Shorter commute vs interesting city?
June 4, 2013 6:38 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I are moving from a major northeast city to the Bay Area this summer and are looking for input on the commute/quality of life balance.

My partner is in his early 30s and I'm in my mid 20s. We've had the good fortune of living in culture-rich, desirable parts of our northeast city, where commutes to work have never been more than 25 minutes one way for me, and a quick 5 minute walk for my partner. We both have great support systems here, and enjoy taking advantage of everything our city has to offer.

When we move to the Bay Area this summer, my partner and I will be moving to an entirely new coast where neither one of us has many existing contacts. My partner will be working in San Francisco, and I will be working further east in the Sacramento area. My work is on a long-term project in a fixed location, and getting a job elsewhere is not an option. My partner’s job options are limited to San Francisco. In addition, the work I'll be doing will be both time consuming and demanding, and I will likely be making trips to my job or working from home on the weekends. Although the job is demanding, it's also surprisingly flexible, and I would be able to work from home at least a few days per month. My partner's work schedule will also require hard work and long hours, but his job will likely be less stressful than mine. 

One option is to live in a smaller town like Martinez, which would result in equal commuting time of 60 minutes one way for us both. Alternatively, we could live in Berkeley. While Berkeley appears close on a map, it would result in a 100 minute commute for me one way, while my partner's commuting time would be the same as from Martinez. Regardless of which town we live in, my commute will be by Amtrak with no transfers. In both towns we would attempt to find housing within walking distance of the train station, and cost of living is not a factor in our decision.

There is a broad consensus in the social science literature that commuting is bad bad bad. People who commute longer are, on average, significantly less happy with their lives, less healthy, etc., and my partner is worried about my quality of life/general happiness if I am commuting 3 hours per day. While he knows that Berkeley will be more interesting than Martinez, he believes that people underestimate the mental costs of a long commute and overestimate the benefits of a cool city. He believes that we will adapt to life in Martinez, but that a long commute from Berkeley will always wear on me. On the other hand, as two young people with few Bay Area contacts, I'm worried that the experience of living in a smaller town like Martinez will be isolating. A big part of my excitement about moving to the Bay Area (other than my job) is to experience the culture, and I feel like we may be missing out on this by living in a smaller town. 

Do you think it is better for us to live in Berkeley or Martinez? I’m looking to hear the experiences of people who have had similar commuting decisions and also from people who are familiar with the area.
posted by sidewalkchalk to Travel & Transportation around California (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Err on the side of the shorter commute. I have been in a wide range of commuting situations (45 minutes to an hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and instant [work-from-home]) and can say that my happiness differential is definitely higher than you might predict from the absolute time differences. If you're commuting even 45 minutes one way, that's 1.5 hours lost per day; losing 3+ hours per day will mean that you have little time for anything other than eating. No matter how interesting your town is, you won't have any time to enjoy it.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:52 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Martinez sounds like an interesting town, and the commute will be awful(er) if you live in Berkeley, and that is something you should avoid at all costs.

Other options might be to get a small apartment/crashpad in Sacramento and stay there a few days a week and spend Friday-Monday in Berkeley.

However, facing this arrangement, I would have said, "my spouse and I weren't able to find jobs in the same area; I guess we can't move there."
posted by deanc at 7:01 AM on June 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

A 100 minute one-way commute is going to make you miserable. Your partner is 100% right that you're underestimating the mental costs of a long commute, especially a long driving commute. Even a 60 minute commute is going to be seriously rough.

Assuming that the extra weekend work and the days worked from home cancel each other out, you'll be working five days a week or so. You'll be losing 10 hours a week to commuting, regardless. If you live in Berkeley you'll lose an additional 7 hours. That's almost a whole extra day of work.

I think you're going to be isolated either way. You can miss out on the Bay Area culture by living in Martinez, or you can miss out on it because you're basically working an extra job in the form of 20 hours of commuting a week. This is not a great situation. Any chance of getting a small pied-a-terre apartment close to one of your jobs? (I know, Bay Area, crazy expensive, probably unrealistic, possibly undesirable for you and your partner.)

