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December 2015/January 2016

The Congestion Conundrum

MTC reports that Bay Area traffic ranks third in the nation for worst congestion delays, caused by a combination of bottlenecks (50 percent), traffic incidents (25 percent), work zones (15 percent), and bad weather (10 percent). Photo by Alec MacDonald.

By Cecily O’Connor

Bay Area traffic is frustrating. It’s getting worse. It’s counterproductive.

These are impressions transportation officials, advocates, and executives have of traffic in the nine-county region, based on recent interviews. About half of congestion is due to bottlenecks, according to Metropolitan Transportation Commission data. Traffic incidents, work zones, and bad weather account for the remainder.

No matter the cause, commuters are weary because travel times are spreading past traditional peak hours during the work week and weekends.

Public transit is equally jammed. Among BART’s top 10 ridership days ever, six occurred this year, according to spokesperson Jim Allison. Ridership in September was a whopping 445,103 per weekday. To ease crowding, BART recently tweaked its schedule and added some restored cars back into service. Longer term, the transit operator is planning $3.8 billion in improvements, including new cars, a control system, and a revamped Hayward maintenance complex.

All the congestion is a domino effect of a healthy economy and population growth, the latter jumping 1.3 percent last year. Data suggests the region could attract another two million residents over the next 25 to 30 years, which means city officials and transit leaders are trying to address traffic within a pile-up of challenges: funding shortfalls, emissions reduction mandates, affordable housing requirements, and demand for multi-modal transportation choices that provide access to amenities and services.

Traffic is “a problem for a lot of people trying to meet their daily needs and a very big challenge for policy makers,” said Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at SPUR, a Bay Area nonprofit organization focused on civic planning. “The way people are affected by congestion is uneven throughout the region, depending on how communities have been designed and how far people need to go,” she added.

In the near term, officials are turning attention toward express toll lanes and other roadway management strategies to help reduce commuters’ travel time. Carpools, employer shuttles, ride-sharing, public transit schedule adjustments, and even cash incentives are also driving those commuters to re-think how and when they get around.

Still, dealing with traffic is not a seamless process, since the labor force often lives and works in different cities and is increasingly priced out of core areas like San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Statistics highlighted in A Roadmap for Economic Resilience, released in early November by the Bay Area Council, signal frustration. According to the report from the business-sponsored advocacy group, more than 20 percent of regional commutes last longer than 45 minutes. Freeway delays due to congestion are up nearly 40 percent from 2010. Seeking cheaper housing, more than 3 percent of the workforce commutes from outside the region.

“The Bay Area consists of 101 cities, but it is one economy with more than 7 million people living, working, and recreating across the region,” stated the report, which recommends alignment among the region’s 26 transit agencies to support the current economic growth cycle — and prepare for the next.

However, cities are “limited in what they can do because congestion doesn’t stay put” within boundaries, said Elizabeth Deakin, UC Berkeley professor emerita of city and regional planning and urban design.

Parking policy, rather, is one area where they have greater control, she added. Pilot parking projects in cities like Berkeley have shown that dynamic pricing on high-demand streets can change driving patterns and encourage use of other transportation modes.

“If all these things can work synergistically we can make progress,” SPUR’s Amin said. “When you enable people to get by without a private automobile, then they don’t need parking.”

While travel without a car isn’t always feasible, new options are poised to influence commuters’ decisions. MTC has begun to incorporate 550 miles of regional express lanes in major corridors over 25 years as part of Plan Bay Area 2040, the latest iteration of the regional housing and transportation roadmap. Most are being converted from existing carpool lanes.

In the new express lanes, carpools and vanpools travel for free, but solo drivers must pay. Tolls, based on demand, are displayed on overhead signs and collected via FasTrak tags. The resulting revenue goes to operation and maintenance costs.

Two such lanes are already open: southbound I-680 from Pleasanton to Milpitas, and SR-237 between Milpitas and San Jose. Pricing on I-680 over the Sunol Grade ranges from 50 cents around midday to as much as $7.50 during peak period portions, said Lisa Klein, MTC’s express lane program principal. On average, tolls are $2.30.

“The idea is you want to keep that [express] lane free flowing,” Klein said.

An express lane on I-580 between Livermore and Dublin is expected in early 2016, followed by I-680 between Walnut Creek and San Ramon next fall.

In addition, MTC wants to use adaptive ramp metering as part of a coordinated control system to pace traffic and reduce freeway merging conflicts. It’s one of seven strategies to maximize roadway efficiency through MTC’s proposed $595 million “Columbus Day Initiative.”

“Typically, we see a decline in demand on the system of 3 to 5 percent on Columbus Day [which] yields a 50 percent drop in congestion-related delays,” said MTC Public Information Officer John Goodwin.

It’s too early to tell the effect of applying “Columbus Day” logic year-round, but the notion that technology and other strategies can extract the most out of current transportation systems is one that resonates.

“We’re looking at making the existing systems operate better,” said Bill Whitney, principal project delivery manager for the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM).

For example, TAM will install and turn on ramp metering lights in 2017 along various northbound Highway 101 spots, including the area near Larkspur’s Sir Francis Drake Boulevard onto the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The timing of this move coincides with a project to convert the existing bridge shoulder into a new eastbound car travel lane.

Emphasis on using “what we have” is also reflected by green commuting participation. Carma, which maintains a carpooling network accessible via a smartphone app, has seen usage jump threefold for each of the last two years, said Paul Steinberg, the company’s chief business officer.

Meanwhile, transit programs from big employers like Genentech continue to pick up steam. Alternative transit use at the biotech company — inclusive of employee shuttles, public transit, biking, and vanpooling — has risen to 43 percent, up from 28 percent in 2007.

Beyond these options, behavioral shifts are important. San Mateo County transit officials are encouraging work and school carpools by offering cash incentives to new users, said John Ford, executive director of Commute.org, the county’s transportation demand management agency.

Perhaps even bigger changes are in store for current and future commuters next year.

It’s expected 2016 will usher in ballot measures aimed at bond investments and sales tax hikes to fund transit infrastructure and other improvements. State legislators, after several failed attempts, continue to work on a proposal that would create a reliable transportation funding source and address a backlog of repairs commuters see daily.

UC Berkeley’s Deakin pointed out congestion is not necessarily the “worst thing,” especially if it serves as a catalyst to modernize city goals and create a more multi-modal transportation system. Traffic is “an indication an area has some hustle and bustle,” she said.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.

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