Hector Mejia, a 48-year-old immigrant from Honduras, starts many of his workdays with an hour-long bike ride from his mobile home in Bethel Island to the Antioch BART. Three days a week, he arrives at the station at 8 am. From there it’s an hour and a half on the SFO Airport train to downtown San Francisco, where he does gig work like dishwashing, cooking, and construction that pays anywhere from $16 to $25 an hour. Altogether, his bike and BART rides add up to a commute time of almost three hours one way.

That travel time easily qualifies him as an extreme commuter – someone who has to spend more than 60 minutes getting to or from work, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Contra Costa County, where Mejia lives, is home to the highest percentage of extreme commuters in the Bay Area, according to data by the Bay Area Equity Atlas, which uses data to track racial and economic inequities in the nine Bay Area counties. On average, 4.6% of workers in the Bay Area commuted 90 minutes or more one way in 2020, according to the Atlas.

Yet in Contra Costa County, 9.1%, or 44,800 workers, made extreme commutes. In 2022, nearly 60,000 Contra Costa residents made commutes ranging from 60 to 89 minutes, and slightly more than 26,000 residents made commutes of 90 minutes or more, according to John Goodwin, Assistant Communications Director with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Commuters transferring to a SFO bound train at Pittsburg/Bay Point station on Monday evening, March 25, 2024. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local/Report for America corps member

The five cities with the longest average commute time in 2018 – Antioch, Brentwood, Pittsburg, Hercules, and Oakley – are all located in Contra Costa County. Residents of these cities face transit commutes stretching to well over an hour each way, with many commuting to distant job centers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

“When your two biggest job centers are Silicon Valley and San Francisco, what do those two have in common?” Goodwin asked. “They’re really expensive places to live.”

High-wage workers are concentrated in and near San Francisco and San Jose, driving up housing costs in those cities and forcing lower-wage workers to live further away from their jobs. The savings are significant: Average rents in Contra Costa County (about $2200 a month) are $485 cheaper than San Francisco’s average (about $2,685 a month). Yet they come with the real possibility of strains on the health of extreme commuters.

The parking lot at BART’s Antioch station is full by 7:00 a.m. on Monday, March 11, 2024. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local/Report for America corps member

According to a study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2023, commuting can have negative effects on physical and mental health, especially when it relates to expensive housing prices. Researchers from Sun Yat-Sen University in China found high housing prices contribute to a work-life imbalance and longer commuting times, which can lead to negative health effects. Higher housing prices and cost of living, they found, led to lower life and job satisfaction.

El Tímpano spoke with Mejia and other Latinos on their morning BART commutes about why they power through the hours of transit and the toll of travel time on their lives and health.

Mejia, who moved to the Bay Area from Honduras in 2022, lives in a mobile home with his friend to save on rent. He pays $900 a month for his trailer and plot. If he drove to work in San Francisco in rush hour traffic, his commute would clock in at over an hour. “It’s much cheaper than paying for gas and the toll fees,” Meija says in Spanish. He used to drive from his home to the train station, but his car recently broke down.

Meija says his several jobs support his wife and child in Honduras, along with his daughter living in Concord. “I could’ve taken my money from my check from my jobs, and I could’ve bought another car. But I would stop giving my children what they need.” Mejia says.

Hector Mejia spends the first half of his commute biking an hour from Bethel Island, where he lives, to the BART station in Antioch ever since his car broke down two months ago, photographed on Monday, March 11, 2024. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local/Report for America corps member

Four days out of the week, Mejia also works as a janitor at a local restaurant in Bethel Island, making $18 an hour. This leaves little time for him to rest, even when he’s sick. He recently had the flu, he says, and his commute only seemed to exacerbate his symptoms.

“I get up at six in the morning, and it’s already very cold. And I had to ride my bike for an hour to get to the nearest bus, in the freezing cold. If I don’t protect myself well, it hurts my throat,” Mejia says.

Francisco Guzman, a 37-year-old Mexican immigrant, sat on the SFO Airport BART train, watching Contra Costa County pass by in a blur. Today, he’s going from Antioch to San Mateo to buy a car, with hopes of cutting down on his commute time, making the trek to meet with a potential car seller who will hopefully be able to work with his tight budget. Guzman has been living in the United States for three years and relying on public transportation to get around and to commute to his gig jobs working in construction.

Francisco Guzman, 37, a day-laborer, commutes to a car dealership in San Mateo from Antioch on Monday, March 4, 2024. Guzman hopes a car will help him come by more work at job sites that would otherwise mean long, time and energy consuming, walks. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local/Report for America corps member

He recalls a time when he didn’t have enough money for bus fare to his job in Antioch. “It was pouring rain and I just had a few cents less than the bus fare. I had to walk 45 minutes in the rain to make it to my job in the center of town,” says Guzman.

Arlett Mejia, no relation to Hector Mejia, is a 21-year-old senior biology student at San Francisco State University and a daughter of Mexican immigrants. She’s been making the two-hour commute to her classes from Antioch for the last four years, but only has to make the trip once a week this semester.

“I decided to continue living with my parents and save on rent and save going into debt for my Master’s degree,” Mejia says.

Public transportation costs can still add up. Round Trip BART fare from Antioch to Daly City station is about $18.

All SF State students get a 50% discount on BART fares to Daly City. But Mejia was able to get an even bigger discount in 2022, when she was among 50,000 Bay Area college students to win a Clipper BayPass, allowing her to take unlimited free trips. Because the rides are free, Mejia says she doesn’t mind spending four hours a day commuting to and from her classes.

For some , longer commutes on public transportation can feel like a safer alternative to driving, especially where auto crimes are on the rise.

Ester Herrera, 54, a house cleaner, commutes to one of her regular clients in Alameda on Monday, March 4, 2024. Most of Herrera’s regular clients live in other parts of the Bay Area like Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local/Report for America corps member

Ester Herrera, 54, lives in Walnut Creek but cleans houses for a living throughout the Bay Area. She says she doesn’t mind sitting on the train for an hour, though the commute can leave her tired most days. But she says that she feels more secure taking the train than driving, especially when she is working in the city.

“Because of the frequent car break-ins and difficulty finding parking, I prefer not to drive into San Francisco and especially not downtown,” she says in Spanish. “I would rather not take the risk or pay for expensive parking, and the train is much easier.”