For some, just get­ting to work is a ma­jor job

‘Su­per com­muters’ weigh life­style against length of drive

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Lynn Bre­zosky STAFF WRITER

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

longer.

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.

Pho­tos by Billy Calzada / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.”

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