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Slow jammed: Is SF traffic getting back to normal?

Mixed emotions greet the return of drivers to the streets of San Francisco:  Once welcomed as a sign that life might be returning to normal, jammed roadways are quickly becoming as frustrating as ever.

Cars pass through Potrero Hill on March 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen
Cars pass through Potrero Hill on March 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

A roundup of the latest indicators show that traffic is indeed back. 

Highway speeds around the city have slowed down to what they were before the shutdown, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. In March, evening rush hour drives dropped to an average of 25.9 miles-per-hour, nearing the 25.2 mph speeds recorded prior to the March 2020 shutdown.

Commuters returning to the city are choosing to drive across a bridge, leading to much of the slowdown. Because of Covid-related concerns, many long-distance commuter buses are still offline. The increased number of drivers pushed the total of Bay Bridge and Golden Gate crossings to near 5.1 million in March, a level just shy of the 5.2 million drivers that crossed in February 2020.

Commuters may be turning to public transport for relief. BART served upwards of 150,000 riders on Wednesday, the most since March 2020 and up to 37% of a pre-pandemic April workday. 

And as workers slowly return to the city, BART data show an increasing number of riders disembarking downtown. Before the pandemic, the Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center stations regularly accounted for an average of 34% of exits from the BART system; in March, that percentage continued its slow-but-steady rise, edging up to 29% of total riders.

Perhaps efforts by City Hall and major employers to lure workers back to downtown offices are beginning to bear fruit. Mayor Breed headlined Google's official “welcome back” party on Wednesday that drew hundreds of workers. 

New data show San Franciscans went to work this week more than any other time since the shutdown began. Wednesday’s Kastle Systems’ card entry systems show more than 35% of SF workers went to the office.

But given Los Angeles hit 40% and Austin reached 60% of pre-pandemic office attendance, SF still has many more desks to fill.

And even as commuters return to city streets, no one expects traffic patterns will return to “normal.” 

Flexible schedules will likely prevail. In fact, only 42% of Bay Area companies surveyed say they’re returning to a typical 9-to-5 schedule and only 15% say they’ll require employees to be in the office every day.

How will the new work week impact traffic? Employers say 62% of their workforce will be at their desks on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. 

The new schedule has allowed “Monday light” to join “Friday light” in the lexicon of traffic reporting: Less than half of workers are expected to show up on Mondays and only 40% on Fridays.

And the full realization of this “new normal” may be just a month away: Two-thirds of Bay Area companies predicted their workers to be back at work and on their post-pandemic schedules to be in place by June. 

In San Francisco, the verdict is out on what a post-pandemic work world will look like. With big tech firms like Paypal and Build leaving the city and others like Airbnb going remote, downtown may be years away from a recovery. In fact, city budget experts now estimate that 33% of SF office workers will telecommute long term.  

One thing’s for sure: San Franciscans are spending less time at home. Google Mobility data shows a steady decrease in time spent in residential areas and a steady increase in time spent everywhere else.  

And even in urban San Francisco, that shift translates to more traffic.