December 2012

City Workers Travel Far Distances to Clock In

Sasha Lekach

With San Francisco’s Southside emerging as a significant employment hub, many local workers travel across bridges, through miles of gridlock or on packed Caltrain and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains to get to their jobs. With start-ups, biotechnology companies, service providers, retailers, and the occasional chain store located throughout Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and South-of-Market, a large number of these travelers hail from outside the City’s 49 square miles, relying on more than just a Muni ride, mile-long walk, or 20-minute car ride to get to work. Some of these commuters may want to live in San Francisco, but are priced out of the City.

David Zlatchin works at his family-run catering business, Betty Zlatchin Catering Company, on Indiana Street. A father of two kids, ages seven and 10, Zlatchin used to live in San Francisco’s Richmond District, but in the late-1990s moved to Berkeley. His family settled into a North Berkeley neighborhood, where he bought a home and his children attend public school.

Today Zlatchin and his wife, Tiana, a senior policy analyst for the City and County of San Francisco, both commute to San Francisco. He drives, since he needs his car for events most days and has an irregular schedule, while his wife takes BART from the North Berkeley station to the Mid-Market area. Zlatchin described his commute as frustrating and tiring, “You feel like you lose two hours of work, of life.” 

Zlatchin sees his spells on the road as taking away from time with his children, whom he squeezes into his work-week schedule by dropping them off at school before heading across the Bay Bridge. He often doesn’t return home until 7 p.m., making it difficult for him to help with dinner and putting the kids to bed. The constant commute puts stress on his relationship with his wife. Zlatchin makes a concerted effort to have a weekly date night, or to have lunch in San Francisco with her during the work week.

To ease the drive and associated cost, Zlatchin has been picking up casual carpoolers in the East Bay for years, which makes his commute seem more worthwhile and socially beneficial. He usually drops off the shared riders in the Financial District, continuing on his way to Dogpatch, which has good freeway access and still fairly available parking options.

Zlatchin’s life is more stressful as a result of living and working in two different cities. “If it is a particularly bad commute it can affect your mood,” he said. “It detracts from what you wanted to do.” But he said there’s no way he could afford to live in Dogpatch or other desirable San Francisco neighborhoods. His family settled into Berkeley because it’s where they could afford to own a home in an attractive community, something increasingly out-of-reach for middle-income families in San Francisco. 

Dina de Veer is a young working professional who is trying to balance her upcoming wedding, a law school fiancО studying 70 miles away, and, with a modest income and an Australian shepherd dog, unrealistic housing options in San Francisco. Her nonprofit office is located at Third and Brannan streets.

The 28-year-old lives in San Pablo with her fiance, Rocky, in a house with a backyard for her dog and affordable rent. She’d lived at Kansas and 18th streets before Rocky started law school in Sacramento; from Potrero Hill she could walk to her office. Last year, the soon-to-be-married-couple – the wedding is next month – decided that the East Bay was an ideal housing compromise: centrally-located, affordable and dog-friendly. BART access was crucial, which made the El Cerrito-Richmond area appealing, with its wealth of BART stations and access to Interstate Highway 80.

De Veer said her commute from the far reaches of the BART system “makes my day a lot longer,” leaving her with less time at home and for post-work jogs. But she hopes the situation will only last until Rocky finishes law school at the end of next year. “If I had to do this for three to four years I would get tired,” she conceded.

However, the media engagement manager at Active Voices – who is originally from the Santa Barbara area, but is familiar with the East Bay after attending the University of California, Berkeley for her undergraduate education – sees the upside of her long commute. She splits her commute methods between BART and driving. She’s calculated the ride down to the dollar, with the drive costing about $6, including toll and gas, but excluding wear and tear; and BART fare almost $8 roundtrip, which she considers a wash. When she takes BART, she gets to read, a boon for her book club assignments. While driving she listens to podcasts or plugs in a headset and catches up on phone calls to family and friends. She said the commute is worth it because she gets to live with her fiancО, and “my dog is really happy.” Plus she has many East Bay friends, and “I like the weather better,” she noted.

Becky Roosevelt, who works in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood at a family foundation, exemplifies the life of a working mother who spends most days far from her family. Roosevelt relies on BART to commute from Pleasanton, where her husband and two children, Apollo, two and a half, and Mila, eight months, have lived since 2008. “…We would never have been able to afford a house with a yard in SF, so after 10 years of living in the City we packed up and moved to the ‘ ‘burbs,’” she said. The most jarring change was the transformation from what used to be a 10-minute commute to work to nearly two hours of driving and BARTing just one way. Roosevelt loves her job enough to spend nearly four hours daily getting to the office and back. “I wouldn’t do the commute if it wasn’t for this work,” she said. 

Roosevelt starts her commute by driving to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station. She hops on the train at the start of the line, where she sees the progression of workday riders. By the time she gets off at the Civic Center station the train is mostly empty, disgorging commuters from Castro Valley and Oakland at earlier stops. She then sets off up Van Ness Avenue for a 20-minute walk to her office.

According to Roosevelt, if she’s able to grab a seat at the start of her ride her commute can be productive, enabling her to review proposals and reports, and prep for meetings. “I take BART because traffic makes me crazy and driving can actually take longer to get into the City,” she said. The commute from the edges of the Bay Area to the heart of San Francisco costs her $11.30 a day, which Roosevelt considers pricey, and can add to the negative aspects of commuting, which impacts Roosevelt’s personal life. “Being cranky and seeing my kids less is the biggest issue I have with the long commute,” she opined.

Others Potrero Hill professionals – such as naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist Andrea Zengion – rely on Caltrain to commute from the Peninsula and South Bay. Zengion, who works at San Francisco Natural Medicine, utilizes the 22nd Street Caltrain station to get here to and from 20th Street.

Alternative work schedules – including telecommuting – are an option many long-distance workers engage in, especially as family time gets chipped away with 40-plus hour work weeks compounded with two to four hour daily commutes. Zlatchin’s works from home on Mondays, which cuts down on driving time, gasoline and tolls, while increasing time with his family in the morning, after school and at dinnertime. De Veer said she’s considering asking to work from home once every two weeks, because she thinks she could recharge with a day to get straight to business, instead of dealing with a long BART ride or hours of traffic.

Roosevelt is an enthusiastic proponent of a work-from-home model, which she does one to two days a week. “It’s so civilized,” she said of the arrangement. However, she acknowledged that the set-up takes trust on behalf of the employer, but “it can be done effectively, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to not have to cram onto public transit every day that I work extra to show my appreciation.”

The time working from home gives her mornings and evenings with her children that she usually misses out on. “I don’t know how sustainable it would be to work five days in the City. I’d never see my kids. Knowing that I have a couple of days at home allows me to push through the long commutes the other days,” she said.

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