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Bay Area drivers spend 97 hours a year in traffic. Why didn’t remote work end commute nightmares?

There’s a new mystery that thousands of Bay Area commuters are trying to solve. Downtown offices that once buzzed with techies and lawyers are deserted. BART’s ridership is down 60% after many passengers fled the system three years ago and never came back.

So why are freeways once again full?

Radio stations ping with morning traffic-jam updates: The MacArthur Maze is a mess, I-880 a slog, and 101 a zoo — even though remote work ushered in a colossal shift in travel patterns, and taxpayers have spent billions of dollars to provide buses, trains and other alternatives to driving. Ultimately, the long-term fix for resurgent congestion may be the least popular idea yet: Make it even more costly to commute by car.

“It’s a paradox, right?” said Alexandre Bayen, an engineering professor at UC Berkeley who studies traffic patterns. “We’re at capacity. It might not be the exact same times, in the same circumstances. But we’re at capacity.”

Commuters head across the Bay Bridge towards San Francisco during the morning commute in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, March 30, 2023. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than the Bay Bridge. While overall bridge traffic is still down about 10% compared to 2019, morning commutes from Oakland to San Francisco are often worse than before the pandemic. Drivers are packing the bridge during rush hour, and morning travel speeds are slower by 32% compared to four years ago, according to congestion data tracking speeds from Treasure Island to the Fremont Street exit in San Francisco. But afternoon commutes are still lighter for many — Bay Bridge speeds are averaging 34% faster leaving San Francisco.

Even reverse commuters are feeling some pain. Ian Brown, 47, drives from San Francisco to Los Gatos for a job at Netflix. “You kind of got used to putting it in cruise control and doing 75 miles per hour,” he said. “Maybe about three or four months ago you come around the corner and traffic is stopped. It’s back to reactive driving again.”

RELATED: Bay Area drivers face DMV registration holds amid mounting express lane debt

Regional data bears out the return to traffic agony. INRIX, a traffic analytics firm, found that Bay Area congestion fully returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022. The region ranks 15th worldwide for traffic congestion, with drivers spending an average of 97 hours in traffic last year. There is one caveat to the study’s conclusion: Congestion on city streets remains low, while freeways have filled up.

Surging freeway congestion is especially confounding considering not only remote work but also historically high gas prices and recently increased bridge tolls, factors that might be expected to discourage driving.

“I think traffic is going to continually get worse,” said Bob Pishue, who authored the INRIX study. “There’s a lot of demand and not enough supply of road.”

Rush hour traffic crawls up Highway 101 into San Francisco, Calif., Thursday morning, March 30, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Rush hour traffic crawls up Highway 101 into San Francisco, Calif., Thursday morning, March 30, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Traffic patterns also underscore a new system of winners and losers — at least when it comes to roadway commutes — brought on by the pandemic. People working from home, more often white-collar workers who can make midday grocery runs or trips to the gym, are seeing far less congestion. Workers who must do their jobs in person — such as plumbers, nurses and teachers — are back on clogged roads.

But why have freeways filled up so quickly?

Michael Manville, an urban planning professor at UCLA, said Californians are finding plenty of reasons to keep driving even if they are commuting less. Part of the reason is that when COVID-19 and remote work emptied roads, car travel became even easier. That only tempted drivers to fill freeways until congestion returned.

“Traffic congestion is not only annoying — it acts as a deterrent,” said Manville. “If traffic goes down, then people are going to see the freeway is empty and get into the car and go somewhere else.”

On the region’s most notorious bottleneck, the Bay Bridge, commuters are bunching their travel into too-few hours and worsening congestion. East Bay drivers heading from the Bay Bridge down the Peninsula are seeing some of the region’s worst morning commutes with westbound I-80 speeds down by 44% compared to 2019 as they approach Highway 101.

If upending work patterns can’t end traffic congestion, is there any answer to the region’s traffic woes?

Rush hour traffic crawls along Interstate 280 into San Francisco, Calif., Thursday morning, March 30, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Rush hour traffic crawls along Interstate 280 into San Francisco, Calif., Thursday morning, March 30, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

One solution to freeway congestion is breaking people of their solo-driving habits and getting them onto trains and buses or into carpools. In 2018 voters across the Bay Area voted to hike their bridge tolls, now at $7, on the promise of unclogging freeways. Money is flowing to send BART trains to San Jose, expand ferry service and grow a network of express lanes. These measures are supposed to make the region’s beleaguered transit system a viable alternative to car trips.

But changing drivers’ patterns is a difficult task. A common refrain, backed up by research, is that voters often approve transit funding in hopes others will use the system and lighten their commute.

Some transit advocates say commuters’ reliance on single-occupancy vehicles and aversion to public transit have hardened over the last three years. They point to concerns about reliability and safety on BART along with a lingering stigma that riding transit poses a health risk. For others, commuting to work a few times a week means they are more inclined to grit their teeth in traffic even as congestion surges.

“People are still commuting,” said Emily Loper, a vice president at the Bay Area Council, which tracks return-to-office trends. “They’re just choosing to drive more than before.”

Now Bay Area transit planners are landing on a controversial idea: Truly reducing traffic congestion is less about encouraging transit ridership and more about making driving more expensive.

At the center of the plan is a two-year study commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission looking at charging a per-mile fee to drive on Bay Area highways. Some plans being studied also include charging fees on streets next to freeways or a levy to enter downtown areas in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. The study is meant to pave the way for implementing a new freeway tolling scheme in 2035.

Without a new “stick” added to the “carrot” of improved public transportation, drivers will stay on the roads, and the collective misery of traffic jams will only worsen, said Anup Tapase, principal planner at the MTC during a meeting this month.

It’s a method to reduce traffic congestion that has gained traction among many experts.

But in the Bay Area, there are deep concerns over the potential impact of congestion fees on the region’s low-income communities. The move might also trigger an uprising among voters who already pay the country’s highest gas prices.

“The word freeway means something very deep in California culture. People believe driving on those roads is a right,” said Frank Welte, an MTC committee member at a meeting earlier this month. “Every driver who now drives on a freeway for free, who starts having to pay a toll, will regard that as a betrayal and a theft.”

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