Coronavirus Impact: Bay Area traffic increasing in some areas, but still light on some key commute routes

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A lot of Bay Area commuters are noticing more cars on the road lately and even occasional traffic backups. So we wondered just how close are we getting to the old days of commute gridlock? Like a lot of things in the Bay Area, we learned the answer depends on where you drive.

"This is not going to be an on-off switch where we are currently off and all of a sudden it's going to be on. This will be a gradual process" according to John Goodwin with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

The MTC uses data from Bay Area toll bridges as a barometer of what is happening to traffic around the entire region. We asked for an hour by hour breakdown of traffic on Tuesday, along with comparable data from a year ago to show the normal level of traffic.

The July 14 data shows overall Bay Area traffic at about 80 percent of normal. Goodwin says that is consistent with what the MTC has been seeing lately and so is the wide variation in traffic from bridge to bridge.

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By far the most heavily traveled bridge is the San Francisco Bay Bridge which was at 81 percent of normal. That is enough to create significant traffic backups, but not as bad as before the pandemic.

"The (afternoon) backup no longer begins in the one o'clock hour, it begins in the three o'clock hour," Goodwin said. "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."

Traffic on the Antioch Bridge was at 85 percent of normal, the Benicia-Martinez Bridge was at 77 percent, the Carquinez Bridge at 86 percent and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge at 77 percent. But heading to Silicon Valley and the southern part of the bay, it's a very different story.

"That is where traffic volumes slid first, slid farthest and have stayed down," according to Goodwin.

The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge was at just 61 percent of normal traffic and the Dumbarton Bridge was all the way down at 54 percent. So where is everybody?

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"I think particularly the large employers in Silicon Valley and along the Peninsula had created an environment for their workers to work from home as the pandemic was growing in seriousness and public awareness," Goodwin said.

Now based on the traffic data, it appears a lot of those tech employees are still working from home.

Goodwin said another factor creating low traffic may be that the San Mateo and Dumbarton Bridges are primarily commute corridors, while the rest of the bridges tend to have both commuters and a lot vehicles going to places other than work.

The Golden Gate Bridge has had its own unique traffic pattern since the pandemic began. On Tuesday, traffic was at about 59 percent of normal, but that does not tell the whole story, according to Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, spokesman for the Golden Gate Bridge District.

"We're seeing a trend where our weekday, which is typically commute traffic, has declined dramatically and has stayed fairly low and some of our weekend traffic has increased, perhaps as shelter-in-place orders have had people moving about more on the weekends, but not commuting into work," Cosulich-Schwartz said.

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The Golden Gate Bridge saw its lowest traffic during April, just 30 percent of normal. The Bay Bridge also hit its low that month, about 50 percent of normal, with a slow steady rise ever since.

But the future is uncertain, with transit ridership still a big wildcard. On Tuesday, BART had only 11 percent of its normal number of riders, and if they don't come back as businesses reopen, some experts predict the Bay Area could be heading for the worst traffic in its history.

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