Long road for Petaluma commuters
Published: Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 9:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 9:30 a.m.
On a good day, Cecily Wallis can make the drive from her home in Petaluma to her job in Napa in about 35 minutes.
The paralegal's daily commute takes her past arresting views of vineyards, sunrises and sunsets and the occasional cluster of hot-air balloons rising over Napa.
Though she spends more time in her car than most Sonoma County commuters, it's still better than driving to San Francisco each morning.
“You can make a lot of money as a paralegal in (San Francisco) but basically you give your whole life over to the commute,” she said. “At some point it just kills you. You don't see your family anymore and you're exhausted all the time. Life is so good, you don't always want to be on the road.”
In fact, her commute is not unusual for many workers who live in Petaluma.
The typical Petaluma resident spends 29.4 minutes traveling to work each day, giving them the longest average commute in Sonoma County, according to estimates released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rohnert Park residents are close behind, with an average one-way commute of 27.3 minutes. The shortest commutes are enjoyed by residents in Healdsburg and Sebastopol, at 21.1 minutes and 21.8 minutes, respectively.
Overall, the typical Sonoma County resident spends 25.1 minutes driving to work. Over the course of a year, that adds up to a whopping 109 hours — or 4 1/2 days — for someone driving to work five days a week, every week of the year.
And that doesn't even include the drive home at the end of the day.
The long commutes endured by Petaluma residents is, in part, a reflection of geography.
Petaluma's location at the southern edge of Sonoma County and its proximity to other Bay Area counties opens the door to greater employment options and, consequently, longer commutes.
In fact, Petaluma's mean work travel time is two minutes longer than that of the nine-county Bay Area, which is 27.4 minutes. Contra Costa County residents have the longest commutes in the region, at 32.2 minutes.
John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said Petaluma is undoubtedly home to many people who work in Marin County, Napa County, San Francisco and the East Bay. For these people, the commute home to Petaluma “may be seen as a long but tolerable commute,” he said.
More than 38 percent of Petaluma residents work outside Sonoma County, the highest share of any of Sonoma County's biggest cities or towns, according to Census estimates from the American Community Survey, which relies on data collected between 2007 and 2011.
In the city of Sonoma, 32.6 percent work outside the county, while just over one in five residents of Cotati and Rohnert Park — 22.2 and 21 percent, respectively — commute to other counties.
Santa Rosa residents tend to stay close to home. The Census Bureau estimates only 9.5 percent of Santa Rosans work in another county.
There are real life stories on both sides of Petaluma's 29.4 minute average, some of them with commutes that are less tolerable than others.
Tracy Wilson, a litigation assistant for a San Francisco law firm, takes the bus to work five days a week. She catches a 6:30 a.m. bus to be at work at 8:30 a.m. and spends much of her commute time reading.
Wilson, a Sonoma County resident for two decades, has lived in Petaluma for more than eight years. Like many Petalumans, she loves living there and resists moving closer to work. On the other hand, getting a job closer to home would likely mean a $20,000 pay cut, she said.
“I think about it all the time, about the waste of time,” she said. “What am I going to do? If I want to keep my house I have to keep working in the city.”
Goodwin said the regional transportation commission is working to encourage local municipalities to adopt policies that “shrink the gap between home and work.” That means promoting more mixed-use development, especially along busy transit corridors like Highway 101.
Goodwin said that for the most part, Bay Area residents appear to be clustered around the 30-minute average commute, with Contra Costa County at the high end and Napa County at the low end, at 23.9 minutes. The average commuter has chosen a 30-minute travel time to and from work, he said.
Nearly two decades ago, the Italian physicist and systems analyst Cesare Marchetti argued that throughout history and all over the world, the average person has budgeted one hour for daily travel.
Marchetti called it the “quintessential unity of traveling instincts around the world,” where faster modes of transportation have largely driven the explosion in the size of cities and communities over the years. Essentially, the faster we travel the further people are willing to travel.
With any commute, the costs are weighed carefully against the benefits.
Malcolm Carruthers is the kind of supercommuter who throws the curve and distorts the average.
Carruthers moved to the North Bay from England 27 years ago, recruited as an engineer specializing in guidance, jamming and communications systems. Between 1999 and 2003, Carruthers flew back and forth between Novato and London, never staying in once place longer than five weeks.
His current commute from his home in Petaluma to his job as manager of customer support for a tech company in Santa Clara is an 84-mile trek that can take anywhere from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours. In Silicon Valley, he's paid at least 30 percent more than he would earn if he worked in Sonoma County — that is, if his job even existed here.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in Silicon Valley is 50 percent higher, he said. It's just one of the factors that led him to choose such a lengthy commute.
“I have a young son in the local school, which we are very happy with,” he said in an email. “And I love living in Petaluma, even if I only see it in the daylight on weekends.”
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