San Diego traffic crept back despite the pandemic. Why hasn’t rush-hour gridlock?
Neighborhoods are bracing for traffic to get worse in coming weeks as some schools reopen and driving shifts to surface streets
Catherine Lynn says her daily commute between Rancho Bernardo and the Barona Resort & Casino has been “pleasant.”
That’s not a word she thought she’d ever use to describe the trip. Before the pandemic, she was forced to choose between spending more than an hour in gridlock on multiple freeways or navigating stop-and-go traffic on surface streets.
“I literally can set my cruise control and come all the way to work, which is unheard of,” she said. “It takes me between 35 and 40 minutes.”
Many San Diegans have similar experiences. Traffic on the region’s most congested freeways plummeted to unprecedented levels as the coronavirus pandemic forced many businesses to close or operate remotely.
Highway traffic fell more than 40 percent at the start of San Diego’s lockdown, according to traffic-counter data collected by Caltrans and analyzed by the San Diego Association of Governments. Since then, driving has crept back to the point where SANDAG says volumes at major freeway choke points are now only down about 15 percent on average compared with before the pandemic.
However, many once-clogged freeways continue to operate at a brisk pace. Rush-hour speeds at traffic hot spots are today averaging about 25 mph higher than normal.
If it seems like traffic should be worse, experts say that can be chalked up to the nonlinear nature of traffic congestion.
Highways won’t start to get significantly backed up until we get closer to pre-pandemic levels of travel, said Ray Major, SANDAG’s chief economist and data expert.
“It’s the last 5 to 10 percent of the traffic that really slows down the freeway,” he said. “You get to this capacity where you can’t get any closer. Then you have another car that wants to merge in from an on-ramp. Then the people have to slow down to allow that person to come in.”
The agency’s top brass has, over the last two years, repeatedly highlighted this concept for elected officials as part of a push to build a massive new high-speed rail system. Transportation planners have said that the region could dramatically reduce highway congestion if only a relatively small percentage of car commuters started taking transit.
“If we can take 10 percent of the people off the freeways and put them on public transportation then we can create capacity for the next 100 years,” Major said. “This (pandemic) is the proof point that you could do that.”
Still, many independent experts have said SANDAG’s plan to limit congestion will only work if the region also embraces new highway tolls that discourage driving at peak times. Otherwise, the benefits of new road capacity created by transit could quickly be erased by pent-up demand from drivers currently avoiding overcrowded freeways.
The phenomenon, called induced demand, has been documented in many cities where gridlocked highways have been widened, only to see congestion quickly rebound.
SANDAG’s leadership has acknowledged that simply building new transit lines won’t solve congestion. The agency’s mass-transit plan envisions new highway express lanes that would service toll-paying customers, buses and carpools.
During the pandemic, traffic has fallen more sharply on some highways than others. For example, traffic volumes were down 29 percent on state Route 163, compared with 14 percent on Interstate 805.
And while it’s been relatively clear sailing on the highways, neighborhood streets have been jammed, according to many residents.
Glenn Walker, 70, of Pacific Beach said he used to run errands during the day to avoid the crowds.
“Now I’m finding that during the day, it’s the worst,” he said. “Especially, if you go to Home Depot, Costco or some of the big stores, I’ve noticed a huge increase in customers.”
Neighborhood traffic could get even worse in coming weeks as some K-12 schools and colleges resume in-person classes.
While UCSD, for example, will hold many of its courses online, the university expects about 14,500 students to live on campus this semester. It has the capacity to house about 17,600 people.
At the same time, all K-12 schools in the San Diego region will be cleared to reopen on Sept. 1 if the county can keep its rate of coronavirus cases below 100 for every 100,000 residents. It’s not clear how many classrooms will reopen if the restrictions are lifted, but scores of schools, and even a few districts, have been previously granted waivers to conduct in-person classes regardless.
SANDAG’s Ikhrata spent nearly two years crusading for a massive transit expansion. Now COVID-19 has complicated his plans.
Megan DePalo of Oceanside said that since the lockdown started, her commute to Carlsbad has become “much calmer.” However, she’s concerned that could all come to an abrupt end.
“I live in between two schools, and ... every school year, my local streets are inundated with parents rushing to drop their kids off on the side of the road, and those kids run in between traffic to get to their school buildings,” she said.
In the meantime, the region’s relatively open freeways created a dangerous impulse among some drivers. Excessive speeding by both street racers and average motorists has become a major concern in recent months, said Officer Salvador Castro, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol in San Diego.
“Yeah, we still have drivers driving over 100 mph,” he said. “It poses a serious threat to the public. At higher speeds, any wrong move could be a disaster.”
Caltrans, which has tried to take advantage of the lower traffic volumes to complete road work, has also raised concerns about reckless driving and the safety of its construction crews.
“We’ve been working with the CHP to get the word out there that people need to slow down,” said Gustavo Dallarda, director of Caltrans District 11. “It’s just unsafe, unsafe for the people driving and unsafe for the essential workers who are out fixing the freeways or helping stranded vehicles.”
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