It’s 2 in the morning, and the lines of cars waiting to cross the border have already grown so long that they are snarling the streets of this city’s downtown nearly half a mile away.
The cars keep coming, clogging ramps and overpasses, snaking around tamale vendors, traffic-circle monuments and the plaza outside City Hall.
But most of the lines at the border crossing aren’t moving. Car engines are turned off. Motorists are literally asleep at the wheel. Some rest their heads on their steering wheels, others against the glass of the car windows. A chorus of snorts and whistles drifts out the open windows of a Volkswagen Jetta in which four men snooze. In a Toyota Corolla, a man has tied a towel around his eyes to block out light.
The slumberers don’t have to be in San Diego until the workday begins hours from now. But night after night, they queue up in the area leading to the border inspection lanes—with pillows and blankets as well as packed lunches—because of a twisted sort of logic.
If they show up at 4 a.m., when 20 of the lanes leading to the San Ysidro Port of Entry open for the day, they could find themselves in stop-and-go traffic for up to two hours. Four other lanes are always open, but if the crossers try to get through those lanes at this hour, they’ll have to stay awake in line for at least half an hour—and then find somewhere to sleep in San Diego before work starts.
This way, they can count on crossing the border reasonably quickly after sleeping fairly safely—if far from comfortably.
This snoozer of a commute is one of the unwelcome byproducts of a booming metropolitan area sliced by an international border. Most high-paying jobs in the border region are in the San Diego area, but an ever-increasing number of workers comes from Tijuana. Most of the overnight commuters—the sleepers number in the hundreds and possibly thousands—are either U.S. citizens or Mexican nationals who are legal U.S. residents. Many have moved to Tijuana after being forced out of San Diego’s pricy housing market.
Federal authorities and regional planners have long wrestled with how to balance national security concerns with the needs of a regional economy in which all sorts of people (construction crews, delivery truck drivers, stock clerks, painters, students, shoppers) cross back and forth each day.
About 47,000 cars pass through the port on an average day. And more rigorous inspections of cars for evidence of drug or human smuggling have slowed their speed.
Congestion at the three border crossings into San Diego County cost the U.S. and Mexican economies an estimated $6 billion in 2005 in such areas as lost wages and spending, according to a report by the San Diego Assn. of Governments.
During morning rush hour, from about 7 to 10 a.m., the wait to cross can reach three hours. But in recent years, the commuter crush has grown steadily worse at all times of day, creating a 24-hour traffic nightmare.
The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the world’s busiest border crossing. “You do the math,” said Guadalupe Angeles, 48, a landscaper who showed up so early one recent morning—1:15—that he parked his car at the double yellow lines marking the border. He said the extra lanes open at 4 a.m., and “If I leave home at that time, it’ll take two hours to cross. I’m here so that when they open, I’ll be the first to get across.”
Using Angeles’ formula, the Tijuana to San Diego early morning drive is perhaps the world’s longest short commute. For many people, it is the central fact in their day-to-day lives, around which everything else has to be juggled.
Take the case of Alberto Estrada, 46, a construction worker. He goes to sleep at home at 10 p.m. and wakes at 1:30 a.m. His wife makes him a burrito lunch and he’s out the door. By 2 a.m. he’s parked in the ocean of cars, sleeping away the next two hours with his stockinged feet up on the dashboard.
After he crosses the border, Estrada catches another hour of sleep at a parking lot, then goes to work in National City, a San Diego suburb. Total distance: 20 miles. Total commute time: five hours.
Although the evening southbound commute back to Tijuana is faster because there are no inspections, that does little to make up for the early morning routine.
Some people in the standstill of cars can’t sleep at all. There’s the glare of the stadium lights that illuminate the port area. The flashing Jumbotron advertising oceanfront homes in Baja California. The shouts of the coffee and empanada vendors who never stop trying to make sales. One has a bullhorn, but he wisely saves it for when people start waking up at 4 a.m.
College student Michael Gonzalez, 23, does homework while his sister Sarah, 10, sleeps in the back seat. Both are U.S. citizens who moved to Tijuana five years ago to be closer to an ailing relative. When they first began this routine, drowsiness would overcome Sarah at school, Gonzalez said. But she adjusted and now slumbers soundly in the car until they arrive at a friend’s house, where she sleeps an additional hour before her fifth-grade class.
Garcia, the painter, said he moved to Tijuana two years ago from the San Diego suburb of Imperial Beach. With the savings, he can make the $500 car payment for a new SUV.
He and other longtime commuters can’t help but think that if the port kept all the inspection lanes open around the clock, wait times would drop. Port authorities, however, say budget constraints prevent expanded staffing.
The veterans seem resigned to their sleepy fate. It’s mostly the ones new to the strange routine who react with amazement or anger.