On the Road Again

Is an easier commute the silver lining of Silicon Valley layoffs?

From time to time, I call Garage.com's head of recruiting, Amy Vernetti, to chat about Silicon Valley trends. She usually returns my call around 5 p.m., and I smile at the faint crackle of static, the sporadic horn honk, and the occasional "Ack!" that punctuate our conversation during Vernetti's 70- to 90-minute drive from her Palo Alto home to Oakland (where she resumes her second work shift after picking up her kids).

The last time I called Vernetti, I was as interested in her perspective as a hard-core commuter as in her recruiting insights. Like almost everybody I know around here, I find myself increasingly inconvenienced, infuriated, and exhausted by soul-sapping traffic. The California Transportation Dept. says Bay Area freeway congestion in the heart of the Valley grew 26% from 1998 to 1999--representing a one-year leap in the daily delay from 29,300 to 36,900 vehicle hours. I'm betting numbers will soon show it jumped at least that much again from 1999 to 2000. Local chatter about "windows" rarely means an operating system anymore, but rather those brief traffic gaps when it's safe to try and drive somewhere.

With all our recent woes, logic would suggest those cars should be streaming out again, now that so many dot-coms are splattered across the windshield of the recession rolling through here at 400 megahertz. In fact, you can separate the dot-come-latelys from Valley old-timers by how they react to gloomy news about earnings shortfalls and layoffs. Newcomers: "Oh no! I've missed my chance to retire by 30." Old-timers: "Maybe now we'll finally get some relief from the @$#%%$& traffic."

Vernetti is among a number of locals who have told me her commute nightmares peaked a few months ago and things are looking up. Part of her rationale for believing that also comes from recruiting young hotshot job candidates. "People's appetite to commute long distances has fallen in direct proportion to Nasdaq," she reports. "It's like `If I'm not gonna make a gazillion dollars, I'm not driving to Timbuktu."' Not wanting to be named an accomplice to a vehicular felony (Ack!), I never argue with anybody calling me from a traffic jam. But when Vernetti told me this, I hung up and thought: Is a recession the time to get even pickier about where you'll work?

In any event, though, I'm sorry to disappoint locals, but my investigations yield little evidence that traffic is measurably reduced--much less proof that the exodus has commenced. For one thing, Officer Steve Oreglia of the California Highway Patrol pointed me to the sobering view from the hills along the Valley's eastern border. A bumper-to-bumper parade extends east of here on Highway 680 for 30 to 50 miles some days during commute hours. "Because of the cost of living, a lot of people are moving to the Central Valley. You can get a nice home there for $225,000. But you only have one interchange to get back here," he says. If traffic seems lighter, in general, he says it's probably just the spring arrival of longer daylight, fewer accident-prompting storms, and school breaks. A bunch of new road projects are about to exacerbate travel even more.

I worry most about those Central Valley commuters. I don't think they're after a gazillion dollars like the young hotshots. They brave their exhausting commutes to try to grab something resembling a comfortable middle-class life and yard for the kids at affordable prices. If their Valley jobs disappear, the mostly agricultural and bedroom communities in which they've settled won't be able to employ them. They may be finding themselves in a whole new traffic jam--on the road to the unemployment office.

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

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