I say this as someone who seriously underestimated how much a 45-minute driving commute would wear on me (from an "interesting" town to the cultural dead zone where I work).
posted by mskyle at 7:03 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Of my colleagues who have long commutes, those who can reliably get a decent seat on a train and do something productive on their laptops, although still unhappy about the commute, at least get something done in their 2+ hours/day.
posted by katrielalex at 7:07 AM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

If your commute can become part of your work day, or could be time spent eliminating some of the need to work weekends, I would totally choose Berkley. If your commute means just reading for pleasure or otherwise not "billing hours", I would choose the shorter train ride.
posted by ersatzkat at 7:15 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in SF. I would never commute from the East Bay to Sacramento. The one person I know who does this only does it 3 days a week, and he is young and unmarried.

Sacramento and the Bay Area just aren't really close enough that couples split between them for work. I'd get a real place in Berkeley, and try to find a room to sublet during the week in Sacto (you can find one for $600-700 a month I think). And look at this as a short term thing - eventually you and your partner need to be working in the same metropolitan area.
posted by amaire at 7:40 AM on June 4, 2013 [12 favorites]

Echoing what amaire says.
posted by radioamy at 7:46 AM on June 4, 2013

First of all, before checking out the train as an option, check out a van pool. People in the Bay area do some crazy assed commutes and Van Pools can be a cheaper and more convenient way to deal with it. HR at your respective jobs would be dialed in, you may be able to join a van pool with fellow co-workers!

That said, check out communities on I-80, since that's the main road into SAC. Martinez is on 4, and it was a nightmare a bazillion years ago, and I don't think it's improved in the intervening years.

Benicia, Vallejo, Fairfield etc, are still within an SF commutting distance. One thing to do is to drive in (especially if you are working long hours) and pick up Slugs for the trip into the city. I did this all through college. It saved me time (TONS of time) and bridge tolls. The commute out of the city doesn't cost anything and if you typically leave later (after 6:30) it's a quick drive up the freeway.

The other option is to settle on two apartments. An apartment within BART distance of the City (Berkeley/Alameda makes sense for this) and another one in SAC. It may work out cheaper since you won't be spending shit-tons of money on the commute, you'll like your jobs better because you won't be in transit 3-4 hours per day, and you can alternate where you'll be spending your weekends.

Or each of you have a room share in your respective cities, and spend the weekends in hotels exploring California!

SAC, SF and Martinez may look close on a map, but trust and believe they are worlds apart.

I don't think you'll like Martinez AT ALL. I wouldn't live there for love OR money.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:48 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would never commute from the East Bay to Berkeley.

Wait, what? Berkeley is the East Bay.

(Berkeley/Alameda makes sense for this)

You mean Alameda County, right? Becuase unless you're talking ferries, the City of Alameda is terrible for access to transbay transit.
posted by psoas at 7:55 AM on June 4, 2013

I come under "people who have had similar commuting decisions". I've had longish train commutes in the UK, and my experience bears out what others are saying: the shorter your commute is, the better. Anything over an hour is a bit soul-destroying, especially if the train is often late or cancelled, or you can't get a seat. (And are you factoring in the walking time at both ends?) I've been looking for somewhere to buy recently, and there are some amazing houses 90 minutes out from London - but I'm so sure that the gain in quality of life would be more than offset by the extended commute (nearly two hours, door to door) that I've chosen somewhere smaller, noisier and more expensive, but only an hour away from work.

Something else to consider, though: is there any difference in the frequency of the trains to/from the two places? For instance, if trains run to/from Berkeley every 15 minutes and to/from Martinez only once an hour, missing a Martinez train doubles your journey time whereas missing a Berkeley one only extends it by 15%. I find the need to keep an eye on the time definitely adds to the strain of commuting. You might also, given your flexible schedule, want to compare how late into the evening they run, and whether the service is reduced at weekends. Apologies if you've already looked at these things, or if they're not realistic concerns with US train schedules.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:14 AM on June 4, 2013

A few years ago, I commuted from Philadelphia to Hamilton, NJ every day (by train), which came out to about three hours (or a little more) every day. Six months later, I took a $15,000 pay cut to shorten my commute to 15 minutes of walking, and my quality of life improved dramatically. I did an hour commute from my hometown to college four days a week for my last year of college (by car). That was harsh, and without a friend like politikitty, it wouldn't have been possible. After that was over, I vowed I would never have a commute like that again. I can't stress how truly awful commuting an hour or more is. And honestly, I don't have to. You know this. Your partner knows this. This isn't some big secret.

