COVID-19 alters San Francisco Bay Area carpooling, commuting
Vacant toll booths, fewer vehicles and remote work rather than a crammed commuter van: That is life in the fast lane now. Things have been different to commuters since COVID-19 made the scene.
However, transportation officials want to remind motorists who are on the highways that they still have to pay when required, despite the tendency to use the lanes when they think they can get away with it, according to state officials. They just won’t be able to.
“They won’t get away with it,” California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) District 4 spokesman Bart Ney told the Business Journal, mentioning no change to how the agency treats the express lanes. “We are monitoring it and how we want to continue.”
In a day and age of state- and local government-imposed shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus crisis, the coy manner impatient motorists have treated the express lanes hasn’t been an issue lately. After all, a recent global workplace study has indicated 88% of employees are now working at home. There’s no need to hop out of one’s pajamas and into a car.
But as shutdowns subside and reopenings ease into everyday life for those who need to report to an office, the amount of traffic on San Francisco Bay Area roads is already growing.
“Traffic has definitely picked up in the carpool lanes,” California Highway Patrol Santa Rosa spokesman David Derutte said, comparing recent commutes of those from a few months ago. “(Carpooling) will definitely be an issue when it picks up more.”
“When I worked patrol, I once pulled over the same person three times. He thought using (the lanes) was worth it if he got stopped,” Derutte said.
The officer’s southern cohort down U.S. Highway 101 in Marin County concurs.
“I’ve noticed for a while now we’ve had open roadways,” CHP spokesman Andrew Barclay said. “As traffic increases, we’ll begin to monitor it more closely.”
COVID-19 takes its toll on transportation
One aspect of commuting that has changed involves the toll collectors. They were pulled from seven of the Bay Area bridges as result of the coronavirus.
Deemed one of its biggest challenges, Caltrans has contemplated how to bring back toll station workers when traffic picks up. Current estimates have traffic down by over half its usual number, according to Caltrans.
For now, motorists are being charged through photos taken of license plates.
When the toll collectors return, they will be armed with personal protective equipment and reconstructed booths.
“We decided to move them out in late March. We’re moving toward all electronic bridges anyway, but we realize the interim solution is awkward,” said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority. All-electronic toll stations are planned to be in place in 2021.
The arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission now sends motorists notices called toll “violations” that essentially serve as a $6 ticket.
“It worked reasonably well in a low-traffic environment, but we’re not so much in a low-traffic environment anymore,” Goodwin commiserated.
The MTC figures traffic is operating at 80% of its normal capacity.
Public transit, a less robust return
“Highway traffic rebounded much faster than public rider transit,” Goodwin said.
Ridership estimates on Bay Area Rapid Transit, Muni and Caltrains as well as light rail cars have plummeted by 90% as stay-at-home orders represent the law of the land.
MTC officials recognize that tension exists among commuters considering carpooling but want to social distance. The only way to accomplish the necessary, safe, 6-foot gap involves the driver in the front on one side, with a sole passenger in the back seat on the other side. They advise to roll down windows and wear masks.
“On one hand, we want to promote good health and public safety, but we also want to have an efficient use of the highways,” Goodwin said. “Those two goals have some tension, clearly.”
The MTC, through the efforts of the Bay Area Toll Authority, has shied away from recommending Caltrans “suspend carpooling guidelines,” he added.