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These 8 graphics show how the pandemic has changed the way we travel in the Bay Area

In ways big and small, the pandemic has transformed life in the Bay Area, and nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than in the way we move around the area.

In 2019, the Bay Area’s transit systems – some of the strongest in the country – struggled to meet the demand of massive crowds of office commuters, and its highways were congested with some of the worst traffic jams. from the country.

As 2021 draws to a close, the region as a whole has found itself driving cars at levels similar to two years ago (though not necessarily for work), less likely to take public transport. and more likely to seek pedestrian-friendly spaces.

The Chronicle has collected and analyzed ridership and traffic data since 2019 from various public bodies in an attempt to understand how the past two years have changed transportation habits in the region.

Here is what we found.

Pre-pandemic highway traffic is back

Traffic on the Bay Area freeways this year has mostly rebounded to 2019 levels after plunging to historic lows in 2020.

In some counties, like Alameda and Napa, the average number of kilometers traveled daily on freeways was higher in 2021 than in 2019, which means an increase in overall driving activity, according to data from Caltrans. While the return to near-normal traffic is likely due in part to the region’s economic recovery, it is also a result of people choosing to drive on routes they would usually take on public transit.

Overall, the Bay Area saw a 9% drop in vehicle kilometers traveled this year in the two weeks after Thanksgiving compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from Caltrans.

Congestion is not yet back in full force

As the Bay Area economy continues to recover, traveling on any of the area’s “80” highways or bridges might remind you of pre-pandemic journeys that were plagued by miserable traffic jams.

While the region’s highways have indeed become more congested this year, the Bay Area’s notorious pre-pandemic congestion has yet to make a full return, according to data from Caltrans.

Congestion levels, as measured by the average number of hours vehicles are late per day, were still far lower than before COVID, in large part because people stagger the hours of driving.

Before the pandemic, peaks in congestion were largely the result of mass traffic generated by morning and afternoon commutes. These days, mid-afternoon hours are likely to be more congested than they were in 2019. Weekends have also generated more congestion.

The streets of the Bay Area are no safer

Significant drops in traffic during the pandemic did not translate into safer Bay Area roads. In fact, most counties in the region saw an increase in road fatality rates in 2020, according to data collected by UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System and analyzed by The Chronicle.

The troubling trend meant that even though the total number of accidents in the region fell by 30%, the number of fatalities remained stable or increased in most counties.

Experts and local officials say speed was one of the main contributors to fatalities during the pandemic, as motorists were more likely to drive faster because the roads had less traffic.

In San Francisco, average vehicle speeds this spring are up 42% to 46% and about a third on city streets compared to 2019, according to the County Transportation Authority. The spikes in traffic speeds reversed a decade-long decline, according to the SFCTA, and come as a new law has given cities more power to gradually lower speed limits on some busy lanes.

Public transit is recovering – slowly

In April 2020, transit ridership dropped dramatically as fear and uncertainty over a new coronavirus gripped the Bay Area.

But while transit agencies are still struggling to recover from the pandemic, bus ridership has not been as badly affected as rail transport. One reason: essential workers still relied on buses to get to and from work.

By October, each of the region’s four largest bus operators had recovered about half of their pre-COVID ridership, and their trips to bring back passengers reflect the ebb and flow of the pandemic declining slightly during the waves of the pandemic .

The biggest upturn in bus transportation came after June, when California declared itself reopened.

Rail transport struggles to get back on track

While bus ridership is improving, the same cannot be said for the resumption of rail transport. Rail ridership in the country’s largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, has recovered faster than in the Bay Area.

While Muni’s rail ridership topped around 51% of 2019 levels, ridership for BART and Caltrain – two systems that have largely focused service on daily trips of 9 to 5 working days to get to work – was slower to recover.

Some of the drastic declines in rail ridership reflect service operations. Muni, for example, did not restore most of its railroads until May. VTA’s rail service was temporarily disrupted following the tragic mass workplace shooting at a San Jose rail yard in May, which left 10 VTA employees dead, including the gunman.

busy days change

Previously, BART trips to its four Market Street subway stations peaked at the start of the workweek, gradually decreasing as the weekend approached.

Not anymore.

Thursdays and Fridays have now become the busiest days for commuters from downtown BART to San Francisco, and officials believe this is a sign that passengers are now taking more regional rail system trains for travel. of approval.

In December, BART ridership on weekdays peaked at about 33% of pre-COVID levels. And BART trips outside of the four stations in downtown San Francisco recover faster.

Like other operators, such as the San Francisco Bay Ferry, BART recovers its weekend ridership faster than its weekday trips. This trend, according to transit officials, is another sign that riders are increasingly adopting public transit for non-work trips.

Hybrid work is a red flag for the resumption of public transport

Morning and afternoon weekday commutes to workplaces were the keystone of the Bay Area’s transit ridership before the pandemic, when trains and buses were crowded with people. passengers while the highways were congested with traffic jams.

These pre-pandemic realities are not yet fully returned, and it increasingly appears that they will not be.

One big reason: Most office employers in the area seem to be preparing for a future of hybrid work – one where white-collar workers return to work in person for only part of the week.

A December survey of 189 employers by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute found that nearly half of those polled expected workers to come to the workplace three days a week “once the pandemic is behind us.”

Right now, about half of those 189 employers come to work one to two days a week, if at all.

Golden Gate Park is more popular than before

At the height of the 2020 pandemic restrictions, more people have sought nature and the outdoors to escape the shelter-in-place, flocking to state parks and hiking trails.

But nowhere was this trend more apparent, locally, than on Golden Gate Park’s John F. Kennedy Drive, which saw an explosive increase in recreational visitors from April 2020, data shows. of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Departmental data shows monthly recreational visits to JFK Drive between Stanyan Street and the Japanese Tea Garden west of the de Young Museum increased to nearly 550,000 in April 2020, the month after JFK Drive closed in automobile traffic.

The department’s methodology is based on cellphone data, and visitor numbers before April 2020 do not include the 75% of “visits” that park officials attribute to motorists crossing JFK Drive on their way to other locations. parts of town when the street was open. to cars.

The fate of JFK Drive has become one of the city’s most controversial issues, and the supervisory board will likely make its decision to keep the street closed to cars in March.

Chronicle data visualization developer Nami Sumida contributed to this article.

Ricardo Cano is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ByRicardoCano