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Bay Area Commuter Traffic Ticks Up Towards Pre-COVID Levels

  • According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, weekday vehicle crossings on the Bay Area's seven bridges were 16% below pre-pandemic levels during the week of Feb. 28

  • San Francisco plans to reopen nonessential offices at limited capacity on March 24, suggesting that commuter traffic may further increase as workers shy away from public transit

  • In the greater Bay Area, wide disparities exist in the percentage of "remote-friendly" jobs, and thousands of residents have relocated during the pandemic

Just after one year since COVID shutdowns began, commuter traffic in the Bay Area appears to be inching back up pre-pandemic levels.

According to data provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, total weekday crossings of the Bay Area's seven toll bridges were down 16% the week of Feb. 28 compared to the same week in 2020. San Francisco's shelter in place order, which closed nonessential offices and other business activities, went into effect on March 17, 2020.

Bay Area weekday traffic bottomed out in mid-April 2020, when it was down about 50% per day on average on the region's bridges.

On the Bay Bridge, the region's most-traveled commuter bridge and the main artery from the East Bay to downtown San Francisco, crossings were down 14% year-over-year during the first week of March.

Since late January, when San Francisco and neighboring counties lifted restrictions on outdoor dining, all commuter bridges have shown a steady uptick in daily crossings. In the first weekend of March, as counties eased restrictions and weather grew slightly warmer, traffic on Saturday and Sunday was just 6% lower than the same weekend in 2020.

San Francisco is expected to enter the less restrictive orange tier on March 24, and could advance to the yellow tier as soon as three weeks later according to City officials.

As of next weekend, nonessential offices may reopen at 25% capacity, a move that Mayor London Breed called critical to the recovery of San Francisco's downtown. Should San Francisco advance to the yellow tier, that could bring expanded capacity at offices and other businesses, though any guidelines will likely be determined later.

The recovery in car traffic may partially reflect an avoidance of public transit as pandemic risks continue. For the first week of March, ridership on Bay Area Rapid Transit was about 87% down compared to the prior year.

Postal Service data analyzed by Public Comment showed a net outflow of San Francisco residents last year, many of whom relocated to other zip codes in the Bay Area. A handful of large tech employers in San Francisco, including Salesforce, Twitter and Dropbox, have extended remote work allowances indefinitely for at least some employees.

According to a study by Apartment List, the San Francisco metro area has among the highest percentage of "remote-friendly" jobs in the country, with 42% of workers able to do their work remotely. In Stockton, 80 miles east of San Francisco, the percentage of remote workers is the fourth-lowest in the country at 23%.

The recent uptick in bridge traffic suggests that car commutes into the City, the region's main jobs center, could increase further as COVID restrictions lift.

However, it remains to be seen how many San Francisco employers will encourage or incentivize in-person work over the longer term.

Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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