It’s more than two hours before the sun will fill the Central Valley with hazy light and this once sleepy farming town is already alive.
Cars quickly back out of driveways, filling dimly-lit side streets with traffic. Anxious drivers jostle for position on Pacheco Boulevard – the city’s main commercial street - as they head for the highway. The line for the drive-thru window at McDonald’s on the edge of town is backing up.
And Bruce Simmons, as he does most weekday mornings, is checking a Caltrans traffic app on his phone to see if trouble awaits on his commute over Highway 152 and into the Bay Area.
“There’s nothing going on right now,” he says, clearly relieved as he gets into his truck just past 4:45 a.m. to begin his journey. He’ll drive an hour to Gilroy, then hop on a 90-minute train ride to Menlo Park, where he works as a research analyst for a tech firm.
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Even on a good day, Simmons’ commute and the commutes of several hundred more residents of this city are among the worst in the United States. Roughly 21 percent of Los Banos workers have at a least a 90-minute ride to and from work, the highest percentage in the nation, according to a McClatchy analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data for cities with at least 5,000 employed workers.
The ride has gotten progressively worse in recent years as Bay Area transplants poured into Los Banos and other Central Valley “exurbs” in search of homes they could afford to buy, residents said. With the economy booming and the population rapidly increasing in the region, the Valley now has some of the longest commutes not just in California, but in the country.
In Lathrop, roughly one-third of workers endure one-way commutes of at least one hour. That’s also the situation in Tracy. The average commute time for people in Mountain House is an estimated 53.5 minutes, the longest average commute in California.
Elk Grove and Galt residents battle longer average commutes than those living in Los Angeles. The drive to and from work for those living in three Modesto suburbs - Salida, Riverbank and Oakdale – hovers around 30 minutes each way most days.
“We’re super-commuters,” said Los Banos resident Anthony Carrillo, “but you’ve got to be super human to keep up with it sometimes.”
More than 20 hours a week commuting
Carrillo and Simmons both moved to Los Banos from the Bay Area in recent years, drawn to the city of 40,000 residents in western Merced County by its relatively low housing costs. But that decision came with a trade-off: they both spend more than 20 hours a week commuting, robbing them of time with their families and costing them hundreds of dollars each month in travel.
Carrillo, a general contractor who specializes in home repair, moved to Los Banos in 2014. At first, his daily drive into San Jose took around 90 minutes. But as more people fled the Bay Area, the commute got worse and worse. Now the ride is just under two hours “if I’m trying,” he said.
The commute isn’t all bad, Carrillo said. He runs his own business and the ride “gives me four hours a day to think,” he said. Still, it does take a toll.
“When I get home my kids are in bed and when I left (for the day) they were in bed,” he said. “That messes with you. The quality of life we had when we moved out here has changed.”
Carrillo said he has also gained weight because of all that time sitting and snacking. Multiple studies indicate he isn’t alone.
A 2005 study by researchers from California State University, Long Beach and UCLA found a direct link between the amount of miles commuters drive and obesity. A study of more than 4,200 commuters in Texas discovered long commutes had negative effects on “waist circumference,” blood pressure and other health measures. Another study by a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that “time spent commuting is associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and an increased sense of time pressure.”
As if the daily trips faced by mega-commuters aren’t bad enough, there’s always the possibility that things can go really bad.
“Those are the nightmare days,” Simmons said.
On a recent morning, a pile-up on Highway 152 over the Pacheco Pass added an hour to Simmons’ drive to Gilroy. A delay on the train tacked on more time, turning his morning commute into a nearly five-hour adventure. The train was delayed in the evening as well.
“When one thing goes wrong, it can totally destroy everything,” he said.
Simmons considers himself relatively lucky. He works four 10-hour shifts a week and carves out time to walk during the day. He’s also able to nap on that 90-minute train ride. But he leaves before dawn and gets home around 9:30 p.m., giving him just enough time to eat dinner and grab five hours of sleep before doing it all over again.
“Most people’s days are 9-to-5,” he said. “Mine is 5-to-9.”
‘I’m not unhappy, I love this house.’
Simmons and his wife used to live in the Bay Area. They participate in dog disc-throwing competitions around the state. The couple grew tired of landlords badgering them about their beloved pets and bought their home in Los Banos in January of last year.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to buy a house – and this sentence kills me – and I don’t care where,’” he said.
After nearly two years of making the trek, Simmons is ready for a change. But the Bay Area may be out of reach – a two-bedroom duplex unit he looked at recently in Menlo Park was going for $6,000 a month. He bought his home in Los Banos for less than $300,000.
“I’m not unhappy, I love this house,” he said.
It’s not just commuters in distant Central Valley outposts who have challenging commutes.
The average commute for an Elk Grove worker is 31 minutes. El Dorado Hills and Lincoln commutes are just under a half hour. The average commute time for all of California is around 28 minutes and more than 500,000 workers in the state have one-way commutes of more than 90 minutes, according to census data.
Matt Brady, a software developer at a company near Cal Expo, said his 14.5-mile commute from Elk Grove on Highway 99 averages around 40 minutes each way. Things can go sideways: one morning commute last week took 50 minutes, even though there were no signs of accidents or other trouble on perhaps the most congested freeway in the Sacramento region.
“It can definitely be annoying at times, but by now I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “Although especially bad days can really wear you down, plus my knee will sometimes start to hurt when there’s an excessive amount of stop-and-go traffic. On a real good day, like when there’s a government holiday and all the government workers are off, I can get to work in under 20 minutes, but those days are very rare.”
Nubia Goldstein, a partner in a downtown Sacramento law firm, has been making the trek from Elk Grove on a regular basis since 2010. She’s tried “every back way” to avoid 99, but surface streets have become nightmares as well.
Goldstein was heading to work around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday and figured she’d have an easy ride given that rush hour is generally finished by then. She approached Highway 99 at the Laguna Boulevard/Bond Road interchange and was confronted by a sea of cars.
“I took one look and said, ‘Nope, nope, nope,’” she said.
Instead, she drove several miles out of her way to Interstate 5, knowing full well it would probably add time to her drive. She’s lived in Elk Grove for much of her life and has spent enough hours in stop-and-go traffic on Highway 99 to recognize that the relatively smooth ride on I-5 is worth the extra time behind the wheel.
“It’s a mental block and at a certain point, I don’t want to be sitting there (in traffic),” she said. “It’s been a lifelong thing.”
Elk Grove is among the fastest-growing cities in California, and Goldstein and Brady don’t picture their commutes getting easier - especially as long as thousands of commuters are forced to rely on Highway 99.
“It would have to take some major infrastructural change and I don’t know where that could even happen,” Goldstein said. “I just don’t see it.”
Sacramento Bee staff writers Phillip Reese and Michael Finch II contributed to this report.