People have been saying it for a couple months now: Traffic around the Bay Area is pretty much back to pre-pandemic levels. But what transportation planners warned of last year appears to be coming to pass — it's going to be worse than before until BART use ramps back up.
The numbers are coming in, and after hearing that bridge traffic around the Bay was back to 85% of pre-pandemic levels in the second week of March, we no have some bridge-specific data that shows the Bay Bridge is back to 92% of its pre-pandemic levels. As the Chronicle reports, via data from the Bay Area Toll Authority and the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District, during the week of March 21, traffic on five local bridges was over 90% of normal levels. But things are rebounding more slowly in the South Bay where a) there's less BART service normally so there is less of an impact from reduced train service, and b) most tech companies continue to allow employees to work remotely, putting less of a strain on the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges.
Things are different for East Bay commuters, though, some of whom likely aren't back to using BART. According to this latest data, the Richmond Bridge is seeing 93% of its regular traffic, the Benecia-Martinez Bridge is at 94%, the Carquinez Bridge is at 98%, and the Antioch Bridge had 107% of normal traffic that week of March 21.
With the Bay Bridge at 92% and BART saying that expanded train service — not quite at pre-pandemic levels but closer to it — won't be back until September, that means commuters are looking at a long spring and summer of shitty bumper-to-bumper situations during morning and evening rush hours.
"Without question congestion is coming back — and you see it in all the old familiar places but it doesn’t last as long as it’s not as intense [as it was pre-pandemic]," said John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, speaking to the Chronicle. He adds that the evening, eastbound traffic on the Bay Bridge doesn't last nearly as long as it used to, but it does start in the afternoon.
"By 6 o’clock or so, it’s pretty much dissipated whereas in the before times, it would have lasted until 7 o’clock or later,” Goodwin tells the Chronicle. “Add in a Giants game and it would be even later."
Things seems to be holding fairly steady for the Bay Bridge — even back in October, as many restrictions had been lifted around San Francisco especially, at least for a few weeks — traffic was hitting 90% of normal on most days. But it's all the other traffic spots around the Bay that are showing showing a rebound, and/or getting worse due to changed habits.
"It’s a lot more busy — a lot more,” says 26-year-old contractor and Richmond resident Cuauhtemoc Dominguez, speaking to the Chronicle. "And it’s in a lot of places, not just the Bay Bridge."
Hopefully as more people get vaccinated, and as more people start heading back to offices part time or full time in the coming months, they won't be so nervous about getting back on BART. And the prospect of sitting in terrible traffic may just be the thing that gets them back in the habit.
Pre-pandemic, you may recall, BART use was already on the decline due to safety and cleanliness issues, as well as a spate of overcrowded trains on some lines that drove people back to their cars. In January 2020, a dozen BART Police started doing regular evening patrols on trains for the first time. And also that month, the BART board approved a program to put unarmed "Ambassadors" on trains to handle quality-of-life issues, including outreach to the homeless.
Unfortunately, that six-month pilot program was interrupted by the pandemic. After launching in mid-February, regular BART riders only got to see the Ambassadors in action for about month before the trains basically emptied out.
Now, the first issue will be to get people back in the habit of riding trains without regular frequency and service levels. And then next it will be keeping them in the habit as all of the old problems return, including crime and "biohazards" on the trains.