How doable is commuting between Oakland and Palo Alto on public transit?
January 25, 2016 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I’m considering a job that’ll significantly increase my commute. I live a block from the 12th St. Oakland station and currently take BART two stops to Embarcadero. Very easy. The potential new job is steps from the Palo Alto Caltrain station, which would mean my commute ups to: 12th St. to Millbrae on BART, then Millbrae to Palo Alto via Caltrain. This looks to be about 1.5hrs each way… minimum.

If you have any experiences doing this, or know people who make this commute I’d love to hear your thoughts. A lot of what I’ve heard from people so far is that Caltrain tends to have delays pretty regularly (in addition to the delays I get pretty regularly on BART, just getting into SF) and if I miss my connection due to a BART delay my Caltrain segment can also get screwed up. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to use some of the commute time to get work done – are there typically seats on Caltrain heading out from Millbrae in the mornings? Is getting work done even realistic? From experience, BART empties a lot in downtown SF, so getting a seat in SF should be okay. My worry is also that I'll have to stand on BART the whole way back in the evenings, too.

To sweeten the deal, new company has offered to let me telecommute 1x per week to start, upping to 2x per week in a few months. That’s nice, considering my partner and I starting a family in the next year, but I really don’t know how much the commute days would impact our morning/evening routine with a tiny person to tend to. I kinda think I'd want to use those extra 2+ hours a day with the baby as opposed to commuting. My current commute (25 minutes) makes it super easy to come home in a pinch. Partner has an easy 5 minute walk to the office. Job-wise, it’s an opportunity that I love from a career perspective, but one that I’m really apprehensive about from a work/life balance side. I'd have to be committed to this job at least a few years and long term success for the company is high. If I didn’t take the offer, my prospects are high for finding another position in SF – this offer just happened to fall into my lap.
posted by homesickness to Travel & Transportation around Oakland, CA (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, man. I would not sign up for this commute. Even a straight up Caltrain commute is pretty annoying delay-wise; adding another transit connection when you've got a kid you want to get home to sounds hellish. The only people I know who manage this kind of commute either drive their own cars or take shuttles operated by their employers.
posted by town of cats at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2016 [17 favorites]

I did a similar commute from San Jose to San Francisco. It too was about 90 minutes in each direction. It was unpleasant at first and became soul crushing as time wore on.

I left for work in the dark and came home in the dark. During the week I had NO TIME for anything except sleeping, working and dealing with transit.

If you have other options, do that. Especially if you want to concentrate on your family. I was single at the time, with no pets.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:30 AM on January 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

My wife occasionally does BART to Millbrae -> Caltrain to Redwood City.

Caltrain delays are usually catastrophic when they occur; as in several hours long. (Suicide by train being the most common delay, followed by train hitting a car.)

Caltrain is full. You will be standing both ways. Count on it.

I would guess 1 hour 45 minutes is a realistic measure of the commute you are considering. Each way.

No. No job is worth 3 to 4 hours of commute time each day. Especially when the worst case scenarios are more than seven hours of commute time.
posted by blob at 10:33 AM on January 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I do something along these lines but way less-bad (i.e., start in the city, switch at Milbrae) and yeah, what you're proposing would be tough.

For one thing BART is delayed way more often than Caltrain, so in terms of little annoying delays like missing your preferred train and taking 15-20 extra minutes, that's on BART. But Caltrain has much worse delays, typically because a train hit somebody. So, on rare occasions you will be delayed like 90 minutes by that. Yaaay.

Seats seem to work as follows: starting somewhere downtown in the south bound direction, you'll be able to get a seat on BART and work for at least like 20 minutes. You quite likely will not get a seat on Caltrain starting at Milbrae, almost ever. On the way home, you likely will not get a Caltrain seat heading north bound from PA. You will definitely get a BART seat at Milbrae heading north, which you will be able to keep all the way to Oakland.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:37 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by wintersweet at 10:38 AM on January 25, 2016 [17 favorites]

My partner does that stretch of Caltrain, and walks from our house to the Glen Park BART station. That, for him, is about 90 minutes RT. As others note, Caltrain is subject to delays, but my partner doesn't mind it (he works on the train, so he doesn't have the you-will-be-standing-on-Caltrain experience).

