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As traffic returns to Bay Area highways, congestion is still less than before the pandemic

Silicon Valley is still experiencing shorter drive times, but how long will it last?

Before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, U.S. Highway 101 used to clog up during rush hour. Embarcadero Media file photo.

Will traffic rebound to "carmageddon" levels now that employers are asking workers to come to the post-pandemic workplace?

The prognostications so far appear to be mixed, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the government agency responsible for transportation planning, financing and coordinating for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. Traffic into Silicon Valley has not bounced all the way back, traffic data is showing, spokesperson John Goodwin said. The MTC data tracks traffic volumes coming through the toll side of Bay Area bridges.

While most other Bay Area bridges show traffic volumes at 90% or greater of pre-pandemic levels, the numbers of vehicles crossing the Dumbarton and San Mateo-Hayward bridges continue to lag.

On the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, westbound weekday crossings routinely hit 60,000 vehicles prior to the pandemic, but they have reached 50,000 vehicles only a handful of times since. The last time was Dec. 17, 2021.

"Not once in 2022 has the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge recorded 50,000 westbound crossings," Goodwin said.

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It's a similar story at the Dumbarton Bridge, which routinely had 40,000 westbound vehicles a day in 2019. It hasn't hit that mark once since February 2020, he said.

The median number of cars passing over the Dumbarton Bridge daily during the five-day work week starting March 14, 2020 — the week that six Bay Area counties implemented "stay at home" orders — showed 15,094 vehicles.

The number gradually increased to a median of more than 30,000 vehicles a day in Dec. 18, 2021, but it has dropped again into the 25,000 to 27,000 range. The median per day for the first week of March 2022 is still more than 31% lower than the number of cars that crossed routinely prior to the pandemic, according to the MTC data.

The median traffic volume on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge during a five-day work week dropped as low as 24,764 vehicles a day early in the pandemic, a nearly 59% decrease from the routine 60,000 vehicles per day.

Traffic began to steadily rebound to a median of 46,000 vehicles per weekday by mid-March 2021. Yet, the median for the first week of March 2022 is still more than 23% lower than prior to the pandemic, according to the MTC data.

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An analysis of traffic data by TomTom, a location technology company, also shows a sustained decrease in Bay Area traffic congestion. The TomTom Traffic Index found that San Francisco went from the No. 3 spot in 2019 of most congested cities in the U.S. list to No. 5 in 2021, Jeroen Brouwer, program manager at TomTom, said.

Dumbarton Bridge was used by 40,000 westbound vehicles a day in 2019. In the first week of March 2022, traffic volume was still more than 31% lower.

-Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a government transportation agency

San Jose's traffic-congestion ranking plummeted from No. 4 in 2019 to No. 30 in 2021.

The company calculates the baseline traffic levels per city by analyzing free-flow travel times and then compares those levels to those when the roads are congested. The percentages represent the amount of extra time it takes a driver to get to their destination. San Francisco experienced a 36% congestion level in 2019, meaning a 30-minute trip took 36% more time than it would in baseline uncongested conditions. In 2020, a 30-minute trip took 21% longer and in 2021 it took 26% more time, still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, Brouwer said.

In San Jose, traffic congestion was 33% in 2019 compared with 19% in 2021.

The traffic reduction was due to a variety of factors, but an obvious one stands out, Brouwer said: "The biggest impact is the nature of work within a particular city. A city like San Francisco has a lot of jobs that can be easily done remotely so you don't see the same traffic patterns and congestion as before the pandemic when most people still went into an office."

The big question now is whether the shift to less traffic is going to be the new normal, Brouwer said.

"We're seeing each city across the globe shift a bit differently. If a lot of companies in the Bay Area determine that working from home is here to stay, it could very well have a long-term impact on traffic patterns and congestion," he said.

Goodwin said while some employers and employees might be finding their jobs are better suited to working remotely, that's still a broad generality.

