Roads Less Traveled
The secret rites, short cuts and back roads of guerrilla commuting
By Alex Horvath
It's just after 6am, and the day is about to begin for Petaluma resident David Spangler. As it is each work day, this will be a long one for Spangler, who drives an arduous commute each morning from his east Petaluma neighborhood to downtown Mill Valley, where work starts at 8am. It's a straight shot down Highway 101 that at some times of the day might only take 40 minutes, but which at 6am can take as long as two hours. Like a sailor sticking his finger into the wind, Spangler turns on the car radio and listens for the traffic report, the ultimate arbiter that decides which of the several creative routes he has plotted out to get to work on time he will use that day.
On some mornings, Spangler can be found zipping along the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road, past the Cheese Factory, over the Nicasio Reservoir, to Olema. From there he proceeds south on Highway 1, finally turning left at Stinson Beach onto the Panoramic Highway, curving over Mt. Tamalpais, and eventually dropping down into Mill Valley off Miller Avenue, where he turns a wrench each workday as a mechanic at B&G Automotive.
On other days, he might find himself passing through sleepy Nicasio and out Lucas Valley Road, past Skywalker Ranch, putting himself ahead of the logjam that is a regular occurrence on the roads through Petaluma and Novato, and close enough to work so that the rest of the commute on 101 through San Rafael and southern Marin is tolerable. With the exception of the occasional cow in the road, Spangler finds the drive effortless.
"You listen to the radio to figure out what direction you will drive in," he says. "Sometimes I will take D Street down to San Antonio Road, past the bridge, and just get on there. Other times, I might take Lakeville [Highway] down to Novato. Last week there was an accident between a motorcycle and a vehicle at Lincoln Avenue. I got stuck in the crawl through San Rafael. It can take over an hour and a half to do the crawl."
Spangler, 45, is a blend of road philosopher and urban traveler. He's a guerrilla commuter in a time when taking the freeway is the least likely way to get to or from work in the fastest manner. Married for some 20 years, and the father of two teenager sons, Spangler is one of a growing number of people in the North Bay who have adapted their own short cuts and back-road sojourns in order to stay off the dreaded gridlock that can be Highway 101.
It's an exaggerated understatement to merely note that traffic sucks in the North Bay. And it's no secret that the local commute situation won't be fixed any time soon. Further, consider the fact that the average North Bay commuter will spend more than 20,000 hours sitting behind the wheel of a car in Marin-Sonoma traffic over a 20-year span of time. There is no fast rail system, the bus system has routes and schedules that make hitchhiking seem like a smart plan and flying cars have, alas, yet to be invented.
The only relief to the daily congestion lies in the back roads and short cuts that a growing number of daily drivers are taking, guarding their secret routes with an intensity that would make one think these public roads were a matter of top national security.
"There are different reasons why I commute through West Marin to get to work," Spangler says, even casting back to last year's holidays. "On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving," he cites by example, "I know for a fact it will take at least two and a half hours to get home. It's exactly 10 miles more to go this way, and I get home in 90 minutes. This way, I'm relaxed. I haven't been stopped in traffic and wrapped up in the whole 'hurry up and stop' mentality."
Spangler, who grew up in Mill Valley, believes that there are different "levels" of commuters. "We are all like drone bees leaving the hive each day, knowing where we have to go," he says. "There are the young people with no experience who hurry up and stop. Then there are the older ones who just stay in our lanes. I have seen women putting on their makeup in traffic and people reading the newspaper."
It is for this reason, he says, that he opts for the long route--which is quite often a lot shorter.
"The key for me is watching the scenery change," he says. "It could be something as simple as driving past Pegasus Stables [near Petaluma] and seeing how much water is in the pond. Or watching the grapevines change. It's the ambiance of doing the different routes instead of the toil of traffic, the separation time, or winding down, from work to home. I come home each day all relaxed, not stressed."
Spangler wasn't even stressed when, driving home one rainy afternoon last year around the bucolic Bolinas Lagoon, he wound up sliding and flipping his Chevy S-10 pickup truck one and a half times, landing in the water and gaining him membership in the somewhat exclusive Bolinas Lagoon Club.
"I called my wife to let her know I would be late and that I wasn't hurt," Spangler recalls. "The funny part was that I hated the truck and wanted to get a new one anyway."
Now in a newer truck, Spangler says he is not alone in his commute. He says he has met others from Sonoma County who take the same back roads down to central Marin and the city. "It gets so that you recognize the vehicles," he said.
Like Spangler, more people are developing their own private methods of getting from here to there. Try to find out about the shortcuts, though, and you are likely to get a grimace like you had just asked them to attend an Amway meeting. Some won't reveal their routes for fear of more congestion. Indeed, during commute time, some back roads, such as Adobe Road approaching Penngrove at around 4:30pm, can have as many as 30 cars backed up at a rural country stop sign.
Jennifer Crandall, 20, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate of the California Culinary Academy who commuted to San Francisco and is now a chef at Rohnert Park's Olive Garden restaurant, reluctantly says that she goes home to Santa Rosa via Highway 116 through Sebastopol on those days when traffic is at its worst, adding that the longer commute seems to take less time.
"Maybe it's because you are moving the whole way," she shrugs.
Crandall adds that there are other side routes that many in the know take, but then hesitates to reveal them for fear the routes might become congested.
