Early morning traffic on westbound I-580 at Altamont Pass
Early morning traffic on westbound I-580 at Altamont Pass (Bay Area News Group)

Think your commute stinks? Try being one of the Bay Area's "mega-commuters" -- a new Census demographic that defines the worst of the worst commutes: workers who spend at least 90 minutes plus 50 miles to get to the office in the morning.

And the Bay Area, with its sprawling suburbs and nasty traffic, has a higher percentage of these road warriors than any other major metro area in the country, according to a first-of-its-kind Census Bureau report released Tuesday.

About 2 percent of full-time workers living from Walnut Creek to San Rafael to San Jose -- and 4 percent of people who work in the area -- are classified as mega-commuters, compared with the national average of less than 1 percent. In other words, a Bay Area worker is four times more likely than the average American worker to be a mega-commuter, a sobering fact that officials say isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Experts say it's understandable that the Bay Area would lead the pack in the new category: High housing prices in urban centers, freeway expansions to outer suburbs and rural areas, and bumper-to-bumper traffic all make the area a hot spot for commutes that are long for both distance and time -- not to mention a giant bay that naturally spreads out the region. New York City and Washington, D.C., were the runners-up, not far behind, as there are less than 600,000 mega-commuters in the nation.

But people like Craig VonDemfange help make the Bay Area the mega-commuter capital. The finance director spends more than three hours and 110 miles a day commuting between his home in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose and his job at an Internet company in downtown San Francisco. He prefers the suburbs for his family life in his native San Jose, but he couldn't pass up a job in the city that proved to be better than anything he could find in Silicon Valley.


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"I know a lot of people who are doing it, and as crazy as we are, it seems to keep growing more than anything," said VonDemfange, 43, who sometimes arrives home after his young daughter has gone to bed. Asked what he thought of being labeled a mega-commuter, he laughed and said: "That sounds about right."

Then there are the people who don't want to break the bank to live here, like Trung Nghiem, who grew up in San Jose and works as a software project manager in Santa Clara. But he moved his family to Manteca largely because he could find a bigger house for cheaper there.

"On weekdays you get home, and the day's already done. It can take a toll -- I'll be honest," said Nghiem, 41, who spends about three hours a day commuting. "But I sacrifice it for my kids; I put them first. You got to do what you got to do to make ends meet."

Only about 587,000 people in the country meet the mega-commuting standard, which Census statisticians defined for the first time by analyzing five years worth of data for full-time workers' responses to Census surveys through 2010.

Across the United States, mega-commuters on average spend two hours to traverse 166 miles just for the lighter morning commute -- about five times the national average -- and about half of them leave their homes before 6 a.m. Mega-commuters are more likely than others to take trains or carpools to work, but more than two-thirds of them drive alone.

The mega-commuters are mostly men who own three- or four-bedroom homes, are married to women who don't work, have kids and earn more money than the average person.

Melanie Rapino, a statistician at the Census Bureau who co-authored the report, cautioned that the top metro areas are all close in her rankings since there are so few mega-commuters. The Census region that includes San Francisco, the Peninsula and the East Bay ranks No. 1 with 2.06 percent of residents being mega-commuters, while the South Bay is No. 2 at 1.9 percent, tied with New York and northern New Jersey. With so many workers commuting to the Bay Area, little Salinas was among the leaders, at 1.23 percent, about the same as Los Angeles.

For the other 95-plus percent of us who aren't mega-commuters, Bay Area commute times actually aren't that bad -- relatively speaking. The report clocks the average one-way commute time in 2011 at 24.7 minutes in Santa Clara County, 27.8 minutes in Oakland and 29.6 minutes in San Francisco, compared with the national average of 25.5 minutes.

But the Bay Area's mega-commuting title may not end anytime soon since complex issues such as land use can take decades to change.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is set later this year to approve a Bay Area housing and transportation plan that would encourage cities to allow more development near jobs and popular transit hubs. It's part of a broader effort by cities across California to meet new state goals to reduce greenhouse gases.

"That's not going to bring that percentage of mega-commuters to zero, but maybe it brings it down closer to the national average," said commission spokesman John Goodwin.

Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the Bay Area urban policy nonprofit San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, called the planning efforts a "major opportunity" to reverse the sprawl trend: "Ultimately we have the power to change this by making different decisions at the local level to embrace smart growth."

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.