Ten Miles in Ninety Minutes by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By Road Rage

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Here in northern California, we are used to red light runners, dive bombers, sudden lane changers, and other road annoyances. But for me, it’s not the road rage that’s the worst problem–it’s the slow, grinding, simmering crawl that is traffic. The Bay Area has the second-worst traffic in the nation. And while commute traffic is bad (one of the radio reporters said “Traffic is horrible–everywhere”), at no time of the day or night can one assume a traffic-free ride.

Route 101 looked like something out of a Mad Max movie ...

For a commute, merely going across the bay from San Leandro to San Francisco can take 90 minutes, which used to be the time required for an outlying city such as Vallejo or Tracy. Public transportation is inconvenient and very slow. I once figured out that it would take me two hours by bus to cross my town. Riding a bike can be difficult and dangerous. So unfortunately the car is the default choice.

Once I formally retired, I thought I’d get around the problem by avoiding commute hours. Ha! For example, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for 11 AM in Menlo Park, 17 miles north of my house, which would ideally be a 25-minute ride. To be on the safe side, I allowed 45 minutes. Route 101 looked like something out of a Mad Max movie, with debris falling off trucks, strange vehicles, Google buses cutting across lanes, roadwork, and closed exits. Traffic moved at 20 MPH. I barely made it in time.

To return home, I waited until 1:30 PM, because traffic increases during the lunch hour. The first seven miles back were uneventful–I even drove the speed limit for a mile or two. With ten miles to go, traffic stopped completely, between freeway exits. I was too far away from my destination to use street routes, and couldn’t move between lanes anyway. We all crawled, no faster than 5 MPH, for 45 minutes, never seeing what caused the problem. I watched Google buses muscle their way onto the freeway, marveling at these accomplishments.

At the hour mark, I realized we were deep into the “standard” afternoon backup heading south out of the Silicon Valley, which would only compound the problem. I managed to move one lane to the right. Finally, at 90 minutes, I made it to an exit where I could take back roads. They were crowded as well. One hour and 45 minutes after I’d left Menlo Park, I made it home.

Now I have abandoned my plans for mid-day appointments and have switched back to the morning, using the strategy of leaving the house by about 6:45 AM, driving close to the location of the appointment, having a leisurely or rushed breakfast depending on the ride, and making a 9:00 AM appointment.

The simmering traffic costs time and increases stress, but more than that, I’ve noticed it increases isolation. I’m fortunate that I work remotely and see my clients rarely, but this is at the cost of not observing what’s going on with the people. Many of us in the Bay Area turn down early evening social events, because who wants to drive an hour each way for a one-hour club meeting?

I don’t have a great answer. Moving to the woods doesn’t seem appealing, and flying cars are decades away, so I’ll continue to fight the traffic monster if I have to.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, we definitely felt your pain on our recent visit to Carmel. Even though Chicago traffic is bad and rush “hour” is more like 3 hours, it is not as bad as the 2 1/2 hour trip from San Jose airport to our hotel. As we shared with you when we saw you, your traffic has the dubious distinction of winning the prize!

    • Marian says:

      Dubious indeed, Laurie. Sorry you folks had to experience our congestion. It’s amazing how any tactics can fail. We have a saying here that goes something like, “I will be there at xx time, traffic permitting.” This way people know that you are doing your best, but the road is outside your control.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    We got caught up that traffic last March, coming to visit our daughter. We flew into SFO, but she now lives in Freemont so she could take the BART to her job in SF (she has since switched jobs and commutes to Los Altos, so will move again when her lease is up), We got in mid-day, so I wanted to check into our hotel before heading into SF for however we wanted to spend the afternoon before picking up Vicki at her office for dinner. Of course you know the airport is actually south of the city, so we got to our hotel easily. Then my husband decided he needed to rest and fell asleep. He thought Vicki said it took her an hour to get to work (but she didn’t work downtown, and it really took her an hour, 15 minutes; Dan wanted to go to Wilkes Bashford, just for a quick look/see before dinner, which is further downtown than Vicki’s office). As we approached rush hour, I thought he was nuts, but he waited and waited with predictable results. He couldn’t believe how long it took us to get there, there was no place to park (besides an expensive garage) and it was time to go pick up our daughter for dinner. I had warned him this would happen. He was angry at me that we had gone to our hotel. I told him we DIDN’T NEED TO STAY THERE AN HOUR! And so it goes.

    • Marian says:

      Moving is definitely your daughter’s best strategy, Betsy. I have a method of getting to SF downtown, which is to drive to the Daly City BART station at about 10 AM when reserved parking for commuters expires and take BART the rest of the way. If needed, Uber or Lyft to your final destination.

  3. If the Bay Area has the second worst traffic in the country, am I safe in assuming L.A. has the worst? I think for us it’s the 5, although the 101 down here is pretty awful as well. I’ve tried all the work-arounds you mentioned…I now leave at least a half hour early for any appointment, because blaming traffic is no longer considered a viable excuse for being late. There’s no rush hour…it’s ALL rush hour, which is a misnomer as how you can rush when you’re just sitting?! Thank goodness for podcasts! My favorites are from The New Yorker: The Writer’s Voice, their Fiction Podcast, and The New Yorker Radio Hour. Wonder if anyone else has any favorites.

  4. Marian my experience driving in the Bay area is limited but back in the day one of our affiliates was in SF and I spent a lot of time there. And on the way to and from there. In a cab. With the meter running. Argggh.

    A word of advice re “answers”: moving to the woods is not an option. Dirt roads. Road erosion. School buses. Endless road repair. Fuhgeddaboutit.

  5. Suzy says:

    I rarely go to the Bay Area, and when I do, I try to take the train, because driving there is as awful as you describe. I am so thankful that Sacramento is not like that — yet — but fear it may become so as the population grows (largely as a result of people fleeing the Bay Area). I would hate to have to contend with the things you describe on a daily basis! Thanks for reminding me of what I don’t have to deal with!

    • Marian says:

      The train from Sac is great. Several times a year I drive through Sac going to Auburn or Rocklin to visit my or my sweetheart’s relatives. I’ve been in some epic traffic jams, going there on holiday weekends, or trying to beat the Tahoe traffic back during ski season, but you’re right, at least it’s not an everyday occurrence–yet.

  6. Marian! You gave me claustrophobia, paranoia, and dystopia all in one crystal description of a driving nightmare. A horrendous but typical traffic experience, as so many of us know. Strangely, LA’s notorious traffic seems more manageable these days. But please don’t wish for flying cars. A typical traffic jam would blot out the sky!

    • Marian says:

      Agreed, Charles, no flying cars for me. I think LA residents drive more skillfully than Bay Area residents. What makes these jams particularly annoying for me is that I have mild claustrophobia. I can do what I need to do most of the time, but once I did get stuck en route to the Dumbarton Bridge and was surrounded by tall trucks. It took me 30 minutes to find a way to turn around, and at one point I had to get out of my car (everything was stopped dead, so no issues there) and take some deep breaths, even with the exhaust fumes. I hope never to repeat that experience.

  7. Yeah, Marian, LA drivers are better freeway drivers, I would agree. But gawd! Don’t let them drive in the rain! I know that boxed-in-by-semis feeling truly panic-inducing.

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