"Don't tell anyone about this," Cotati carpenter Mike Stephens begins in a hushed voice, drawing a diagram on a restaurant napkin, detailing how to get to the Sebastopol Road area of west Santa Rosa at around 9am on a recent Thursday.
"Traffic is probably backed up at Santa Rosa on 101 right now," Stephens says conspiratorially. "Just take Redwood Drive past Wal-Mart, making a right on Langner, which is a tiny country road. Make a right at the end, and you are on Old Redwood Highway. Take a left at Todd and an immediate right at Frank's Mini-Mart."
Stephens says to go straight, through a little neighborhood, making a left turn at the end of the street where it comes out, followed by an immediate right. Then proceed on a street behind the car dealers on Santa Rosa's auto row. At the next stop light, take a left turn over some railroad tracks. Finally, turn right onto Dutton and straight through to Sebastopol Road. "It should take you about 15 minutes."
His directions seem cryptic, but they work on another rainy morning when traffic was completely stopped on 101 north due to a six-car traffic accident. I emerged in downtown Santa Rosa in time for an appointment that I most certainly would have missed had I sat in traffic.
For some, commuting on the freeway is the only option. But what was a one-hour commute 10 years ago now takes many drivers upwards of three hours. People plan early drives in and late returns to accommodate the traffic, which backs up as far south as Sausalito by 3:30pm on some days and slowly continues in fits and starts all the way to Santa Rosa. Of little aid are the bus service routes cut by Golden Gate Transit in 2004.
"If I left home by 5:30am, it only took me an hour and 15 minutes to get to my office in South San Francisco," says Rohnert Park resident Robin Holliday, a workers' compensation insurance underwriter who commuted to the city for three months after moving to Sonoma County last year. "On the way home, it took a bit longer. I was sitting in traffic most nights for an average of three hours."
Commuting on 101 had been a disappointment for Holliday, who had purchased a Honda Civic hybrid last year in anticipation of legislation that would allow hybrid owners to use the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) "diamond" lanes in single-occupancy cars after Jan. 1. When pending federal legislation didn't receive approval, Holliday and others who had purchased their vehicles for similar reasons remained stuck in traffic.
One afternoon, while stopped in traffic before the so-called Novato Narrows, that freeway strip in north Marin where lanes suddenly disappear, Holliday decided to get off at Atherton Avenue and try her luck getting over to Highway 37 and then Lakeville Road for a back-road trip home. As fate would have it, apparently the only traffic cop working in northern Marin that evening happened to be on Atherton--which, psst, is a speed trap--and cited Holliday for driving a few miles over the speed limit. These days, Holliday has a more palatable commute, less than 10 miles each way to her new office in Santa Rosa, an appealing change, as she never has to get on the freeway.
Some officials, like the members of Marin's Congestion Management District, are putting together a plan for fixing freeway on-ramps and other traffic-related issues, which they say will take 25 years to complete--and they are just in the beginning phases. There is also some chatter among transit officials about charging single occupant vehicles for the right to drive in high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes at the Novato Narrows, which some say would cater to those drivers who could afford the expensive surcharge, and in the long run would wind up slowing down traffic even more.
An Internet chat room recently abuzz with the topic compared the proposed HOT lanes to "the old Soviet Union, where the powerful drove in their special, traffic-free lanes, while the masses sat in traffic."
In July 2004, transportation officials in Marin found that HOV lanes through that county carried an average of 2,698 people per hour, compared to 2,181 people per hour traveling in the mixed-use lanes. In the HOV lanes, drivers traveled at an average 46 mph in the southbound morning commute, and 54 mph in the afternoon northbound HOV lanes. When compared with the mixed-lane figures, HOV drivers only saved about 12 minutes in their southbound travels, and five minutes in the northbound direction. (Southbound travel is expected to improve slightly with completion of the Caltrans HOV Lane Gap Closure Project and as HOV lanes become available from Highway 37 to the Richardson Bay Bridge.)
None of these statistics really equal evidence of an improving commute.
In reality, the gridlock situation sucks as bad as it does not because people aren't carpooling (and, please, two in a vehicle does not a carpool make); it's because, among other reasons, officials have allowed new development to go unchecked for decades without taking into adequate account the state of the commute. As we say hello to the new Codding-Agilent development taking shape in Rohnert Park, we will also be saying hello to more gridlock, particularly in Penngrove and on the rural Petaluma Hill Road, which is already a not-so-secret side road that many new commuters will use.
David Spangler admits to occasionally taking Highway 101 north home from work, which can sometimes be easier than the southbound grind.
"It's the luck of the draw, a gamble," he says. "It depends on which side of town you live in. This is the comical part. I can wind up getting off the freeway and going through five or six lights. If I had taken Lakeville [Highway], there is only one light until I get to Freitas [Avenue]."
Spangler recalls a recent afternoon when traffic was so backed up at the Novato Narrows that he jumped off the freeway and took San Marin Drive all the way out Novato Boulevard, past Stafford Lake and onto the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road, an out-of-the-way loop laughably far from his destination that nonetheless took him less time--and aggravation--to complete.
"If you've had a really bad day and are not in a hurry to get home, take the time to smell the pine trees, the high tides and the low tides," he counsels. "You wind up not taking work home with you. There is this tune down time, a wind down. That's why I do it."
He adds, "In these days of increased road rage, it's sometimes better to take the road less traveled."
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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.