That said, he has better commuting nerves than I do. I did the same walk to Glen Park BART--BART to 12th St Oakland--Bus to my office near Grand Lake Theater for about three months last year. That also took a good 60-90 minutes, and I found it unbearable to think about doing permanently.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:41 AM on January 25, 2016

(I used to drive from near Children's Hospital to Stanford, because although miserable--and man did I get a lot of up-close views of horrible car accidents--it had better chances of not taking up 2 hours than pubtrans did. On the other hand, there was that time it took 3 hours to get home. On the OTHER other hand, I never got stranded, which Caltrain-ing friends did at least once. You and I have better things to do with our lives, OK? Especially if there are other possibilities at hand.)
posted by wintersweet at 10:41 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I did this for a temporary project at Stanford only once a week, and that was bad enough. I REALLY wish that it was possible for non-employees to buy a seat on Google/etc buses. Personally, I would negotiate for something close to 100% telecommuting (maybe 1-2 days every couple of weeks down there), and if you don't get it, just wait for a job in SF. It's too much time, especially with a baby.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:52 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I TA'ed at Stanford. It was a three-day-a-week commitment covering material I enjoyed and was comfortable teaching. For the first month I couldn't figure out why it felt like the hardest job I'd ever had. I dreaded the commute, came home exhausted, and had to do it all over again two days later. It was awful. Of course half of that was Stanford, a university so hallowed it has the gates of hell on campus. I assume Palo Alto has similar portals to Hades scattered throughout town, and there's probably a portable one on the train. I wouldn't do it again, although for the right job and the possibility of telecommuting half-time, I might be tempted and end up bitterly regretting it later.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you were my partner, once the baby is there I would get super resentful of you faffing about on a train for three to four hours while I was stuck being the sole caregiver for most of the week. If there are other alternatives, take them. Your family will need you.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

Long time Bay Area resident here. Avoid. Do Not. Nope. Caltrain is at capacity, BART is too, so any screwup on either system means you are fucked. I'd take driving over public transit for that commute, and driving that route sucks.
posted by zippy at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing what everyone else said. You don't want this commute. Add in
If I didn’t take the offer, my prospects are high for finding another position in SF
and there's no upside to it.
posted by asterix at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

No way. You could commute during off-peak hours, but even then that would limit you to local Caltrain trains as opposed to limited/baby bullets, making the whole thing take even longer.
posted by un petit cadeau at 11:47 AM on January 25, 2016

For completeness sake, I would look at options that go over bridges to PA from either Hayward/Bayfair (92) or Fremont/Union City (84).
posted by rhizome at 11:53 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh my gosh - unless you could be 3-4 days of work at home, I wouldn't do it. I have a friend doing this - and it wears on you. I think this is one of those things where you're making a choice - if there was no kid, you'd love their job, but with a kid, this gets so much more soul crushing.
posted by It's a Parasox at 11:54 AM on January 25, 2016

God no. Never.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:05 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

No fucking way. That sounds like a nightmare of a commute. (Full disclosure, I work (Mountain View - not google!!) 8 miles from where I live (West San Jose) and STILL frequently have road rage (only in my head, promise) so my tolerance for commuting in this area is extremely low to what almost everyone else endures.) Seriously though, it should not take almost an hour to go 8 miles!

Since you have prospects in SF I would not even consider this unless you could work from home almost 100% of the time, maybe in the office 1 day a month (and I am presuming you have enough space in your home to carve out a good working area) and even then I'd probably still be no fucking way because who knows what kind of management changes you will go through who will decree that there is no more working from home.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 12:06 PM on January 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am considering a similar commute but for eight weeks only. I can't search now but commute time has a huge impact on your over all life satisfaction says science blah blah blah. Nthing all the nopes above. This would be a poor choice for you in any case; doubly so with a child at home; thricely so with an infant at home.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:21 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I only have to do this once every few months and it's still too much. Believe the crowd here.
posted by bleep at 12:33 PM on January 25, 2016

As everyone else has said, the answer to your headline question is: not. Not doable, that is.

Palo Alto is a particularly crowded Caltrain stop during commuting hours, many of whom are getting on/off at the 4th St SF station. You will not get a seat on Caltrain in either direction. You'll probably need to plan on 2 hours each direction, and a lot of delay-induced headaches. Plus a kid on the way? Absolutely not.
posted by serelliya at 12:57 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing the NOPE crowd here...and speaking as a longtime user of Bay Area public transportation...this is not a sustainable commute. I'd only recommend even thinking of trying this if your trips to the office were, say, 2-3 times a month.
posted by aecorwin at 1:26 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]



posted by raw sugar at 3:26 PM on January 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a two hour commute each way (not Bay Area). It works for me but there's no way I could do it if I had a baby. And it sounds like the things that make it doable for me (quiet carriages, guaranteed seat, so lots of time to read) couldn't be assured for you. I do it because I love my job and couldn't get as good as one where I live (and I can't afford to live where I work) and financially this makes sense for me. You have way more options than I do and other people to consider.

