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.