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Rick Mann, sits in his car outside his home in Milpitas, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009. Mann , who makes a fifteen minute drive to work in Sunnyvale, says it would take him more than two hours if he took public transportation. (John Green/Staff)

The great debate for middle-class commuters — to drive or take transit — is now a no-brainer for many who are finding it cheaper and faster to take their cars.

The recession has changed the way commuters think. Gas prices are down and transit fares are up; freeway traffic is looser, while transit service is less frequent.

For three years, Veronique Selgado took BART from the East Bay to her job working for an airline at San Francisco International Airport. But she recently switched to driving because BART raised fares and upped its SFO round-trip surcharge from $3 to $8, boosting her daily trip cost to nearly $20.

"It's outrageous," Selgado said. "At what point do they stop raising the prices, when it's $50 a day to go round-trip to work? At what point does BART stand back and say, 'People can't pay that much to commute'?"

The math also stopped adding up for Castro Valley computer data analyst David Ross, 53. After BART and AC Transit raised fares, and BART started charging $1 to park at the Castro Valley station, he and his girlfriend began paying $14.25 each day on transportation. With gas at around $3 per gallon — the price in California has risen lately but is still down from the peak of $4.61 in 2008 — since October they have been paying $14.50 to drive and park in Oakland instead.


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"The time savings is worth more than any costs," said Ross, who now leaves for work with his girlfriend each morning at 6:30 instead of 5:55.

Although transit riders often say they enjoy their commute more, ridership is dwindling by the day.

"I hate driving, I'll be honest," said 26-year-old Vicky Liaw. But after giving public transit a try, she drives anyway, from the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose to her job in the purchasing department at Virgin America in Burlingame. She forks over $180 to $220 per month in gas because it simply takes her too long, about an hour and a half, to take transit to work.

The recession is not only changing the way people get around but also where they are going. Some commuters said they now try to work from home once or twice a week, or have begun looking for jobs closer to home.

Hercules resident Craig Watson, laid off from his electrical foreman position in San Francisco a year ago, decided to find a job closer to home largely to cut down on his public transportation bill. He now drives to his new job in nearby Richmond, and no longer has to spend $400 a month on BART tickets.

"Giving up public transportation has meant a significant boost to my income. I can literally make my car payment with the savings," said Watson, a single parent who is also using the extra money to feed his family.

The shift in transportation cost and convenience is also putting some commuters in tricky ethical dilemmas: Should they continue to take transit for its societal benefits, or save personal time and money by driving? Some said they felt a sense of remorse for leaving transit, but the alternative was just too enticing to pass up.

Watson, a lifelong Bay Area resident, said he took pride in taking transit to reduce pollution and congestion. "But I must say, I'm actually feeling relieved financially and emotionally to abandon public transportation," he said.

Trip time also plays a major role in commuters' decision-making process.

Millbrae resident Robert Smith, 63, had taken BART and Golden Gate Transit to his job in Sausalito because his employer provided transit vouchers, but eventually he threw up his hands, bought a Honda Civic and started driving.

It took him 21/2 hours each way by train and bus, turning his nine-hour workday into a 14-hour endeavor. Now he drives, and it takes him 45 minutes each way, which he said is well worth the extra gas and toll bridge costs.

"It just got to the point where it was too much of a hassle time-wise," Smith said. "It's just not worth it."

Many commuters agree that, if convenience and cost were equal between transit and driving, they would ditch their cars in an instant. But all too often that's not the case, now more than ever.

Rick Mann loves public transit but hates the two hours and 15 minutes it takes him to walk from his Milpitas home to a transit station, catch a train, transfer to another train and then walk to his job as a software engineer in Sunnyvale.

So he drives instead. It takes him 10 to 15 minutes.

"I'm all for taking longer on public transit," said Mann, 40. "But that was too much — eight, nine times longer than what it would take driving. It really doesn't make any sense for me to take public transit to get to work."

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.