The Bay Area’s Biggest Double-Edged Sword
Spoiler: It’s a Train
Okay. I’ll admit it, this title was meant to reach a wider audience. As a train lover, I’ve been in dozens of conversations where people lose interest when the conversation shifts to talking about trains, which is why I incorporated trains into the broader conversation surrounding problems in the Bay Area in this article.
Specifically, I believe that Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor train is a double-edged sword punching at the fabric of the Bay Area. I imagine many of you are not familiar with Amtrak (the federal train provider in the U.S.) or with the Capitol Corridor, so let me fill you in. California is spoiled when it comes to inter-city rail service as we have three routes with some of the most frequent Amtrak service outside of the Northeast Corridor. One of these trains is the Capitol Corridor, a 168-mile route linking San Jose and Sacramento, with one train continuing on to Auburn. In the Bay Area specifically, the train runs entirely along the East Bay and operates most frequently during commute hours. The Capitol Corridor has become a surprisingly important commuter line in recent years, shuttling passengers from Solano, Yolo, and Sacramento County into the Bay Area (and vice versa), to both the benefit of the region, but often to the inherent detriment of the commuters who choose to use the service.
In recent years (before 2020), the train saw steady increases in ridership and new stop openings. Oakland Coliseum station opened in 2005, Santa Clara-University in 2012, and Fairfield-Vacaville in 2017. The train at present proves to be a very attractive option for traveling between The Bay Area and Sacramento. Indeed, it only takes around 100 minutes to travel from Richmond to Sacramento, and prices are usually between $20 and $30 one-way for that route. The entire trip from San Jose to Sacramento is just over three hours — average speeds are slower between Emeryville and San Jose.
The issue however, is that because the train is cheaper on a monthly basis than driving, extraordinarily comfortable with amenities such as a cafe car, and frequent for the most part of the day, the train is pushing people farther away from major city centers leading to unhealthy commutes. The entire Interstate 80 corridor from Vallejo up to Sacramento has seen a dramatic population increase since the late 20th century, and many people are now deciding to live along the corridor and commute to San Francisco. With housing prices being so expensive in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, people are flocking to the exurbs of the Central Valley and Sacramento Valley looking for refuge. Indeed, localized studies have already shown that super commuters make more on average than those that commute less than 90 minutes. This makes sense given that those committing to travel over 90 minutes each way probably are doing it for the money. After all, there are jobs available for the most part in smaller California cities, but they pale in comparison to the high-earning opportunities abound in Silicon Valley.
While the trend of an urban exodus is not entirely problematic, many of these people are viewing the Capitol Corridor as an amenity of living far away, enabling them to commute in luxury to their high-paying jobs in the Bay Area. So while their commute might be comfortable, and it might allow them to live in a house they own, long commutes still are detrimental to one’s mental and physical health. Of course, the train ride is far preferable to anyone driving in the same corridor, but the train itself has incited, in part, this shift towards long-distance super-commuting. Super-commuting can’t be a long-term solution, but we can definitely place an emphasis on shortening the time it takes to commute to cities like San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose. Ensuring work/life balance is of utmost importance, and at present the Capitol Corridor has room for improvement in that regard.
There are quite a few examples online of commuters who spend up to five hours one way traveling on the Capitol Corridor + other modes into the Bay Area, and I’m not going to explicitly bring attention to those stories, but those stories do illustrate the double-edged sword of cheaper housing but worse commuting that the Capitol Corridor enables. Indeed, train 523 leaving Sacramento for the Bay Area at 5:10am is the busiest trip of the day! With connections to BART at Richmond, AC Transit connections at practically every station south of Richmond, and VTA/Caltrain in Santa Clara and San Jose, the Capitol Corridor makes it incredibly easy to get around the Silicon Valley-Sacramento Corridor. In fact, I tried it out myself, taking a day trip up from my home in Burlingame, California to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Dropped off at SFO BART station at 6:10, I was at Richmond at 7:25, on The Capitol Corridor at 7:35, and in Sacramento on-time at 9:15. It was an incredibly comfortable way to travel, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Bay scenery as I sipped my hot $2 tea. After a great day of sightseeing in Sacramento, I was on the trip home at 6:55pm, on the Amtrak San Francisco connection bus from Emeryville at 8:50 (20 min delayed), and back at the Montgomery Street BART station at 9:15pm. Yes, Amtrak offers bus connections to/from San Francisco that time exactly with the train (even if it’s delayed like mine was)! All in, it cost me around $55 round trip to go between Richmond and Sacramento, which is expensive, but in my opinion, worth it. Commuters who use the service regularly can get a monthly pass, which for the Richmond-Sacramento route is $462 per month, way cheaper than paying daily!
This brings me to the other side of the argument. Relatively speaking, the Capitol Corridor is a great intercity rail service for the Bay Area. The Sacramento and Silicon Valley corridor is quite heavily traveled, and with ridership topping 1.7 million in 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the magnitude of the train service is evident. Indeed, every rider who chooses to ride the train eliminates a car from I-80. Sure, the Capitol Corridor is not as good as European train services and the rolling stock is aging, but new Siemens Venture train cars are coming soon. If speeds can be increased even more, the route will provoke even greater changes to the way people live in the area. With the train can have increased frequencies or be adapted into a high-speed corridor, the Capitol Corridor could seriously persuade many Bay Area residents to move to the suburbs/exurbs which could increase housing supply in the region, and ensure at the same time that job openings don’t massively balloon. With the tech industry continuing to flourish, salaries will likely continue to increase, and with an exceptional rail corridor allowing people to commute long distances over a short amount of time, I would not be surprised if thousands of residents decided to move to Sacramento, Vacaville, or even the Sierra foothills where the sole Auburn-originating train leaves at 5:10am on its way to the Bay Area.
In summary, the Capitol Corridor has proven to be a catalyst for super commuting in the Bay Area, which in some ways is great, but if we want to increase connectivity even more and reduce commute times, improvements have to be made. I want to be clear that expanding the urban environment has its benefits, and creating a larger Bay Area region where people commute long distances is okay, as long as those distances can be traveled quickly.