Tipping Point

Sacramento commutes are getting much worse, especially for state workers. Help is on the way

‘Crawl. Crawl. Crawl.’ State worker on her morning drive to downtown Sacramento

State worker Linda Byers shows The Bee the heavy traffic she faces every morning when she commutes on Interstate 5 to downtown Sacramento from her Elk Grove home Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.
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State worker Linda Byers shows The Bee the heavy traffic she faces every morning when she commutes on Interstate 5 to downtown Sacramento from her Elk Grove home Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.

Read more from our Tipping Point series here.

Linda Byers used to give herself 45 minutes to drive to the Caltrans office in downtown Sacramento from her home in Elk Grove, and she often got to work 15 minutes early.

But the morning traffic on Interstate 5 and Highway 99 got noticeably worse last year, and now Byers schedules an hour for the drive. Last week, with school back in session, even that wasn’t enough.

“Now I’m really late,” said Byers. “Thank God I have an understanding boss.”

Many state workers living in the greater Sacramento area share Byers’ frustration. Bay Area transplants and other newcomers are growing the region’s population and housing prices are pushing people farther from the city as unemployment remains low. As a result, drive times are increasing for all commuters.

Average commutes in the region climbed to 27.6 minutes in 2017, and the number of “super-commuters” making one-way trips of 90 minutes or more ticked upward, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

State workers, making up about 11 percent of the regional population and working shifts that often require them to travel to and from downtown offices during rush hours, are slightly more affected than the average commuter, according to a review by The Sacramento Bee of Census data.

About 20 percent of state workers living in the greater Sacramento area commute at least 45 minutes each way for work, compared to about 15 percent of all workers in the region, according to Census figures from 2013 through 2017.

And while about 24 percent of workers in the region enjoy a commute of less than 15 minutes, just 18 percent of state workers had a commute that short.

Growing concerns over commutes are reflected in state worker surveys, interviews and in a contract the state’s largest union recently reached through collective bargaining with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration that increased a mass transit stipend.

New state offices under construction downtown are being built with alternate commutes in mind, too. They include features such as bicycle storage, showers for cyclists and designated parking for carpoolers.

Still, the new perks might not be enough to ease the pain of a long commute, at least not in the near future.

The drive from Elk Grove, long a bedroom community for state workers, increasingly is extending into the 45-minute territory, according to workers who live there.

“It has gotten a lot worse,” said Tunisha Grant, 46, who commutes from Elk Grove to West Sacramento. “When I first started you could probably get to work in 20 minutes. Now it’s 30, 40 or 50.”

About 12,000 state workers lived in Elk Grove in 2017, making up about 16 percent of the town’s working population, among the highest in the region, according to The Bee’s analysis.

The smaller communities of La Riviera, Rosemont, Vineyard and West Sacramento followed, each with state worker populations between 13 percent and 16 percent. Roughly 31,000 state workers live in Sacramento, about 14 percent of all workers.

State workers living east of Sacramento are noticing changes too.

Denise Tapia, 40, a California Highway Patrol analyst who commutes to Sacramento from Roseville, said the 23-mile drive took 30 to 35 minutes when she started 11 years ago. It started to get worse about five years ago, backing up farther and farther from the split between Interstate 80 and the Capital City Freeway.

Now Tapia commutes with coworkers in an Enterprise van so she can access I-80’s carpool lane. She estimates the van gets her home 30 to 40 minutes earlier than if she were driving alone, yet the drive still takes about 45 minutes in the morning and at least 50 minutes to get home, she said.

“Unfortunately it’s just a part of being a state worker; you can expect that pretty much any job you’re going to have is going to be down in the downtown area,” she said. “We’re all coming to one small area and it’s just the influx at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the freeways has definitely increased.”

Driving alone

The stop-and-go drives are more than just a headache for commuters, according to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report published by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The report found that Sacramento commuters spent an extra 59 hours per year on their daily drives due to congestion in 2017, up from 50 hours in 2012. Valuing their time at $18.29 per hour and factoring in fuel costs, the report determined the average commute cost $1,022 per year.

While Sacramento’s 59 hours is worse than the national average of 54 hours, it’s still not nearly as bad as California’s larger cities. Bay Area residents lost an average of 103 hours to their commutes in 2017, and commuters in the Los Angeles area lost 119, making them the top two cities in the country for the metric. San Diego commuters lost 64 hours, ranking 12th.

Commutes increasingly factor into state worker discussions about compensation and benefits. In interviews, surveys and union meetings, they have said they want more flexible work schedules and have suggested the state offer incentives for alternative modes of transportation.

A Department of General Services survey of Sacramento County state workers in 2016 found 56 percent of them drive alone to work, one of the least efficient modes of travel.

When asked what would encourage them to choose an alternative to driving alone, the top three responses were telecommuting, more flexibility in their work schedules and a monthly cash subsidy for commuting. About 14,000 of the 68,000 state workers living in the county responded to the survey.


Why we reported on Sacramento's changing commutes

Sacramento is a company town, and the business is state government. More than 100,000 California state employees live in the four-county region. Many of them commute to a downtown dotted with cranes marking the locations of new state government buildings.

