For some, just getting to work is a major job
‘Super commuters’ weigh lifestyle against length of drive
For Cecilio Martinez, it’s about spending nights and weekends in his scenic sanctuary near Canyon Lake.
He and his wife bought property there in 2001 and built a 2,500-square-foot home with four bedrooms and three full baths.
Their two sons attend area schools. They hike and bike in the nearby hills and swim laps in their neighborhood pool. They take the family on day trips to Gruene, Wimberly, Pedernales and other fun spots. One day a week, Martinez works from home.
The trade-off for the couple is the long commute the other four week days — 50 minutes at best, 90 or more if there’s construction or an accident.
Both work in San Antonio. He’s a geographical information systems manager at the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and she’s a night nurse at Brooke Army Medical Center.
The approximately 50mile commute is why his Nissan Xterra has logged more than 220,000 miles, and she ended up springing for a Prius.
They’re not alone. In fact, other commuters are behind the wheel even
As San Antonio sprawls, so does the number of “super commuters,” defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as people who travel 90 minutes or more one way from home to work.
In some cases, Austin-area residents fight the frequent traffic jams on Interstate 35 to get to work in San Antonio. In others, people choose the Hill Country’s rural lifestyle, complete with ranchettes, and pay for it with San Antonio jobs. Or they settle far from the city to get more house for the money.
Between 2010 and 2017, San Antonio’s share of super commuters grew by 77 percent, to nearly 25,000 from 14,066, a San Antonio Express-News analysis of census data shows.
Among major U.S. metros with populations over a million people, that’s second only to San Francisco, which saw an increase of nearly 160 percent in the same time period.
Among major metros in Texas, the rise beats the Austin area’s 34 percent, Dallas’ 36 percent and Houston’s 25 percent.
“Used to be we thought an hour (commute) was extreme,” said Alan Pisarski, an independent transportation consultant who has written several books on commuting. “The mega places are the ones that generate such trips, many of which are on commuter rail or charter buses, or large car pools such as New York, D.C.”
A few key factors drive the super commuter phenomenon, Pisarski said.
There’s a major job center, such as Washington, D.C., which is packed with federal employees, or Silicon Valley with its many high-tech jobs. Urban housing has gotten too expensive, but there are attractive locations the farther away from the city you look — such as Annapolis from Washington, the Pennsylvania mountains from New York or the Hill Country from San Antonio and Austin.
In other cases, jobs have moved to the suburbs and are within reach of rural residents who are reluctant to leave their homes or can’t compete for more expensive housing closer to work.
But unlike fast-growing Texas cities such as San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston, the more established metros grew up with bigger, more elaborate public transportation systems.
Along the Eastern Seaboard, buses and trains link cities to their suburbs and other metropolitan areas, with a well-established network of “park and ride” commuter lots. Commuters can use the travel time to answer emails, catch up on their reading or take a nap.
Texans, on the other hand, are more likely to be gripping the wheel all the way from home to the office and back.
Yet Martinez has come to enjoy his daily journey.
“I usually put relaxing music on,” he said. “If I’ve had a bad day at work, it allows me to defuse and kind of decompress. I stop thinking about what happened at work, and I start thinking about the things I want to do, myself, my family.”
Congestion to continue
But scenarios like his stymie workmates intent on cutting greenhouse gases and finding solutions to the bottlenecks around Loop 1604 and up and down Interstate 35.
“The way our neighborhoods are developing, they’ve grown into a pattern that doesn’t have a whole lot of connectivity,” said Linda Alvarado-Vela, the planning and public involvement program manager at Alamo Area MPO, which allocates federal transportation funds for area projects.
“Our suburbs, you have all these little cul-de-sac neighborhoods emptying out onto the same collector, which then empties out to one arterial,” she said. “So you see this a lot in the (U.S. Highway) 281 area and even if you look out Potranco past 1604, it can take people 30 minutes just to get out of their neighborhood. And that’s before they start their commute.”
The scary thing is that the region’s explosive growth is expected to continue, she said.
Bexar County is expected to grow by another 1.1 million by 2045, and the region as a whole by another 1.5 million.
“Comal and Guadalupe are some of the fastest-growing counties in the country,” Alvarado-Vela said. “So we are seeing that our congestion is going to continue to increase and that we’re no longer in a period where we’re trying to reduce congestion. Rather, we’re trying to manage congestion.”
There are no immediate plans for high-speed rail from San Antonio to Austin. Union Pacific, which owns existing north-south rail, barely can keep up with freight demands. Building new lines would require tons of money and likely fights to acquire right-of-way via eminent domain.
Amtrak offers service between San Antonio and Austin, but the two daily departure times don’t line up well with commuting times or locations. There’s been little in the way of discussion of regional public bus routes. Hence the MPO’s new “Alamo Commutes” program to encourage more carpooling.
MPO officials estimate as many as 94 percent of area commuters drive alone to work.
“And I think that we can safely assume that those superlong commuters are also driving alone,” said Lily Lowder, the MPO’s commute solutions planner.
Alamo Commutes recently rolled out a mobile app to help would-be commuters find one another to potentially carpool, and San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit rents vans to commuters as long as one leg of the work journey is in San Antonio.
Some large San Antonio employers are looking to help employees with long commutes. The cloud-management compa- ny Rackspace, for example, has chartered buses for workers who prefer to live in Austin.
USAA spokeswoman Laura Propp said that in addition to having about 2,200 employees in the San Antonio area working from home, the insurance and financial services company has operated a van pool program since August 1977.
USAA now has 27 van pool routes averaging 45 miles one way. The longest goes well over 100 miles roundtrip from Fredericksburg.
Lifestyle change ‘worth it’
Lowder, the commute solutions manager, sees herself as a recovered commuter.
For a while, the 24-year-old commuted from her parents’ house in Helotes. The drive, she said, was a nightmare.
“It’d be like 30 minutes just getting to (Interstate) 10,” she said. “And then there’s the people who leave late, and then they just cut in front of you. I could not stand that.”
Now, Lowder walks about 10 minutes from her San Antonio apartment.
She finds the rent a fair price to pay for not having to drive to work. She’s changed her wardrobe to mostly walking-friendly flats and pants instead of the heels and dresses she used to favor. She buys groceries at the downtown H-E-B, and once in a while she snakes her car out of the upper levels of the parking garage to visit her parents or her boyfriend.
“It was a lifestyle change that was really worth it,” she said.
Cecilio Martinez drives a 2009 Nissan Xterra that has 220,525 miles on it, many from his Canyon Lake-to-downtown commute.
Lily Lowder of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization considers herself a recovered “super commuter.”