SAN FRANCISCO — In the gray glimmer of pre-dawn, engineer Martin Wuest gets into his trusty Volkswagen and drives 82 miles to his job in Silicon Valley.
Wuest and his family fled San Jose for the life of exurban “super-commuters” 10 years ago, driven out by housing prices as tens of thousands of people poured in.
Since then, California’s population has grown by more than 13 percent.
Wuest has watched the trend unfold in his rearview mirror.
“I see more people out there, more people are weaving around and driving fast and cutting people off. I see them every day,” he says.
It’s the California Gold Crush, 2001; with a nip, a tuck – and the occasional angry rip of a busted seam – the nation’s most populous state is finding out what it’s like to choke on success.
“There’s no elbow room any more,” says super-commuter Jerry Knoester.
In 1950, there were 10.5 million people in California. In 2000: 33.9 million.
Sometimes it feels as though all 33.9 million are trying to get across the bridges to San Francisco at the same time.
“I will never go to the city any more unless I absolutely have to. It’s just unbearable,” says John Tangney, a software engineer in Berkeley who has seen the 13-mile drive to San Francisco grow from a breezy half-hour to 90 minutes of bumper boredom.
Tail lights aren’t on everywhere in California. Spaces are still wide and open in the bristly heat of the desert southeast; in the misty reaches of redwood country, logjams involve actual logs.
Elsewhere, the squeeze is on.
In San Francisco, people have taken to parking on the sidewalks in such numbers that there’s a move afoot to double fines.
Congestion in Yosemite National Park got so bad that a draft plan proposes eliminating some parking spaces and motel rooms and closing part of a popular road.
Reactions to the population augmentation vary.
In San Francisco, hemmed in by sea and hills, Ed Holmes, a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, started noticing “this stress on the fabric of society,” in the late 1980s.
“People just seem much tenser than they did,” says Berkeley mother of two Sima Misra. “Women have yelled at me on the road for not driving fast enough.”
Northern California organic dairy farmer Albert Straus has noticed more urban neighbors and “less understanding of what agriculture is.” His family campaigned successfully for zoning laws protecting farm and ranch lands, but “there’s always new battles.”
In Southern California, where sprawl is all, the demographic developments seem less sharply defined.
Los Angeles parent Becky Hoskins barely noticed as the rolling hills on the outskirts of the city transformed into waves of tract homes and the drive to a favorite lake stretched from 75 minutes to two hours. She expected to find congestion when she moved here from Colorado 15 years ago and came prepared. She schedules her day away from rush hour and finds out-of-the-way places for family backpacking trips.
Recently, however, she was taken aback when to hear a teacher say that the Hoskins’ teen-age son was doing well but could be scoring even higher if he were in a smaller class.
A drive around the Sierra jewel of Lake Tahoe a few summers ago was another eye-opener.
“I just couldn’t believe the crowds,” she said. “It is beautiful but to me it’s revolting – the idea of going there – because it’s so crowded.”
With both children just about in college, Hoskins says, “I think about Nevada.”
About two million people did leave California in the early 1990s as the state struggled with recession and drought. Still, the decade ended with a net gain.
“There is no other developed region of the world the size of California that has grown as fast as California over the last few decades,” says Hans Johnson, a demographer with the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
The same can’t be said of the state’s housing, highways and transportation, partly because of a mistaken belief that “if you build it they will come and so maybe you shouldn’t build it,” Johnson says.
It turns out even a crowded California has its appeal.
Software engineer Tangney is job-hunting after getting pinched in the recent dot-com downturn. But “there’s no way we’re going to move. My political views are way left ... the People’s Republic of Berkeley is about as far to the center as I’m willing to go.”
“I’ve seen the rest of the country and, frankly, I’m not impressed,” Holmes says. “This is paradise.”
What price paradise?
In May, a Californian paid $1.99 a gallon for gas compared to the national average of $1.71, according to the AAA. Even before an energy crisis that has driven rates for some up more than 50 percent, Californians paid an average 10.7 cents a kilowatt hour compared to the national average of 8.5 cents. In the Silicon Valley suburb of Palo Alto, a nondescript three-bedroom home can set you back close to $1 million.
It’s that kind of unreal real estate that propelled Knoester into the long-distance life of a super-commuter.
A civilian employee of the Air Force, he was transferred to the San Jose area in 1990. Housing was hopeless; he couldn’t come up with the $2,000 or so a month it would have taken to rent something for his family of seven. But in the Central California town of Los Banos, about 100 miles from his office, a four-bedroom, two-bath house could be had for $126,500.
He moved to Los Banos.
Knoester, founder of the support group Commuter Alliance, estimates there are now about 7,000 people making the long drive in from Central California.
He and fellow super-commuter Wuest – who whiles away the time talking on his CB radio – say the benefits of a nice house in a pleasant town far outweigh spending three hours a day in the car.
San Jose resident Justin Prester shudders at the thought.
Prester got out of his car and into a commuter train after traffic tacked an extra hour on to his commute to a job in desktop publishing. “You spend an hour and a half in the car and you start going bonkers,” he says.
Prester’s got something good to say about the trend – a rising body count has revived San Jose’s once-mordant night life. Rents that leap like startled gazelles haven’t been so good.
Prester considers himself lucky to pay $1,200 for a modest one-bedroom apartment –$2,000 is not unusual – and he may move out of the area when his wife finishes her degree. Still, they won’t be going far. Prester’s thinking San Diego or LA – “My wife doesn’t like the rain.”
Safely home after another day of life in the vast lane, super-commuter Wuest is equally reluctant to check out of the Hotel California.
“I’m an hour and a half from the seaside. I’m an hour and a half from the Sierras. I’m an hour and a half from work,” he says. “The world’s our oyster and I can’t do that in Illinois.”
GROWTH IN THE WEST
Number of people the West added in the 1990s: 10 million
Number of people living in California in 1950: 10.5 million.
In 2000: 33.9 million
Number that left California in the 1990s as the state struggled
with recession and drought: 2 million
Average commuting distance in Los Angeles: 32.4 miles roundtrip.
Average commuting time in LA: 75 minutes roundtrip
How much housing costs rose in Portland, Ore., between 1991
and 1999: 44.3 percent
Amount spent on road improvement projects in Portland last year: about
How much electricity consumption has risen in California and parts
of the Northwest: 24 percent
How much electric rates have risen: From $20 to $40 per megawatt to
$250 to $400 per megawatt
Last time a major hydroelectric dam was built in the West: 1987.
Last time a nuclear power plant opened: 1988
City with the highest per-capita water consumption rate in the world:
Las Vegas, 375 gallons a day
Number of people Las Vegas adds every month: 6,000