley is always backed up and slow.  You don’t really feel freedom from the City (and slow traffic) until you reach Davis.

Complexity.  Complexity will add time and potential delays to your commute.  Changing modes (Streetcar to train, Bus to BART).  Nothing like a location and schedule change to slow things down.  Bridges and limited routes can make your commute even longer.

Unlike Los Angeles where there are multiple ways to get from one spot to another through a vast network of Interstates, the Bay limits you to four East / West bridges and three North South freeways (280, 101, 880).  Californians are orderly in using interchanges but as traffic builds they inevitably slow you down.

If you’ve driven through Ontario ice storms or to work in an prairie blizzard, it can be difficult to imagine weather here being an issue.  However, in the Fall, when the rains start, driving can get funky, with lots of fender benders.  By the New Year, people adapt and skills improve but a heavy rain can still slow things down.

Your Commuting Mode. 

Most of you will drive.  This is the Californian way with the State built around automobiles, particularly after WW2.  There is no other way to say this: driving in the Bay Area is brutal.  As noted above, weather can slow your drive down as can construction, which seems to be on-going somewhere on the road network.  Accidents are handled quickly by those involved and the Highway Patrol (If necessary) but even the simplest fender bender rapidly slows traffic during rush hour.

Some of you will use BART, San Francisco’s subway system

BART works fine, is reasonably reliable, with occasional breakdowns and the odd strike (Less than what you would see in Canada) and has a retro future feel about it.  BART is a solid option if you live in the East Bay but it doesn’t go to Marin and terminates just South of SFO on the Peninsula.  It is very, very busy during rush hour, although passengers queue patiently, getting into one of the train cars can be a challenge.  Crazy and often ripe smelling homeless folks who seem to show up passed out in a corner seat add to the excitement or a ride.

BART turnstiles and payment systems are old school - 3 decades old - if your card lacks sufficient funds to cover a fare on exit, you can only add money to the card using cash and any change returned will come in an avalanche of coins, like winning at a slot machine in Las Vegas.

You may be able to use the train.... 

Caltrain from Gilroy / San Jose up to the City or Amtrak from Sacramento into Oakland and on to San Jose.  The Caltrain station in San Francisco is near the ballpark, about one mile from downtown proper so you may have a walk as part of your commute and you’re unlikely to get a seat if you get onboard from a Peninsula station.  The Amtrak train runs with reasonable frequency during rush hour and has a slightly sad sack feel about it, the way that most of Amtrak does around the country.

 

If you work for one of the large companies (e.g. Google, Facebook) you may be able to use one of your employer’s dedicated corporate buses, which are comfortable and have wifi.    Your time on the bus will be semi counted as work time, which is both good and bad.

San Francisco’s muni system is at once accessible and comprehensive and plagued by strikes, delays and poor service.  

But, if you’re living in the City, particularly out in the Avenues, you’ll likely use it. San Jose’s light rail network has two main lines that run for > 30 stations each - if you’re lucky enough to live and work on one of the lines, it is a solid commute option.

 

If you live in the East Bay or Marin and work in the City, you should be able to use a network of regional express buses. These run frequently during rush hour but not so often mid day, evenings or weekends.

 A weirdly cool and East Bay phenomenon is the informal network of casual carpool pickups.  You either line up or drive to designated spots in your town (e.g. Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda) and fill a car with three people which enables you to take the carpool lane across the Bay Bridge, saving you a lot of time during morning rush hour. Some folks play the radio, some don’t, some talk, some don’t.

 A final (and wonderful) commute option, if you’re lucky enough to live and work at either end of a route, is to take the ferry.  

Ferries run from the City to a number of points in the East Bay and up to Marin.  More routes are being added (slowly) and there is nothing quite as stress reducing (ss noted above) as a calm ferry ride home on a Friday evening.

 

 

 

Mitigating Your Commute

Some commute in your life is almost inevitable but anything you can do to reduce its length is a victory for you, your mental health and your family.

Live Close to Work. If you can make this happen you should, but it is easier said than done.  The cost of housing will be a big driver of where you live as will schools (if you have children).

Change Jobs.  Like choosing to live close to where you work, this is easier said than done; few of us can magically find a dream job just around the corner from where we live.  In fact, if you do change jobs, it is usually more about setting a limit on the maximum commute you put up with: even an amazing job can be flattened by a long and difficult commute.

Telecommute.  This is worth negotiating when you are landing your job; some companies are open to it, others insist on your physical presence five days a week.  Even one day a week telecommuting from home can be a godsend.  This isn’t exactly telecommuting, but many larger firms have satellite locations and will allow you to work “locally” one or two days a week away from the mothership.  Also worth negotiating.

Stagger Your Commute.  If  you drive, ultra early arrivals and departures from work can help shorten your commute; your challenge here will be not getting pinned down in calls or meetings when you want to get out of the office to avoid the evil afternoon rush hour spirits.  I knew a CIO of a fabless chip company a number of years ago who left home in the East Bay at 3 AM, showered and worked out when he got to the office in Santa Clara and left for home no later than 2 p.m. everyday.  Not for everyone, but effective.

Treat Your Commute With Zen-Like Equanimity.  This is a very Californian approach, especially if you’re driving. 

It can be implemented by anyone and helps you deal with the one thing you can manage in your commute - you!  Get Spotify, download podcasts or audiobooks. Drive a car that treats you well.  Empty your mind as your drive, making it your decompression time, and build your commute into your daily thinking process.

 

 Hugh Morgan grew up in Calgary and has lived in the Bay Area for 27 years.  He’d be delighted to answer any questions you have about life in the Golden state: you can reach him at hugh.r.morgan@gmail.com. 

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies or positions of the Digital Moose Lounge.