Dec. 2016 Advocate: More faculty commuting longer distances


A bridge too far?  Cost of living & housing drives increasing numbers of faculty to longer commutes

By Anne Stafford, CSM, English, AFT 1493 Treasurer

annestafford-06When friends or family members ask me, often wistfully, about the best aspect of being on a banked unit leave this semester, how do you think I answer?
A.  I have no essays to grade.
B.  Sundays feel like part of the weekend rather than the start of another work week.
C.  I don’t have to attend any meetings, write Program Review, or evaluate faculty.
D.  I have time to read books and go to movies, live theater, and museums.
E.  None of the above.
Correct answer: E. The best thing about being on leave is that I don’t have to make the drive from Oakland to San Mateo, and back again, every Monday through Friday.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating about the commute – but not really. Whenever I think about going back to work in January, within seconds my train of thought veers from how good it will feel to be back in the classroom and working with my colleagues, to what I can do to make my commute faster or more bearable. And as soon as I start thinking about commuting, I feel sad and anxious because there really isn’t much I can do to improve it.

It used to be just under 2 hours round trip

I started teaching at CSM in fall of 2000, exactly one year after my wife and I bought a cozy, affordable house in Oakland, the city that I was born and raised in and that we both love. At that time, Caltrans was in the process of expanding the San Mateo Bridge from two lanes to three in both directions, but even with some slowdowns caused by the construction, my commute to work usually took about 50 minutes, and my commute home from work averaged an hour. Accidents, stalls, and bad weather would add to the time I spent on the road, but for the most part, I rarely spent more than two hours a day in the car. *Note the word, “car” – for all practical purposes, there is no public transportation from Oakland to San Mateo. Theoretically, I could take BART, but doing so would be highly impractical, involving multiple modes of transportation and far more time than driving.

Now it’s close to 3 hours in the car each day

Over the years, as the economy boomed and busted, my commute occasionally got better, but, more often, got worse. However, something changed dramatically during the summer of 2014. Though I drove to campus periodically during that summer to deal with the detritus of the previous semester, I had no inkling of what awaited me in August. As I began to drive across the bridge on a daily basis once again, the commute that had previously kept me in the car an average of two hours each day took significantly longer. I kept thinking that each day was a fluke, that traffic would return to its normal patterns any day. But it never did. It only got worse. My new normal was two hours and fifteen minutes to three hours behind the wheel each day – and sometimes more. The strengthening Bay Area economy and the growing population that goes with it had hit full force.

Nearly 300 of our faculty, including 70 full-timers, commute 50 miles or more

Sadly, my commute is by no means the worst. Many faculty in our district, including many part-timers whose salaries – let’s face it – are paltry given the high cost of living in the Bay Area, especially on the Peninsula, drive longer distances on more congested freeways than I do. A recent study by Joint Venture’s Institute for Regional Studies showed that “21 percent of those employed in the Santa Clara County-San Mateo County region live outside of the area.” Nearly 300 faculty in our District, including 70 full-timers, have long commutes (defined for purposes of this article as 25 miles or more one way). The greatest concentration of faculty with long commutes live in Oakland and San Jose, but we have full-time colleagues commuting from as far away as Sonoma, Marin, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, and Stanislaus counties and part-time faculty coming from Shasta, Yolo, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Marin, Sacramento, and Calaveras counties.

As the cost of housing continues to outpace our salaries, faculty, especially younger, newer faculty, will have to live farther and farther from where they work, more and more of them enduring “megacommutes” – recently defined by The Mercury News “as a single motorist driving 90 minutes or longer one way to work” – without mega-Silicon Valley salaries. Faculty who live where there are viable public transportation options can take advantage of the PayFlex Commuter Benefits plan, similar to Flexible Spending Account for health care costs (for more information about this program, contact Human Resources), but again, public transportation to our colleges is often more time-consuming than driving.

By the numbers

Here is where I have to confess that I am a little weird. I like numbers – not math, just numbers. About a year ago, I became obsessed with the length of my commute and decided to keep track of how long it took me each day. My record-keeping confirmed what I already suspected – the commute is worse in the fall than in the spring; on average, Friday traffic is the lightest – in both directions; if I leave the house any time between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. or leave campus any time between 4:30 and 7:00 I will hit the worst of the traffic; and there is typically no rhyme or reason to the backup. I recently found the notebook in which I recorded these numbers in my car. My worst week last fall was November 16 – 20; I spent 14.2 hours getting to and from work. Friday, Nov. 20, was the quickest at two hours and 16 minutes; Thursday, Nov. 19, was the worst at three hours and 40 minutes. A typical commute in spring of this year was closer to two and a half hours each day (with some hideous exceptions).

