Commute alternative hard to come by | Tracy Press News

There is a question being asked in many quarters in Tracy and Mountain House: How can we get people off the highways and reduce the commute for residents?

While most elected leaders are talking about attracting large companies to the area or creating a better rail link to BART, there has been no immediate answer, and commuters like Maral Behnam-Garcia are still looking for alternatives.

“I work five days a week. Three of those days are in San Francisco. Two of those days are here in Tracy but it’s not set in stone. It depends upon my calendar,” Behnam-Garcia said Nov. 19. “I found that traffic is heavier the earlier you leave Tracy. So I started leaving around 7 a.m., which gets me into San Francisco about 9 a.m. If I’m lucky. If I’m not lucky, I sometimes have made it in between 9:30-10 a.m.”

Her story is backed up by data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor and compiled by insurance provider Haven Life, which recently ranked Tracy as the third hardest-working city in America. According to that data, Tracy residents work and commute an average of 46.5 hours a week for a median salary of $89,936. Nearly half of local workers, 46.4 percent, leave for work before 7 a.m. In fact, according to the data, Tracy has the longest average commute time of any city in the nation — eight hours every workweek.

This is not something the city is unaware of. Last January, the city and City Council got the results of a nine-month study of commuter issues from Kim Moore with Newmark Knight Frank, a Pleasanton-based real estate consulting firm. She made it clear that the city should work to rectify the shortage of co-work space in town.

“To provide residents those small, co-working spaces where they can begin to work maybe two, three days a week in Tracy, which then gets their companies more comfortable coming to Tracy or putting an alternative regional operation here in Tracy,” Moore said at that time.

While there are as yet no businesses like that currently open, city economic development manager Shelley Burcham said in an interview on Nov. 19 that the idea would be welcome in Tracy.

“A space that they can use for a conference room if needed, an office they can use,” Burcham said. “Maybe have some sort of a reception that’s used by everybody. The copier, the fax machine, all of those things.”

Behnam-Garcia works in the legal department of a tech a company called Wish, based in San Francisco.

“Do I need physically to be there for my job function? No,” she said.


Home office

Maral Behnam-Garcia sits in her home office before heading out to work at Wish, an e-commerce company based in San Francisco. Behnam-Garcia works from home a couple of days a week but would like a more professional alternative to the commute, such as a local coworking office.

She has the high-speed internet connection she needs to do her job at home. What she doesn’t have is privacy and collaboration.

“Working out of a conference room or a desk environment with multiple resources, such as larger screens and just a quieter workspace than your home, is a lot easier,” the mother of two said. “Also the technology. If there are conference rooms that have, let’s say, video functionality, you can dial in via VoIP” — Voice over Internet Protocol — “and have a really professional business meeting instead of, let’s say, children running around and a not-so-professional backdrop behind you. It makes your productivity a lot more. I can’t tell you how many of those meetings I’ve had — very, very important in my career — and a 2-year-old comes running in and screaming.”

Burcham believes the opportunity for a successful co-work business is here despite no one taking advantage of it yet.

“I think it would do very well here. The challenge that we have right now is that we don’t have a lot of office space available,” Burcham said.

That wasn’t necessarily the experience of Mike Pihlman, who owned and operated Altamont Cowork from May 2009 to December 2014 at 95 W. 11th St. He got out of the business because he saw “a tiny profit” only two months of that time.


Coworking space

Altamont Cowork, operated by Mike Pihlman, was open from May 2009 to December 2014 at 95 W. 11th St. Pihlman said he closed the company because for all but two months of that time, he did not make a profit.

“I always thought that the open collaborative office environment would allow small business owners and telecommuters to work close to home, yet still have a casual office environment to work in a casual, distraction free, office space, where they could work effectively,” he wrote in an email to the Tracy Press.

He said that during his 67 months of operation, only two telecommuters took advantage of the opportunity. He believes there will have to be a lot more commuter demand for coworking space before such a business will be successful.

One company, ZipSpace Storage at 7777 E. 11th St., offers office amenities — including a conference room, mailboxes and lounge space — but only for those who rent a storage unit.

“It’s attuned to more of a small-business individual,” said Juan-Carlo Calvillo, property manager at ZipSpace. “Somebody who’s starting a small business, needs to get out of the house. They need a place for their inventory. They need a place where they can meet their clients, maybe even a place where they can get their mail — that way it’s not mixed in with their private mail going home.”


Coworking space

Juan-Carlo Calvillo, property manager at ZipSpace Storage, 7777 E. 11th St., shows a lounge area that people who rent a storage unit can use to operate their small businesses.

Burcham admits the city hasn’t had a lot of calls from office space entrepreneurs, possibly because of one fairly significant hurdle.

“From what I’ve been told, it’s costly to develop an office here. We’re not at the price level here where we are with industrial,” she said. “The developers and the brokers are telling me that in building a new building for ofice space, the lease rate they would have to get is comparable still to the Bay Area. So until they can get a price difference or people get tired of commuting — I don’t know when that’s going to happen.”

Behnam-Garcia just hopes to see some kind of alternative to the commute soon and has some advice for anyone looking to open a coworking space.

“The most important thing is don’t look at it like all you need is tables and chairs,” she said, suggesting a kitchen space or café area. “Just, like, a mail room, where there’s supplies you can use. A whiteboard — a lot of time you want a whiteboard to be able to write and kind of brainstorm. Even if you are by yourself on a video call. I think that’s important. Lots of screens, like a plug-and-play center where you can just show up with your laptop and plug it in, whether it’s a PC environment or a Mac environment.”

Behnam-Garcia encouraged the city and potential coworking space entrepreneurs to think bigger and approach companies that already employ a lot of Tracy or Mountain House residents.

“I think if there are more individuals that are on the same team or part of a company, they might utilize this a lot more because then they are working together in a shared workspace,” she said.

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