COVID-19 commuting: Traffic getting closer to pre-shutdown levels, but peak periods are shifting

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The week after Labor Day usually means the start of Bay Area commute gridlock as summer vacations end and schools resume. But nothing about Bay Area traffic is normal now.

New data obtained by ABC7 News from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) shows traffic levels on some peak commute routes are close to what they were before the COVID-19 shutdown orders. However, the beginning of the morning commute has shifted significantly later and afternoon traffic jams, while still occurring, don't last as long as before the shutdown.

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The MTC uses data from Bay Area toll bridges as a barometer of what is happening to traffic around the entire region.

ABC7 News requested an hour-by-hour breakdown of traffic on all the bridges for Tuesday, September 8 - the day after Labor Day - to see how it compares to last year.

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ABC7 News has been working with the MTC since March 2020 to see how traffic patterns have changed as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.

In our last report from July, the data shows overall Bay Area traffic was at about 80% of normal.

The new September data showed overall traffic has been holding steady at 80 to 85% of normal since mid-June.

"Looking at the day following Labor Day, I see that, like so many other things in 2020, this year is weird!" said John Goodwin with the MTC.

The data shows Bay Bridge traffic on Tuesday, September 8 was 85% of what it was in 2019.

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Traffic all but disappeared in the Bay Area on March 17, the first day of COVID-19 shutdown orders, but after a couple of weeks, some people started getting back on the road.

"From early April, really through most of June, there was quite a surge," explained Goodwin. "We went from 50% of normal, if you will, into this 80% of normal range."

As traffic has picked up, the start time for the morning commute moved earlier as well. The start time of the Bay Bridge metering lights is generally an indication of when the peak of the morning commute is hitting. In mid-July, the metering lights came on around 6:30 a.m. On the day after Labor Day, they came on at 5:32 a.m.

The MTC data also shows commute timing is changing.

On September 8, Bay Bridge traffic from 5-7 a.m. was almost completely back to normal. From 7-8 a.m. - it was actually 11% above normal. But in the early morning - from 3-5 a.m. - it is down dramatically.

"That might be at least in part because congestion pricing has been suspended temporarily," explained Goodwin. "There used to be a toll discount if you pass through the plaza before 5 a.m. Now it's $6 dollars all the time."

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In the afternoon - the long backups getting out of the city and onto the Bay Bridge are definitely back, but they don't last as long as before the pandemic, which is consistent with the July data.

"The (afternoon) backup no longer begins in the one o'clock hour, it begins in the three o'clock hour," Goodwin told ABC7 News back in July. "And it no longer extends into the eight o'clock or nine o'clock hour, it's pretty much done by 6:30 or seven o'clock."

Moving down to the South Bay, bridge traffic seems to show a lot of people are still working from home.

"They have continued at traffic volumes way below those on the other bridges," said Goodwin.

The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge is at 64% of last year - and the Dumbarton Bridge is all the way down at just 56%. On the day we tracked traffic in mid-July, those bridges were at 61% and 54% of normal respectively.

Goodwin believes that this could be due to many tech companies in the region embracing working from home even before the shutdown began, then announcing they would continue remote work for many months.

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But less traffic is not a good thing for everyone.

Lower traffic on all bridges means lower toll revenue, creating major concern about transportation funding in years ahead.

"We reckon the next five (years) are going to be really tough, and that's not just toll bridge revenues, but this is based on the sales tax revenues that are used to finance transit or county transportation projects in the nine Bay Area counties," said Goodwin.

The traffic level on the Golden Gate Bridge on September 8 was about 60% compared to last year.

Because of that, the Golden Gate Bridge district faces a big challenge because tolls are down and the district uses toll money to subsidize bus and ferry service, which is operating even though ridership is way down since the start of the pandemic.

"We're in dire straits and our federal assistance is running out shortly," explains Golden Gate Bridge district public affairs manager Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz. "If Congress doesn't act or we don't see traffic and transit ridership rebound, we'll need to continue making cuts."

The district just announced a new round of bus service reductions. But for now, they are designed so officials can quickly add service back, when and if both demand and funding return.

Here's a list of the MTC's bridge data from September 8, 2020 compared to July 14, 2020. It is just a snapshot of a couple of days, but gives an idea of the trends
  • Antioch Bridge: 82% of normal (September) - 85% of normal (July)

  • Bay Bridge: 85% of normal (September) - 81% of normal (July)

  • Benicia-Martinez Bridge: 83% of normal (September) - 77% of normal (July)

  • Carquinez Bridge: 88% of normal (September) - 86% of normal (July)

  • Dumbarton Bridge: 56% of normal (September) - 54% of normal (July)

  • Golden Gate Bridge: 60% of normal (September) - 59% of normal (July)

  • Richmond-San Rafael Bridge: 78% of normal (September) - 77% of normal (July)

  • San Mateo-Hayward Bridge 64% of normal (September) - 61% of normal (July)


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