San Francisco Chronicle
Congestion returning, but with a few detours
Weekend traffic strong, but weekday commute totals lag
“I worry congestion is not going to get better, and we’re not providing good enough solutions.”
Chris Lu, Oakland motorist who wants more public transit service to be restored
Chris Lu was stuck in stopandgo Bay Bridge traffic entering San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon in early spring when he made the dreaded realization: The Bay Area’s notoriously horrendous traffic congestion had returned.
Before the pandemic, Lu sought to avoid traffic congestion at all costs by taking public transit to get around. When service throughout the region became infrequent and unreliable, he turned to his car and bike. Now, he’s counting the days to when more transit service is restored so he can once again avoid the frustrations that come with being stuck in traffic behind the wheel.
“I really just hate sitting in congestion,” Lu said.
That Saturday afternoon previewed a new trend taking shape on the region’s road ways. Traffic congestion is making a comeback in the Bay Area, but in an unfamiliar way, according to a Chronicle analysis of congestion data from location technology company TomTom.
Weekdays, which historically brought the region’s worst traffic congestion in morning and afternoon commute hours, still lags behind prepandemic normal. But congestion on the weekends is
much closer to reaching its 2019 levels, and in several instances exceeding it.
For example, 12 of the 15 days this year that experienced higher congestion levels than the same day in 2019 were on Saturdays and Sundays. July has seen the most days this year so far — four out of the six days fell on Saturdays or Sundays — with higherthannormal traffic congestion. Levels exceeded those seen in 2019 during the month’s first two weekends, according to the analysis, which looked at data through July 24.
Whereas the average traffic congestion on weekdays in 2021 ranges anywhere from 64% to 81% of prepandemic levels, congestion on Saturdays (90%) and Sundays (93%) is much closer to reaching 2019 averages. In San Jose, daily average traffic congestion remains about 55% less than 2019 levels but has seen a 23% increase in average congestion on weekends.
The exact reasons for the rise in weekend congestion are unclear, but after nearly a year and a half of movement restrictions, the Bay Area’s longawaited reopening arrived this summer with more people flocking to regional and national parks, dining in at restaurants and leaving their homes to recreate.
Still, the data raises the question: Is rising weekend congestion merely a product of the moment, or the beginning of a more permanent change in the region’s driving behaviors?
It’s not just in San Francisco. Other cities across the nation are seeing similar trends, according to TomTom.
Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Honolulu and Miami have all seen depressed congestion on weekdays “but have exceeded traffic congestion levels on weekends this year compared to 2019,” Carol Hansen, a TomTom public relations manager, said in an email. “Most U.S. cities have not consistently seen traffic congestion levels reach 2019 prepandemic levels during the week but have exceeded traffic congestion levels on weekends this year.”
For this analysis, The Chronicle examined TomTom traffic congestion data that included San Francisco, Peninsula communities stretching south to Hillsborough, and parts of the East Bay that include Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond. The company measures traffic congestion based on how much more time it takes for someone to complete a trip compared with uncongested conditions.
Across the Bay Area, weekday traffic congestion had steadily risen over the past decade, leading up to the pandemic, according to a 2017 report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s transportation planning agency. By 2019, congestion levels had reached the point to where weekends almost rivaled the levels seen during weekdays.
In San Francisco, congestion reached record highs in 2019. City officials remain concerned enough about congestion making an inevitable return to 2019 levels that they’re moving forward with a study to potentially implement congestion pricing in the city’s downtown area later this decade.
Since spring, people have been driving across the Bay Area’s freeways and bridges in similar or greater numbers than before the pandemic. But the twohumped camel curve that defined peak congestion hours essentially got flattened as drivers spread out their travel times, no longer bound by the rigid patterns of a 9to5 work commute.
Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, said weekends had historically seen more car travel than weekdays. But the reason Saturdays and Sundays typically see less traffic congestion is mainly that commutes had been more spread out compared with Mondays through Fridays, he said.
“We’re back to vehicle travel levels that were similar to before,” Taylor said. “If everyone wants to go to the same place at the same time, even if not that many people are traveling, you have a lot of delay.”
The Bay Area is still seeing a nightandday difference when it come to traffic congestion on weekdays.
Traffic in downtown San Francisco — the economic hub that the region’s largest public transit operators, Muni and BART, built their systems around — remains a fraction of what it was. But data shows that prepandemic congestion has returned to some of the city’s major corridors.
Whether downtown employers decide to bring workers back to offices, and for how many days out of the week, could influence both the return of weekday traffic congestion and the pace of public transit’s recovery.
Gwen Litvak, senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, said cuts in public transit service throughout the region could be contributing to the rise in weekend congestion as people who would otherwise use transit to get around instead opt for driving. Most Bay Area transit operators have not yet fully restored prepandemic services, meaning they’ve been running buses and trains with fewer routes or less frequently.
“San Francisco and the Bay Area are reopening, and perhaps you’re starting to see people coming back in to recreate, to go to dinner, to go to the zoo or the museum on the weekends” traveling by car, Litvak said.
Some operators are restoring service soon: Starting Monday, BART is running its trains more frequently on weekdays and Saturdays.
Those restorations can’t come soon enough for Lu, an Oakland software engineer who said some of his friends bought cars during the pandemic.
“I worry congestion is not going to get better, and we’re not providing good enough solutions,” Lu said. “No one ever says they love driving in San Francisco, and yet, we’re somehow OK with this being the default that we have to use if public transit is reduced.”
There appear to be few signs, though, that the rising weekend congestion Lu and other drivers have experienced on the Bay Bridge recently has significantly changed when traffic congestion peaks on the region’s bridges.
John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said travel patterns and peak congestion times on the Bay Area’s bridges are “not significantly different” from 2019.
Traffic on the Bay Bridge, which Goodwin described as a bellwether for the region’s traffic patterns, has plateaued since climbing back to near prepandemic levels this spring. The times when the bridge sees peak traffic volumes on weekends does not look all that different from before the pandemic, Goodwin said.
It could take a year or longer to see whether the pandemic has changed the region’s historical traffic patterns and whether Bay Area traffic congestion will return to or exceed 2019’s record levels.
A month after the region lifted most pandemic health protocols, rising coronavirus cases because of the highly contagious delta variant have created a greater sense of uncertainty and could result in another decline in travel, Taylor said. Downtown employers eager to bring back workers have walked back their timelines. Some cities, counties and businesses are reconsidering mask requirements and weighing whether to require vaccinations for workers.
“This may be a nineinning ballgame,” Goodwin said, “and we haven’t even come to the seventhinning stretch yet.”