Bay Area

High Housing Prices Lead to Lengthy Commutes

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More than 12 percent of "megacommuters" live in the Bay Area.

More people in the Bay Area spend at least 90 minutes getting to work than anywhere else in the U.S., according to a new Census study. One analyst at the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission says housing prices drive people far away from their jobs, and into long car or train rides.

Below is an edited transcript of this interview.


STEPHANIE MARTIN, HOST: From KQED News, I'm Stephanie Martin. If you're on your way home now and still have a long way to go before you get there, you might be what the Census Bureau calls a megacommuter. Someone whose one-way commute is a least 50 miles and takes 90 minutes or more. Census officials say the San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont metro area has more megacommuters than anywhere in the country. Randy Rentschler is Director of Legislation and Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The MTC is constantly looking at ways to curb traffic and shorten commute times. 
MARTIN: Mr. Rentschler I was a little surprised that the Bay Area, especially the San Francisco region, has these longer megacommute times here, than say New York or D.C. Why is that? 
RANDY RENTSCHLER: Yeah, it is surprising. According to this data about 12.5 percent of all the megacommuters in the entire country, there are about 600,000 in the whole country, are from right here in the Bay Area. And so I was surprised to see that data as well. Also that these long distance commuters are rather evenly dispersed throughout many of the major Bay Area counties and cities. 
MARTIN: What is it about our transportation system that makes the commute times longer?

We can get folks to live near where they work, or at least give people real options to do so.

RENTSCHLER: Well, I think there are a lot of things that are all at play here. I think in one sense it's housing prices that drive people further away than they probably prefer to. In other cases, let's say people prefer to live in San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley, I think the phenomenon of the Google bus is a good example of that. I think in other cases the data shows that were talking about people both driving and taking public transit. And you'll see a number of folks, in lets say in San Francisco, who are super commuters, but they could be folks who rely on public transit. They may not be able to afford to have a car, and while our public transit system is a work horse everyday, its not convenient for everyone. I think all those things play into the data.  
MARTIN: Now I understand the MTC is getting close to approve a 25-year-strategy for both land use and transportation, which is designed ultimately to help reduce commute times and reduce greenhouse gases. Lets talk about land use first, what needs to be changed in the land use area to help reduce commute times? 
RENTSCHLER: Well as you point out, every four years we do a long-term plan for the San Francisco Bay Area it does get changed and updated of course. We are looking at a plan now that's going to be a lot different from what we've done in the past in part because of a change in state law that Gov. Schwarzenegger signed on climate change, and then Gov. Brown signed a bill that specifically dealt with transportation and land use. 
I do think there is an important thing that really does matter and that has to do with proximity. When people live near where they work, not only is congestion significantly reduced but greenhouse gas emissions are reduced as well. And that is really one of the big objectives of the plan, is to try and find a way to house people here in the Bay Area so we don't have these long super commuters. So we can get folks to live near where they work, or at least give people real options to do so.
MARTIN: If this plan goes forward what will be different about our roadways 20 years from now, or even 10 years from now?   
RENTSCHLER: Well you know our roadways in the Bay Area have benefited from a lot of generosity by the Bay Area taxpayers who have voted to support half-cent sales taxes in almost every county in the Bay Area. And also who voted on increases on the toll bridges to support highway and transit. So we've had some really significant improvements that have really helped people's daily commute, from new bridges to new tunnels to widened freeways. I suspect this trend of incremental improvements is going to continue into the future, although we don't have a big revenue source right now. We're hopeful the voters will be as generous in the future as they have been in the past.
MARTIN: Will carpool lanes still exist in the future? Commuters often complain that they're empty.
RENTSCHLER: Well I'm glad you brought that up because a feature of this plan, and has been proposed in past plans, is to increase and interconnect our carpool lanes into what we call express lanes or HOT lanes, high-occupancy toll lanes. Individual drivers who don't have a carpool can buy their way into the carpool lane and to increase the usage of those lanes. We use the proceeds of those monies to connect the system together. Now, we need more money than just the users, we need big expenditures to connect all the carpool lanes together, but that's one of the features of this new plan as well. 
MARTIN: When will this new plan go up for a vote?
RENTSCHLER: We expect in June of this year for the commission to act upon it. They're going to see a draft of it before then, in March or April. We've been pretty much discussing it for a very long period of time, so it's been out there, lots of people have commented on it and we've had an extensive public outreach program. If people are interest they can come to and learn all about it.
MARTIN: As you look at the growth in the Bay Area, and the projected growth, we're supposed to get up to 9 million people in the not so distant future. Are there any particular cities or locals abroad, or here in the U.S., that serve as models.
RENTSCHLER: I think the Bay Area likes to see itself as being a leader, and it likes to see itself being unique, as opposed to modeling itself on other places. But I do think that we could learn some good lessons from other places, I really do. There have been many great cities and many great examples in big cities, not just small ones like Portland and Vancouver, where we can get people high quality housing, that they chose to live in an urban area, if they have a real choice. What I think our challenge is, is to provide housing options for everybody. And I think in the past people have seen that their really only single option was to buy, let's say a house, and drive to work every day. 
What we'd like to do is to tell folks, look, our plan is to get communities to offer a balance of options so people can choose what's right for them. I think the challenge is to provide those options in a housing market, and a housing economy, that's really challenging to do that because of they way our state law works, and the way the economics of housing [works], without the kind of subsidies that are needed to provide this housing.
MARTIN: In the shorter term is there anything you can suggest for commuters who have these long, difficult commutes? Who might want to think about [this] as they consider the time they're spending in the train or a car or both.
RENTSCHLER: Well, that's an important question. What can people do now given the situation that we have now and not wait for 30 years? I do think there are some options. The Bay Area is really blessed with so many things the rest of the country doesn't have. We have casual carpooling, which is common here and doesn't really exist in other places, except maybe Washington, D.C. We have really good, and overlapping, transit systems. And while we have inadequacies here our transit system is the largest pretty much west of Chicago. We have carpool lanes, a good freeway system. 
I think we're limited as well, the geography, the reality of the mountains and the Bay and the bridges are going to naturally cause choke points. I think a lot of folks go look at see where they want to live on a Saturday and then they wake up on a Monday morning and it's a completely different world because of the commute that's facing them. I think that's always going to be a challenge for the Bay Area. Housing prices are always going to be a challenge too. I think we put up with a lot to live here, and on people's driving and commute patterns the data clearly shows people put up with a lot to live here because we have a very high percentage of super commuters compared to the rest of the nation.

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