Some large employers have already brought back workers in large numbers, including Stanford University, which employs roughly 20,444 people.

"While Stanford does have some remote workers, most of our employee population is on-site regularly — with most classes being taught in person, many staff fully on-site in support of our students and community, and those whose work supports a hybrid model coming in at least two days per week," said Kim Ratcliff, Stanford Transportation's communications manager.

Stanford kept many of its incentives throughout the pandemic, such as free transit passes, at a revenue deficit to the transportation program. As more people return, the Marguerite Shuttle has returned to approximately 80% of its pre-pandemic service, she said.

'It is still not near the peak of a few years ago, but there are daily backups on University heading to 101 from mid-afternoon on.'

-John Guislin, resident, Crescent Park neighborhood

Increased commuter traffic is starting to impact Palo Alto residents. The Crescent Park neighborhood is one of the most affected by heavy cut-through traffic to University Avenue and the Dumbarton Bridge. Resident John Guislin has seen a steady increase in traffic that is most noticeable at commute times.

"It is still not near the peak of a few years ago, but there are daily backups on University heading to 101 from mid-afternoon on," he said.

South of Midtown neighborhood resident Alexandra Pora has been going to work throughout the entire pandemic and has observed the effects it has had during these past two years.

"At the start of the lockdown there was barely any traffic at all. The streets were pretty much deserted," she said.

However, she added, that spaciousness on the roads led to some dangerous driving habits.

"I noticed that drivers were taking advantage of the lack of traffic and police presence to drive at excessive speeds," she said. "I personally think that there has always been a significant increase in reckless driving even before the pandemic, but the circumstances recently have magnified the issue."

The number of cars on the road has been gradually increasing since the beginning of the year, she said, and she worries that traffic and bad behavior will get significantly worse as more companies ask employees to come back to working on-site in early April.

But there might be one thing acting against the steady rise in traffic, at least in the short term: higher gas prices due to sanctions against Russia.

"It has definitely been a factor in how much I drive, in that I limit the number of trips I make to run errands and we choose to stay closer to home for family activities on weekends," she said.

This story has been updated to include faculty and postgraduates in the number of Stanford University employees.

Palo Alto Online is marking two years of the COVID-19 pandemic this week. If you missed any parts of our series, see the More Stories box, above.

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Sue Dremann
 
Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

As traffic returns to Bay Area highways, congestion is still less than before the pandemic

Silicon Valley is still experiencing shorter drive times, but how long will it last?

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Mar 14, 2022, 10:07 pm
Updated: Wed, Mar 16, 2022, 2:20 pm

Will traffic rebound to "carmageddon" levels now that employers are asking workers to come to the post-pandemic workplace?

The prognostications so far appear to be mixed, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the government agency responsible for transportation planning, financing and coordinating for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. Traffic into Silicon Valley has not bounced all the way back, traffic data is showing, spokesperson John Goodwin said. The MTC data tracks traffic volumes coming through the toll side of Bay Area bridges.

While most other Bay Area bridges show traffic volumes at 90% or greater of pre-pandemic levels, the numbers of vehicles crossing the Dumbarton and San Mateo-Hayward bridges continue to lag.

On the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, westbound weekday crossings routinely hit 60,000 vehicles prior to the pandemic, but they have reached 50,000 vehicles only a handful of times since. The last time was Dec. 17, 2021.

"Not once in 2022 has the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge recorded 50,000 westbound crossings," Goodwin said.

It's a similar story at the Dumbarton Bridge, which routinely had 40,000 westbound vehicles a day in 2019. It hasn't hit that mark once since February 2020, he said.

The median number of cars passing over the Dumbarton Bridge daily during the five-day work week starting March 14, 2020 — the week that six Bay Area counties implemented "stay at home" orders — showed 15,094 vehicles.

The number gradually increased to a median of more than 30,000 vehicles a day in Dec. 18, 2021, but it has dropped again into the 25,000 to 27,000 range. The median per day for the first week of March 2022 is still more than 31% lower than the number of cars that crossed routinely prior to the pandemic, according to the MTC data.

