Costs of getting to work create tough choices

Carolina Maza-Curry cleans houses from San Mateo to San Jose, raises her two young granddaughters and regularly volunteers helping needy families at St. Francis Center in Redwood City.

The 49-year-old East Palo Alto resident often wishes there were more hours in the day. Or at the very least, that she didn’t spend them waiting for the bus.

Her husband, who works alongside her as a housecleaner, works a second job as a janitor at an office building. When he takes the family vehicle, she braces herself for a long journey on SamTrans.

If she’s taking the bus to her volunteer job in the morning, she often waits 30 minutes at the bus stop. The seven-mile journey can take another 45 minutes with the many stops, she said.

“I wish they were running more often, because they don’t run very often and they’re too crowded,” she said.

Sometimes her bus, packed to the gills, will pass by. She then has to take two buses — first to Palo Alto, then to Redwood City. Though Caltrain serves the same corridor as the second bus and can her get there faster, a one-way ticket is a prohibitive $4 as opposedto the $1.50 price to ride the bus.

While Caltrain — particularly its commute-hour express train, the Baby Bullet — enjoys incredible popularity with high-wage earners who can use laptops during the commute, Maza-Curry’s struggle illustrates the problems for the working poor who rely on local buses.

“The bus service in San Mateo County is absolutely horrendous,” said state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo. “If you don’t live along El Camino Real, good luck. If you don’t live in the core population centers, good luck. You’re just not going to find a bus going to your destination in any reasonable amount of time.”

Part of the problem, Yee says, is simple geography: San Mateo County remains mostly a spread-out region. And while the county is complying with a state-mandated push to build multiunit developments near transit centers, 57 percent of its residences are still single-family homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey.

“One has to remember how San Mateo got started — as a bedroom community to San Francisco,” Yee said. “Transit was planned for people working in The City. It was only recently — with the high-tech industry and now with the biotech industry — that we found there were many individuals living as well as working in San Mateo County.”

Many of San Mateo County’s working families view a car as critical to a job, but the solution to their commute can easily topple them into poverty. According to the 2005 California Budget Project, a Bay Area family of four with two working parents pays an average of $602 per month on transportation.

San Mateo resident Julene Semien, 39, drives to her nursing assistant job at Daly City’s Seton Medical Center at least four times a week. Sacrificing the car would require walking 10 blocks to the nearest bus stop, riding to the BART station in Daly City, and then taking a cab the last leg of the journey —an expensive proposition.

But owning a vehicle is also expensive for the single mother of a 17-year-old son, who is also caring for her 7-year-old cousin. When her Jeep broke down, Semien had to get emergency assistance from St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo County so she could try to repair her vehicle and still pay her rent — which costs roughly half her income.

“Sometimes you’re running short between paychecks and you need gas,” she said. “You just have to put off your other bills. You rob Peter to pay Paul.”

When bills get tight, insurance often first to go

The price of driving in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. takes its toll in the number of motorists who simply go without automobile insurance.

According to the California Department of Insurance, nearly 15 percent of motorists in San Mateo County are uninsured — second only to San Francisco among the nine Bay Area counties.

In total, the county is home to 487,511 uninsured drivers and 569,075 uninsured vehicles.

But the high cost of driving doesn’t deter Peninsula residents from operating their cars. According to the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 6 percent of San Mateo County’s households lack an available vehicle. More than 40 percent of households have two vehicles.

According to a national 2006 study by the American Automobile Association, a person driving a medium sedan 15,000 miles a year can expect to pay an average $9,641 in car-related costs each year, excluding loan payments. The figure, which averages in gas, maintenance, tires, insurance, license and registration, loan finance charges and depreciation costs, is likely higher in the Bay Area, AAA spokesman Sean Comey said.

Transportation is the third-largest budget item for low-income families — just behind housing and food costs — in California’s metropolitan areas, according to a 2004 study done by the Public Policy Institute of California. A low-income family with a car spends about $3,586 annually, or nearly $300 a month, the report estimated.

A low-income family may actually pay more for their automobile than car owners with higher incomes, according to the Brookings Institution. A 2004 Federal Reserve survey indicated that lower-income households pay an average APR, or annual percentage rate, of 9.2 percent, compared with 7.4 percent paid by all other households, according to a 2006 Brookings study.

Lower-income families also tend to live in the most expensive neighborhoods in which to insure cars, researchers found.

Working to survive

Thousands of Bay Area residents live in poverty despite working full time. The Examiner looks at the choices they make to pay for necessities.

Monday: Introduction

Tuesday: Health care

Wednesday: Housing

Today: Transportation

Friday: Child care

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