We wanted to find out whether the tight housing market is pushing public employees farther from the office, and what that means for their commutes.

Click on the arrow in the upper right to find out how we reported this story.

How we did this story

For this story, we analyzed rich U.S. Census Bureau data via the Minnesota Population Center to find out where most state workers in the region live and how long they spend traveling to and from each day on average. The commute time data does not include those who work from home.

We also drew on a state government survey to get a sense of commuter preferences and we put out calls on social media to ask state workers about their daily trips. More than 50 people responded, sharing details that helped bring the numbers to life.

What's Tipping Point?

Tipping Point is our new project focused on telling the stories of the Sacramento region’s evolution. We have formed a team of reporters and editors who are writing weekly stories focused on the challenges and opportunities in the region.

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The state has long offered the top three benefits respondents said they want, but each of the state’s 150 departments administers the benefits on its own. Some offices allow more flexible schedules than others, and some jobs lend themselves more to a flexible schedule than others.

By state policy, employees can talk with their supervisors about working four 10-hour days or a “9/8/80” schedule, in which employees spread their hours over nine days instead of 10 in a two-week pay period.

The policy says employees can create agreements with their employers to telecommute for part of their work weeks, but the 2016 survey found just 12 percent of workers did some amount of telework.

The policy is centered on “core hours,” defined by the department. For example, a department could set core hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when workers need to be in the office while allowing flexibility in the rest of their shift.

California’s largest state worker union, after hearing complaints from members about commutes in town hall meetings around the state, recently negotiated to increase monthly mass transit reimbursements to $100 per month for the 100,000 employees it represents.

“In order to find affordable housing, they live further and further away,” SEIU Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker said. “Transportation is going up, whether it’s buying your bus pass, your train pass, depending on where you’re living. So that helps.”

The statewide reimbursement rate for mass transit and vanpool commutes is $65, set in 1997.

The stipend helps pay Tapia’s $138-per-month share of rent for the 10-passenger van, but she said she doesn’t take the van to save money.

“I do it entirely to be able to get home earlier,” she said.

Work from home

The state really has only two available approaches to easing worker commutes: reduce the frequency of their trips or shorten driving distances, said Susan Handy, director of UC Davis’ National Center for Sustainable Transportation.

Alternate work schedules and telecommuting are good steps to reduce commute frequency – the challenge may be in adopting them broadly across departments, which could require a shift in culture, Handy said.

“My sense is they may be a little more conservative about allowing employees to telecommute than some private sector employees might be,” she said. “Employers have to get over this concern that if I can’t see you working then you’re not working, and focus instead on employees getting what needs to be done done regardless of where they’re getting that work done.”

CalHR spokesman Andrew LaMar said the department promotes flexibility in its recruitment efforts.

“We’re an inclusive employer, actively trying to bring everybody that we represent into the workforce,” LaMar said. “We want the workforce to reflect the population. We don’t want to have any barriers to that. To the extent that commuting creates barriers, we want to reduce those any way we can.”

Handy said the state could also consider ways to shorten the distances workers drive, potentially taking a cue from the University of California, Davis, which has partnered with private developers to offer affordable housing to employees. Davis has the region’s highest percentage of state employees, at 27 percent, including university employees who work there.

The broadest solution to bad state worker commutes is expanding options for alternative transportation, such as expanding the city’s light rail system, Handy said. Studies have shown that adding more highway lanes only encourages more people to drive, resulting in roads that end up just as congested as before those expansions, she said.

Seattle had success reducing commutes by expanding its rail line, but proposals to expand lines in Sacramento have moved slowly.

Bike parking, showers

All of the new offices the state is building in downtown Sacramento have amenities for cyclists, including lockers, showers and bike parking, said Jason Kenney, deputy director of real estate services for the Department of General Services.

A major project that will combine several departments at a 17-acre campus on Richards Boulevard will include special parking spots for commute vehicles and other amenities to encourage alternate modes of transportation, Kenney said.

The Richards Boulevard project, scheduled to be finished in 2024, will slightly increase the amount of time drivers wait at traffic lights in the area, but the other projects won’t have a long-term impact on traffic, according to traffic studies the department completed for the projects. Kenney said that’s because the projects shift employees around and don’t bring lots of new employees into Sacramento.

Some workers said they would use public transportation if they could.

Grant, the Elk Grove resident who works in West Sacramento, said she took a Yolo County Transportation District bus for about six months a few years ago. She said the bus was too unreliable to depend on every day.

“One day out of five, it would be on time,” she said.

So now she takes a secret set of side-roads to minimize her commute time when traffic gets bad on I-5 and Hwy. 99.

“Half the time I don’t even try the freeway,” she said.

Byers, the Caltrans worker who lives in Elk Grove, said she is resigned to her commute, even if it gets worse. At 62, she said she doesn’t have to make the daily drive for much longer.

“What can I do? What’s the option? I just have to do it,” she said. “I retire in two and a half years. I endure it for two and a half more years.”

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.