Don't do it!!
posted by kitten magic at 3:39 PM on January 25, 2016

For anyone wondering about the Dumbarton route, my ex did a commute from Union City BART to Redwood City on the Dumbarton Express bus, and it took just under an hour just on the bus. Then add GETTING to Union City BART and you're looking at the same amount of time, if not more.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:53 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately I make almost this exact commute 4 times a week (19th st to palo alto). It is the worst. Do not do it. It's 1:35-1:40 each direction. I am counting the days until I can stop. If you must do it, a few practical suggestions, assuming a roughly 9-5 schedule:

1. There are no reasonable alternatives to BART + Caltrain. I looked into BART + Dumbarton Express and even Amtrak to Santa Clara + Caltrain, but they're much slower.
2. Do not transfer in Millbrae on the morning southbound trip. Transfer in the city so you can be sure to get a seat on the Caltrain. I take either the N train from Embarcadero or bike using the Bay Area bike share from Powell, depending on the weather and how late the N trains are. Plan your BART ride to take either the 7:57 or the 8:14 baby bullet. This will also probably save you a few minutes in the morning, since the baby bullet / bart schedules do not align well in the morning at Millbrae.
3. Take the 5:06 Caltrain on the evening northbound trip. This aligns very well with the bart schedule -- you can just step from the caltrain to the empty bart, which leaves 4 minutes later. If you must take a later train, take a baby bullet and transfer in the city (though you are not then guaranteed to get a seat on bart).
4. If your employer offers a go pass get one.
5. For reference right now I'm doing 7:30am-9:05am and 4:50pm-6:25pm door-to-door.
posted by crazy with stars at 5:26 PM on January 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

A special type of hell is Bay Area public transit commute hell. As a pro-tip, calculate your wages when considering the amount of commute time you have, plus the preparation time and the post-exhaustion time, and see how much the job is actually worth.
posted by yueliang at 8:08 PM on January 25, 2016

Just adding on to the OH HELL NO bandwagon here. I freelance and take public transit to my jobs and clients in all corners of the bay. I have gleefully dumped paying gigs that I liked in order to avoid this exact commute. There is no good way to get there from Oakland. You can't drive there, you can't take transit there. No matter what it is going to be soulsucking, there is absolutely no way around it. As a single dude with a dog that commute was unworkable, you have a fucking family? Forget it. And for me, this was like a day or two a month and I considered it unbearable. To do it every day? I'd be one of the people throwing myself in front of a train.

Do not do this commute.
posted by bradbane at 9:12 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

More than the raw duration, the important factor here is what you think your ability is to accept the commute for whatever it is.

At my previous job, I had an 80-minute door-to-door commute, and it was soul-crushing, in part because it was broken up into several chunks (walk to train, train ride #1, wait at transfer station, train ride #2, shuttle bus to work), none of which was long enough to allow me to either zone out or to get anything substantive done. I hated every minute of it, and it was one of the reasons that I quit that job and moved away. (This was a Brooklyn-to-Long-Island commute.)

I had colleagues, though, who had commutes of equal or greater duration who really got into the "zen" of the experience. Some of them just listened to music or read for the whole time; some of them (who had commutes with fewer chunks than I did) would use it as an extension of work time, which really worked for them. Some of them expressed a deep appreciation for the commute for one of these reasons.

If you are the kind of person who can use that commute time for either personal time (reading, emails, music, etc.) or for work time (you could perhaps leave work early and continue your work on the train so that your "workday" ends when the train stops), then this is worth looking into, I think. But if you're like me -- I resented every minute of my train rides, and believe that the ideal commute is a 15-minute bike ride -- then you should probably either not take this job, or find a residence closer to your work.
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:07 AM on January 26, 2016

No. I commuted from San Mateo to San Jose for six months, distance: 42 miles each way. Driving on 280 took me an hour each way, sitting in traffic on 101 took about 1:15. Taking Caltrain (no connections) from Millbrae to San Jose (then I still had to figure out a 5-mile commute from Caltrain to the office) took at least an hour-and-half and cost something like $12/day - waaaay more than I was spending on gas.

Transit within SF is great, but anywhere else in the Bay Area is really really bad, IME. If you value your home life, you'll resent the hell out of this commute in no time.
posted by bendy at 8:38 PM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone. Despite the wall of NOPE I gave the commute a try today, just to better inform myself about this job. BART and the N (so I could get a seat on Caltrain) were both delayed a few minutes so I missed my intended train, upping my southbound trip to just shy of 2hrs. Coming back, I was going to try the Dumbarton Express to BART, but since this company is actually at the California Ave stop there's no option for bus connection and Caltrain runs hourly (ouch). The return was great! Only 1:25, but there's no way I'd be getting out in time to make a 5p train while working at a small software shop.

tl;dr Fuck that noise.
posted by homesickness at 9:52 PM on January 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh my god, the company is at the California Ave stop?? Holy hell. No.

You are dodging a bullet here. You won't regret passing up this opportunity.
posted by town of cats at 10:07 PM on January 27, 2016

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