Based on all the immovable pieces that seem to be in place here, the answer to this puzzle really seems to be to have separate primary households until you can work it out so that you're both working in the same city again. I've known several couples who have done this. It's tough. It's unpleasant. But it isn't impossible. And it is significantly less deleterious to your relationship than a monster commute (which is what you're describing even with something like the Martinez option). You will be able to see each other most weekends. And if your work will allow you to operate remotely, then some of those can be long weekends.

That said, if money is not an issue, then maybe one of you doesn't need to work in the short term. And maybe the non-working partner needs to begin another job search closer to the working partner's job. Like deanc, I probably wouldn't voluntarily split my household up between two cities without a really good reason. And for a job, a "really good reason" would have to pay me enough that we could live together and I could commute to work via helicopter if I had to.
posted by jph at 8:25 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Berkeley/Alameda makes sense for this)

You mean Alameda County, right? Becuase unless you're talking ferries, the City of Alameda is terrible for access to transbay transit.

Nope, actually what I meant was ALBANY! (Criminey!) I lived in Albany and I loved that little place so hard. I lived in the towers on Pierce St, you can see them from 80, and I picked up my Slugs at the A/C Transit stop at the bottom of the hill.

Thanks for the catch. You're right Alameda is NOT a good commute.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:49 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Martinez has changed quite a bit in the last few years and is now quite a pleasant place to live. They have a farmer's market downtown on the weekends, and make an effort to put on art shows and other events. It's definitely not San Francisco, but it's not as isolated and dull as it was. There is a BART stop serving the area (North Concord/Martinez) which would ease your husband's commute into San Francisco, should you choose to live there. I think Martinez is very nice, though YMMV, of course; it might not be the ideal place for someone who wants big city excitement, though I know young singles who live there and manage to have quite a good time.

Berkeley, OTOH, is expensive, and IMO you don't really get what you pay for as far as housing is concerned. You will have to pay out the nose for someplace that is often cramped and/or lacking in amenities (outdated heating, no dishwasher, street parking only, etc.). Berkeley is gritty for what one pays to live there unless you want to live in a scary-expensive area. Good food, good shopping (the Berkeley Bowl, for one), culture (lots of theater and art) and non-housing amenities abound, and the atmosphere is super-liberal, and many people put up with the expensive housing market for these things. Again, YMMV. Commuting by BART to San Francisco is pretty easy - there are three BART stations in Berkeley (Ashby, Downtown and North). If you like culture, it abounds in Berkeley, and the commute to SF is easy; just be prepared for housing sticker shock and fierce competition for available rentals, especially if you have pets.

The drive to Sacramento is something else altogether. Highway 4 is hellish - it was put in when most of East County was orchards and farmland and wasn't meant to bear the commute traffic it does now. And I don't think the commute from Berkeley would be any better.

Your biggest stumbling block is going to be commuting to Sacramento. Honestly, I do not think that would be doable every day for any length of time. Your best bet, as others have said, would be to find a cheap little pied-a-terre type place to stay in Sacramento so you do not have to do that commute every day.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:03 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am from the Bay Area and live in the Sacramento area. I've done the BART/Amtrak thing between the two. I would seriously just tell you both to live separately and officially in different cities and then switch back and forth whose home you spend the weekend at. Or at the very least, you get a second place in Sacramento. You will burn out rapidly commuting that far every day, and you won't be spending quality time with your SO anyway after that slog of a trip + dinner--you'll just go to bed and then have to wake up at the ass crack of dawn for the trip anyway.

The "halfway between our commutes" housing thing doesn't always work well either, especially if someone ends up changing jobs. My cousin and his wife are really rather sorry they live where they live now, which was halfway between their jobs when they bought it. Now they're stuck there AND what with job switching, they just both have long commutes.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:08 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am also from the Bay Area (Walnut Creek and Martinez) and I went to school at Davis which is 10 miles west of Sacramento.

Like others, I do not recommend trying to commute from anywhere in the Bay Area to Sacramento on a daily basis. Amtrak runs between Martinez and Sacramento, but I would check the "on time" percentage of the train. BART is a lot more predictable, just because they are running trains all the time.

If you can work from home, you may want to check into cellular data plans for your computer for the commute. I know that Amtrak has (spotty) WiFi coverage on their Portland-Seattle trains -- that may also exist on the CA system as well. That would at least turn your commute time into productive time if you want to use it that way.