The median traffic volume on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge during a five-day work week dropped as low as 24,764 vehicles a day early in the pandemic, a nearly 59% decrease from the routine 60,000 vehicles per day.

Traffic began to steadily rebound to a median of 46,000 vehicles per weekday by mid-March 2021. Yet, the median for the first week of March 2022 is still more than 23% lower than prior to the pandemic, according to the MTC data.

An analysis of traffic data by TomTom, a location technology company, also shows a sustained decrease in Bay Area traffic congestion. The TomTom Traffic Index found that San Francisco went from the No. 3 spot in 2019 of most congested cities in the U.S. list to No. 5 in 2021, Jeroen Brouwer, program manager at TomTom, said.

San Jose's traffic-congestion ranking plummeted from No. 4 in 2019 to No. 30 in 2021.

The company calculates the baseline traffic levels per city by analyzing free-flow travel times and then compares those levels to those when the roads are congested. The percentages represent the amount of extra time it takes a driver to get to their destination. San Francisco experienced a 36% congestion level in 2019, meaning a 30-minute trip took 36% more time than it would in baseline uncongested conditions. In 2020, a 30-minute trip took 21% longer and in 2021 it took 26% more time, still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, Brouwer said.

In San Jose, traffic congestion was 33% in 2019 compared with 19% in 2021.

The traffic reduction was due to a variety of factors, but an obvious one stands out, Brouwer said: "The biggest impact is the nature of work within a particular city. A city like San Francisco has a lot of jobs that can be easily done remotely so you don't see the same traffic patterns and congestion as before the pandemic when most people still went into an office."

The big question now is whether the shift to less traffic is going to be the new normal, Brouwer said.

"We're seeing each city across the globe shift a bit differently. If a lot of companies in the Bay Area determine that working from home is here to stay, it could very well have a long-term impact on traffic patterns and congestion," he said.

Goodwin said while some employers and employees might be finding their jobs are better suited to working remotely, that's still a broad generality.

Some large employers have already brought back workers in large numbers, including Stanford University, which employs roughly 20,444 people.

"While Stanford does have some remote workers, most of our employee population is on-site regularly — with most classes being taught in person, many staff fully on-site in support of our students and community, and those whose work supports a hybrid model coming in at least two days per week," said Kim Ratcliff, Stanford Transportation's communications manager.

Stanford kept many of its incentives throughout the pandemic, such as free transit passes, at a revenue deficit to the transportation program. As more people return, the Marguerite Shuttle has returned to approximately 80% of its pre-pandemic service, she said.

Increased commuter traffic is starting to impact Palo Alto residents. The Crescent Park neighborhood is one of the most affected by heavy cut-through traffic to University Avenue and the Dumbarton Bridge. Resident John Guislin has seen a steady increase in traffic that is most noticeable at commute times.

"It is still not near the peak of a few years ago, but there are daily backups on University heading to 101 from mid-afternoon on," he said.

South of Midtown neighborhood resident Alexandra Pora has been going to work throughout the entire pandemic and has observed the effects it has had during these past two years.

"At the start of the lockdown there was barely any traffic at all. The streets were pretty much deserted," she said.

However, she added, that spaciousness on the roads led to some dangerous driving habits.

"I noticed that drivers were taking advantage of the lack of traffic and police presence to drive at excessive speeds," she said. "I personally think that there has always been a significant increase in reckless driving even before the pandemic, but the circumstances recently have magnified the issue."

The number of cars on the road has been gradually increasing since the beginning of the year, she said, and she worries that traffic and bad behavior will get significantly worse as more companies ask employees to come back to working on-site in early April.

But there might be one thing acting against the steady rise in traffic, at least in the short term: higher gas prices due to sanctions against Russia.

"It has definitely been a factor in how much I drive, in that I limit the number of trips I make to run errands and we choose to stay closer to home for family activities on weekends," she said.

