Sonoma County’s super commuters earn the highest annual pay in Bay Area

A new report found Sonoma County super commuters - workers whose driving time between home and work is at least 90 minutes - have the highest median yearly salaries among Bay Area cities.|

Leslie Taylor left work early Tuesday afternoon - before Highway 101 became clogged by commuter traffic - and it still took an hour and a half to drive from her technology job in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood to her apartment near Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa.

Sometimes, the drive home can take two hours.

In the morning, she has to get up at 4 a.m. and be out the door in 30 minutes to beat the heavy traffic into San Francisco.

The reasons she endures the commuting hassle are higher pay, her career opportunity and ability to live in Sonoma County near family - particularly the money. She earns more than $100,000 a year.

“That’s one reason why I do it. If I were to work in Santa Rosa, that income is so much smaller than in the Bay Area,” said Taylor, 35, a consumer safety specialist for computer software company Adobe.

Taylor, who also works from home one day a week, is among 8,150 super commuters in Sonoma County, a segment of the workforce that’s grown more than 8 percent between 2005 and 2017, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Apartment List, an online marketplace connecting renters with apartment listings.

In a report released earlier this month, Apartment List researchers found Sonoma County super commuters - those who drive at least 90 minutes between home and work - have the highest median yearly salaries among Bay Area cities. At $99,000 a year, the county’s super commuters make about $40,000 more than the median annual salary of $58,150 for local workers who commute less than 90 minutes to work.

By comparison, super commuters who live in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward region make $90,000 a year; Silicon Valley super commuters in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area make $83,000 annually; and Napa County super commuters make $85,750, according to Apartment List’s calculations.

The average commute to work nationwide is roughly 26 minutes, about five minutes longer than it was during the 1980s and 1990s, according to the Apartment List report. But the average commute is becoming less common.

Nationally, the report found the number of super commuters jumped 31.7 percent between 2005 and 2017. There are about 3.5 million people in the United States, or 2.9 percent of the full-time working population, who are super commuters driving more than 15 hours a week to and from work.

Robert Eyler, director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University, said those who opt for longer commutes usually do so because they can get “more housing” for their money.

He said there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting it’s not just tech workers like Taylor enduring long commutes.

Super commuters mostly live in large cities or next to major employment centers such as the Bay Area, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston, according to the report.

In the Bay Area in recent decades, job opportunities have grown, but the housing supply has failed to keep up with the increasing number of people working there.

Bay Area communities like San Francisco and the South Bay have become increasingly unaffordable, said Chris Salviati, an Apartment List housing economist who co-authored the report.

In Northern California, Salviati said driving a long way to work tends to be caused by the lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area.

“A lot of folks making six figures are having to drive farther and farther to find housing that they can afford,” Salviati said.

Taylor, who grew up in Sonoma County, lived in Los Angeles for the past six years before moving back to Santa Rosa in July 2018 to be near family and get married. Her husband, Michael Taylor, who also grew up in Sonoma County, owns a cannabis dispensary in Ukiah and commutes there to work.

The couple, who want to soon start a family, are planning to move into a rental condominium in April in Santa Rosa. In the meantime, they’re saving for a down payment to buy a house, something that wouldn’t be possible in San Francisco, even at their income levels.

“Before my husband was working in Ukiah, we thought about moving closer to my job, but we are trying to save for a down payment so it didn’t make sense to spend the extra money,” she said.

For Michael Tyler, 50, super commuting is essentially his ticket to an early retirement. Tyler, who lives in Rohnert Park, drives from 90 minutes to three hours to get to job sites throughout the Bay Area and beyond - from Oakland and San Francisco to Monterey.

Tyler, a field foreman for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning control company, said he’s been enduring long commutes ever since he joined union Local 467 Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Refrigeration Fitters in San Mateo County in 1997.

“Working for a union in the Bay Area has provided for my family and allowed my wife to only work when she wants to and not because she has to,” Tyler said in an email.

The union also provides him with a pension that will “allow me to fully retire at 55. ... Could not have done this in my field working in the North Bay.”

Julie Etchell-Battles, a Santa Rosa Realtor with Keller Williams Realty, said she has clients in San Francisco who are looking to buy homes in Sonoma County.

“They just want more for their money,” she said. “They can’t afford to buy in San Francisco. They’ve been priced out.”

Apartment List’s Salviati said the significant wage premium for Sonoma County super commuters is a powerful motivator, since the North Bay has far fewer “knowledge economy jobs” at tech, software and social media companies than downtown San Francisco.

“These folks wouldn’t be driving this far if it wasn’t necessarily worth it for them,” he said.

“San Francisco has a super strong economy and has for a very long time. All these job opportunities bring in new folks and a lot of demand for housing. But there hasn’t been any (housing) construction to speak of to keep up with all that demand.”

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