The thing about California you have to take into account is traffic -- wherever you go there might be one or two or three other million people trying to go there to. So, while Google might say that from SF International to Truckee is a 3 hour trip, on Friday night of a holiday weekend, that could easily double.

That said, there are a lot of beautiful places in California and I wish you and your partner all the best in your new jobs.
posted by elmay at 7:32 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I commuted to Davis from Oakland via train for three years, because my boyfriend and I like living here and he works in San Francisco and all our social life is pretty much here. If you are the kind of person who can use a bunch of focused time on the computer, train commuting defintiely beats car commuting. Lots of people on my trains were commuting to Sacramento, some from even further away than Oakland. The worst parts were having to leave home very early, and not being able to hang out in Davis for very long, because I had to go to bed so early. If you think you're going to be socializing at all in Sacramento, maybe live in Martinez. If you think you'll be wanting to spend time hanging out in the Bay Area and you can take the train comfortably, live in Berkeley. If you must drive to Sacramento, live in Martinez, near the BART station so your partner can take BART to the city.

Driving is brutal- not so much in the very early morning when the roads are clear, but any other time when there is traffic (and there will be bad traffic without much recourse getting into both Sacramento and San Francisco by car), when you are tired, when you have things you could be doing but must drive instead, &c. The train has a rigid schedule, but you can sleep or eat or do work the entire time.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:39 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's real value to having one partner have a shorter commute. That person deals with grocery shopping, dinner prep, sorting the mail and running errands. If you both get home late and you still need to figure out how to get dinner on the table - well, that just sucks hard. On the days when I telecommute, I take the lead on keeping the home fires burning. On the days when I fly or take the train to another city, Mr. 26.2 is in charge of household business.

Let me throw some truth on the whole train thing. I commute to another office a few days a month by train and it takes longer than you're thinking. You need to drive to the station, park, walk from the train to the office. My train ride is 2.5 hours, but my total commute time is 3 hours and 15 minutes. If you're really thinking about the train be realistic about it.

Honestly, what you are describing sounds awful. If our jobs necessitated an arrangement like the one you are describing one (or both) of us would find a new job. My husband and I have both done long commutes at different point in our careers and they are really hard on your happiness. Simply, it would not be worth it to us.
posted by 26.2 at 10:44 PM on June 4, 2013

The Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains are not reliable enough to depend on for commuting, in my experience. If you need to be at work by a certain time every day, you can't count on Amtrak.

I know plenty of academics who commute from the east bay to Davis and Sacramento. None of them do it more than three days per week if they can help it, and they all try to carpool with each other. Sometimes it takes an hour and a half, sometimes it takes three hours. Luckily they don't have 9-to-5 jobs.

You have two options that won't drive you insane:
1. Live separately and see each other on weekends.
2. One of you needs to find another job. You wrote that finding another job is not an option, but I don't see how that can be the case unless you are in the military or work for the state government. I can't think of any jobs that can be found in Sacramento but not in the Bay Area outside of those categories.
posted by twblalock at 12:44 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains are not reliable enough to depend on for commuting, in my experience. If you need to be at work by a certain time every day, you can't count on Amtrak.

I take the Amtrak Capitol Corridor four or five days a week in combination with lengthy bicycle trips on both end. My door-to-door time is 2 hours each way from North Oakland to Santa Clara. I have been doing this for one year and there are many people on the train who have been doing it for a number of years. In my experience, it is reliable enough to depend on for commuting. I have never taken the train north of Emeryville, and it may not be so reliable once it leaves the East Bay, but I have found that it is roughly as reliable as driving the same distance would be.

Like most people, I fell into this situation against my will and I much preferred it when I could bike for 10 minutes to work every day, but the situation is much more tolerable than I would have imagined. It is easy to get a big table to work on, free wifi, and there is a cafe car that serves beer when you need it. I am able to count some of the time on the train as "work hours" and I am at the lab somewhat less in return. It is vastly more comfortable than and easily as reliable as Caltrain and not even in the same ballpark as BART.

Long commutes in a car are the worst thing in the world. Those are unbearable. Long commutes on a train, with some biking thrown in? Not that bad. Working from home one day a week also adds significantly to my quality of life and I would highly recommend trying to arrange for that under any circumstances.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 5:35 PM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

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