This story has been updated to include faculty and postgraduates in the number of Stanford University employees.

Palo Alto Online is marking two years of the COVID-19 pandemic this week. If you missed any parts of our series, see the More Stories box, above.

Comments

Mary Ruth Leen
Registered user
Midtown
on Mar 15, 2022 at 10:23 am
Mary Ruth Leen, Midtown
Registered user
on Mar 15, 2022 at 10:23 am

The traffic now caused by the FasTrak carpool lane in Palo Alto is ridiculous. This toll lane is completely unnecessary and does not reach far enough to encourage drivers to carpool! Another waste of taxpayers' money!!


RW
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2022 at 10:32 am
RW, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Mar 15, 2022 at 10:32 am

The pandemic showed that many workers were equally as productive working from home and they like it. This is an opportunity to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Transportation is one of the largest contributors. Companies need to move forward with a new more sustainable work model not fall back on outdated, resource intensive work models that clog highways with single occupant vehicles. Those office buildings suck energy at night and on weekends and are underutilized. Silicon Valley should be leading the way to a better, more climate friendly model for work.


cmarg
Registered user
Palo Alto High School
on Mar 15, 2022 at 10:36 am
cmarg, Palo Alto High School
Registered user
on Mar 15, 2022 at 10:36 am

With the high gas prices, I hope people commute with others, take public transit, bike or walk so much more. It could be a blessing for our environment and climate change!


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 15, 2022 at 1:15 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 15, 2022 at 1:15 pm

Send someone out to drive Middlefield Road from the Menlo Park border to Mountain View. It's absolutely absurd. AGAIN.

Cars are again backing up INTO the intersections at Oregon and Embcarcadero. The traffic light sensors STILL haven;'t been fixed,

My question is really simple; What is the city of Palo Alto doing to tell the State the mess on 101 is dangerous and counterproductive??

Official responses welcome.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2022 at 1:23 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Mar 15, 2022 at 1:23 pm

I echo the complaint about the Fastrak lane on 101 causing more problems than it is worth to those of us who live here and have to use San Antonio, Oregon and Embarcadero, and University ramps. 101 is now dangerous with more lane changing and heavy traffic as well as very often being well below the limit at times when the express lanes are empty. The cost of those lanes is a dissentive as well as 3 people needed for free travel instead of 2 people for the old carpool system.

I also see extra traffic on Middlefield and Bayshore which I suspect is due to the fact that local traffic looks for ways to avoid 101 to get to Costco or EPA.

I am not sure about the current status for remote working for Facebook and Google, but when they are all back full time, the rest of us will suffer more once again.


Nayeli
Registered user
Midtown
on Mar 16, 2022 at 4:40 pm
Nayeli, Midtown
Registered user
on Mar 16, 2022 at 4:40 pm

How do we hold "the powers that be" accountable for the FastTrak traffic debacle that we didn't ask for? We didn't vote for this.

It's time for voters to collectively say NO! to the politicians who mess things up by dishonestly using "let's save the environment" as a nouvé method of money-grabbing. When COVID is (finally) in the rear view mirror, we'll be sitting in the worst traffic that the peninsula has ever seen.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 16, 2022 at 6:01 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Mar 16, 2022 at 6:01 pm

Nayelli,

I totally agree. Maybe we can start with getting Palo Alto officials start an official protest> Otherwise maybe using Survey Monkey to show the opposition?

We can all contact Becker and Berman but doubt they'll bother to respond.

Other thoughts?

Maybe Palo Alto Online wants to cover this more?


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2022 at 7:54 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Mar 18, 2022 at 7:54 am

Stating that traffic is not back to prepandemic levels when we see that highway 101 is now more congested by the new express lanes in effect removing 2 travel lanes for most of the day makes little sense. Driving between Sunnyvale to Redwood City can be double at non-commute times than it was before the lanes were operating. Driving at less than 50 mph when there are two empty lanes does not help mental health.


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