Every day--every single one of the seven days in the week--Darren puts on his security service uniform and drives to work. Monday through Friday he drives 82 miles round trip to a four-hour gig. Saturday and Sunday he drives about 90 miles to an eight hour gig. Every week that’s about 590 miles and $45 in bridge tolls--all for just 36 hours of work a week. Subtracting Darren’s commute costs from his income gets this: Every month he works 30 days, and more than half of these days--16-- simply pay the cost of getting to work.
If this sounds too awful to be possible, it is in fact the perfectly rational result of several large economic trends. Darren has experienced the perfect storm of the real estate boom, the recession, and rising gas prices. First, the economic downturn that began in late 2007 has been known for unemployment rates that are still over 9 percent, but that’s only part of the story. Nearly a quarter of the people who found work after being laid off from full-time jobs are now employed part time. (Download this report from Pew.) Part-time work, traveling further to find work, and high gas prices have left workers like Darren in a bind where he spends about $14,000 a year on his car, fuel, and tolls. (Monthly: $400-500 on gas, over $500 for car payment and insurance, and $180 a month on tolls.)
In more than 20 years of working, Darren has always been a commuter, and he’s quick to calculate commute costs from different jobs. In 2004 he took a full-time security job with a commute of less than 30 miles round trip. He’d been wanting to buy his own home for many years, and he couldn’t afford anything in the high-priced Bay Area. So in 2006 he moved 24 miles further out to a town called Fairfield, making his round trip commute more than 75 miles.
Darren was part of a trend called “Drive until you qualify,” which drove mortgage lending during the boom years in real estate. Homes further from jobs were cheaper, and middle and lower income workers could qualify for mortgages in the hinterlands. The result was that new home owners in places like Fairfield paid more for their commute. The Center For Neighborhood Technology studied this phenomenon in Fairfield, as well as the rest of the country.
Then the bust happened. In 2008 Darren was laid off when the building that hired him decided to switch to a cheaper security company. His security company offered him half- time work 4 miles further from his home than his old job. He took his first job, commuting roughly 400 miles a week to a 20 hour job. That was tough financially, and when his security company offered him weekend work in San Francisco in 2009 and he took that too.
“At this point I just deal with it,” he said when I asked him about his seven day work week. His odd work hours coupled with lack of public transit near his home means he spends a lot of time in snarly Bay Area traffic. He listens to R and B, Gospel and Jazz in his car, and he says he has carefully calculated the cost of his commute. Of course, he says, he’d rather work closer to home, but aside from not being offered any jobs like that, the one he has is good. “I’m content. I like working with good people. People like to stay in their comfort zone.” While doing security can be a depressing job, Darren is well-loved at his job site (his co-workers suggested I interview him) and he is friends with people in the offices that he guards.
Darren comes across as thoughtful and deliberate, but his well-being is so closely tied to gas prices that there's a lot he can't control. When prices fall he has a little breathing room. But now, when prices are high, he’s looking for ways to save money. He’s trying to reduce the cost of his insurance, and he’s looked into getting a roommate. He wishes he’d gotten a more fuel efficient car. In 2007, he impulsively traded an old paid-off Chevy Cavalier for a Mitsubishi Endeavor because it had a great rebate. “I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into,” he says without rancor. “Sometimes you make drastic decisions. After I did it I wanted to get the Cavalier back but it was too late.”
About that rebate: Darren was part of a national trend here too. As gas prices rose in 2005 and 2006 (and 2007) auto manufacturers responded by offering large rebates for cars with lower fuel economy, according to a recent paper by economists Nathan Miller and Ashley Langer. We often assume that "rational" consumers will look at high gas prices and respond by buying more efficient vehicles, but Miller and Langer found that when gas prices were high auto rebates were designed to offset 40 percent of the cost of the fuel difference between a less efficient car and a more efficient car. Hundreds of thousands of consumers who assumed that high gas prices were only temporary were dazzled by the rebate and bought gas guzzlers.
Four years later, Darren’s still paying off the Endeavor, which gets 17-23 mpg. He says he’d get a car with better mileage if he could, but that’s not in the cards now. “When gas prices go up I try to go with the terms,” he says. “Even if prices went up to $6 I’d still have to pay it. I just hope everything starts turning around.”