They say it’s the fancy companies offering big pay-checks and perks that range from a ping-pong table to free unlimited snacks. For me, it was the thrill to live in Silicon Valley, the tech epicenter of the world, where cars drive themselves, clothes get washed and doctor appointments scheduled with a couple clicks in an app. And California’s perfect weather, of course. Whatever reason brings someone here, over the past five years more than 40,000 people have moved to the region following the tech boom. This phenomenon has brought up the cost of housing turning San Francisco into the most expensive city in America, and it has dramatically increased the commute to Silicon Valley. According to traffic data analytics company Inrix, in 2013 Bay Area drivers spent 56 hours stuck in traffic going to and back from work. Still, there’s nowhere in the world I would rather live.
When my husband and I moved to California from Brazil last Summer, we were used to walking to work. Our then apartment was a short mile away from both of our offices, making our commute a breeze. Now, I sit on a bus for at least three hours everyday which — I did the math — adds up to over 20 extra days of work each year. The surprising thing is that I am definitely not alone. At the tech company I work for, a recent informal survey identified that seventy percent of people in my department currently live in San Francisco and commute at least 35 miles each way, every day.
At first, this did not seem like the worst thing. Like many tech employees, I ride on a comfortable bus with wifi provided, which means I get to work on my laptop, catch up on my reading, maybe even write a few emails to my family back home. I would think to myself that if all these people did it, I could easily do it as well. But it turns out that having such a long commute affects your life in more than one way. And, as I have come to realize, it also changes a city.
One of the first thing you notice when you move to San Francisco is how everyone seems to be perfectly fit. Power by their latest fit devices, people appear to enjoy exercising, but mostly spending time outdoors, and there is a reason behind it. After sitting for hours on my commute, the last thing I want to do with my free time is sit at a restaurant, or at the apartment — I constantly feel like moving. In less than a year, I have taken on road biking and skiing and have attached a FitBit to my wrist to make sure I’m taking at least 10,000 steps a day. I have even gotten a standing desk at work. Turns out that, as I learned, sitting down for long periods is supposed to be really bad for you.
Another peculiarity is how early the nightlife ends. The first time we went out for dinner in our new city it was probably around nine pm on a Friday evening and, to my surprise, most restaurants were getting ready to close within the next hour. I was startled — isn’t this supposed to be a big city, I asked my husband. It didn’t take long before I realized that in order to get to work in less than an hour and a half, I would have to be on the road pretty early, ideally before seven am. And the same works on the way back: by 4:30pm the office was about empty, in a desperate collective attempt to avoid traffic going home. This quickly meant waking up at six am, being home by six pm, having dinner at seven and in bed by ten. Suddenly There goes an explanation for why there aren’t as many restaurants open late.
But then there’s another characteristic about San Francisco, and probably the most significant one. This city seems to have a talent for making room to anyone in the world, no matter their nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, political party. It is probably the most tolerant place you can ever find and ultimately, I think this is why, in spite of traffic and high costs of living, so many people who come, stay. Considering that San Francisco is not big for an American city — a little over 800 million people, according to the latest census — it still accommodates so many different people, with such different styles and preferences. And the way it does that is by expanding beyond its own borders into little new planets revolving around one limitless universe. Ultimately, the traffic is bad because people want to be here. So they find a home wherever possible in one of the many suburbs, beach towns, wine counties, mountains.
At the end of the day, most of us are willing to put up with any kind of commute just for the privilege of being here. Because you can tell it doesn’t bother us, not really. We are not stressed out people like some you may run into rushing in the streets of Manhattan. Nor are we judgmental. San Franciscans don’t care what you are wearing, which car you are driving. All we want to do is to simply exercise their right to choose how and where we want to live. And if that means extra hours on traffic, so be it.