Finanacial & emotional costs of commuting

We know that commuting long distances is expensive; bridge toll alone runs between $100 – $150 per month, not to mention gas and maintenance costs, which, given the Bay Area’s ranking this month in Business Insider as having the most poorly maintained roads in the country, are among the highest in the country. But what are the non-monetary costs of these long commutes? I’m sure everybody reading this already knows, but here goes anyway. If other faculty are like me – and I have no reason to believe they aren’t – the increased time spent commuting does not come from our students or our other responsibilities on campus. Instead, we give short shrift to other areas of our lives. We don’t spend enough time with our families; we don’t exercise or read or cook enough; we don’t contribute to our local communities in the ways we might like; we don’t sleep enough. And the sad reality is that shortchanging ourselves on these activities make us less clear-headed, less efficient, and less creative in our jobs, resulting in a vicious cycle of diminished productivity and quality of life.

I know some might say I have recourse: I could move, change my teaching schedule, work elsewhere. But I am not going to move away from the city I love and can afford (as several of my English department colleagues have done in the last two years), and I’m not going to apply for jobs at community colleges closer to home (as my partner had been encouraging for the last couple of years but has finally given up on – I will never leave CSM for another school). For a number of reasons, both personal and professional, I am not going to start teaching night classes, and given the courses I teach and the programs I am involved with at CSM, it is unlikely that I will be able to swing a non-teaching day any time soon. I might be able to find a colleague or two to carpool with, and I can certainly expand my audio book options by getting a phone plan with more data. But given the realities of my “new normal” commute, I will never teach an overload again, not even one or two units, which means I will never again be able to take advantage of our opportunity to bank units. What I can do, is focus on retiring earlier than I once thought I would. I don’t really see any other option.

Faculty need salaries & benefits that allow them to live in areas where they work

I understand that the District cannot change traffic patterns in the Bay Area. But if it wants to attract the best and the brightest going forward, and wants to hang on to them before they burn out or go broke, it is going to have to agree to a fair contract that pays part-time and full-time faculty top salaries, not just top in the Bay Area but top in the state. Faculty housing is helpful, but it is a Band Aid on a gaping wound. The only long-term solution is truly competitive salaries and benefits that allow faculty to live in the communities where they work.

Full-Time Faculty w/ Long Commutes (by City)
City # of Faculty
San Jose 15
Oakland 14
Berkeley 5
Alameda 3
Santa Clara 3
Sunnyvale 3
Concord 2
Danville 2
Fremont 2
San Anselmo 2
San Rafael 2
Castro Valley 1
Corte Madera 1
Elk Grove 1
Glen Ellen 1
Greenbrae 1
Hercules 1
Livermore 1
Modesto 1
Pleasant Hill 1
Pleasanton 1
Rancho Cordova 1
Richmond 1
Roseville 1
San Pablo 1
Santa Rosa 1
Scotts Valley 1
Soquel 1
Windsor 1


All Faculty w/ Long Commutes (by City)
City # of Faculty
San Jose 60
Oakland 44
Berkeley 23
Sunnyvale 17
Alameda 14
Fremont 13
Santa Clara 10
Castro Valley 8
Walnut Creek 7
Danville 6
Richmond 6
Concord 5
Elk Grove 5
San Rafael 5
Santa Rosa 5
Newark 4
Pleasanton 4
Brentwood 3
Campbell 3
Livermore 3
San Anselmo 3
San Pablo 3
Santa Cruz 3
TOTAL: 298

Cities with 2 faculty members with long commutes:

Antioch, Aptos, Corte Madera, Davis, Dublin, Los Gatos, Novato, Pescadero, Rancho Cordova, Windsor

Cities with 1 faculty member with long commutes:
American Canyon, Anderson, Cotati, El Cerrito, Glen Ellen, Greenbrae, Hercules, Lodi, Milpitas, Modesto, Patterson, Pebble Beach, Pinole, Pleasant Hill, Pt. Reyes Station, Roseville, Sausalito, Scotts Valley, Sonoma, Soquel, Stinson Beach, Vacaville, Vallejo, Valley Springs