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Dealing with our Home Commutes

Can high-tech solutions to our heavily trafficked roads bring back life in the fast lane?


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Illustrations by Iker AyestaránYou begged out of work early—telling a little white lie about a dentist’s appointment—because you couldn’t face another day of gridlock on Interstate 680 north out of San Ramon. You hoped you could skip the surface street polka if you got out the door by 4:15, so you get home on time for once. But as several noted cynics have pointed out, hope is not a plan, and it certainly isn’t going to work on one of the Home’s nastiest commutes.


 

So there you are, hoping the Waze app can calculate a better route, contemplating whether it’s worse to just stay behind that gardening truck or head for the side roads.

That’s when you face the Big Question—the one that has residents, politicians, engineers, planners, developers, workers, and commuters all wondering the same thing: What the hell is going on with this traffic?

This is, of course, the deal we’ve all struck—the Faustian bargain—to live here. Great weather, great schools, awful commute.

Still, why can’t we fix it? That’s a question without an easy answer, one wrapped up in a dizzying array of specialties, from economics and demographics to engineering and behavioral analytics. The days of simply pouring concrete and widening roads are over. As one traffic engineer explains, there’s no magic bullet that will increase traffic flow by a significant degree. When it comes to improving Bay Area congestion, particularly in the Home suburbs, we’re working in the margins—trying to unlock 1 or 2 percent more capacity on the roadways.  

And yet, while you sit there hoping NPR might take your mind off the slog, it’s worth remembering that tiny incremental advances can make a world of difference. John Goodwin, public information officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), explains. “Imagine a river that’s not yet at flood stage. If you get just half an inch of rain, all of a sudden, you’ve got a mess. But absent that half inch of rain, the river will stay within its banks.” In some cases, he says, a reduction in overall demand of just 3 to 5 percent can cut overall congestion by 40 percent or more.

So while some may scoff at the promise of buses driving on the shoulder or self-driving cars that can tailgate five feet off each others’ bumpers in 35 mph traffic—plus more immediate plans such as maximizing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, installing metering lights at freeway on-ramps, and improving the time it takes to clear an accident—it is possible to imagine how, taken together, all those modest victories can add up to something, well, at least a little more bearable.

 

THE BIG JAM

First, it’s important to understand what’s filling up that river.

Nationally, the Bay Area trails only Los Angeles in terms of overall congestion—the length of time highway traffic dips below 35 mph. What’s more, it’s getting worse.

According to the MTC’s 2015 “Vital Signs” report, congestion on Bay Area roadways is up 40 percent since 2010. Much of that gridlock is on Highways 80 and 101, getting into and out of San Francisco. But the problems affect other parts of the Home, too: Among the top 10 pain points, the afternoon Interstate 680 north route from San Ramon to Pleasant Hill is the fifth-most impacted; I-680 north over the Sunol Grade is number six, and Highway 24 east through the tunnel is number nine.

The simple reason for that is the same one pushing all our housing prices up: a booming economy. More jobs mean more workers, which means more cars on the road.

“That is the number one driver of increased traffic and increased transit ridership,” Goodwin says. The data tell the same story. Between 2009 and 2014, rush hour traffic at the I-680/Hwy. 24 interchange increased by 14 percent.

The physical location and makeup of the suburban Home contribute to the problem. Four out of 10 drivers in Contra Costa commute to a neighboring county for work—making it the second-highest “exporter” of workers among Bay Area counties. (Although a recent study of congestion on I-680 puts the number of workers who leave the county each day even higher, at closer to one-half).

Workers from the east county communities of Brentwood, Antioch, and Oakley hold the dubious distinction of having, on average, the area’s longest commute, at roughly 40 minutes.

And if the experts are right, that’s not changing anytime soon.

Another issue is commuters’ preferences. Although BART has seen growth in its ridership over the past two decades, overall, fewer commuters are using public transit than in the past. Per capita, transit ridership is down 12 percent since 1991, with bus systems such as AC Transit and the County Connection in particular losing riders. Plus, it’s not clear how many cars our buses keep off the roads: A County Connection survey from 2015 shows that the greatest segment of riders reported they took the bus because they lacked a car or couldn’t drive, a far greater number than those who wanted to avoid traffic.

 

NEW SOLUTIONS

Home drivers looking for a break were no doubt heartened by the news of the HOV/express lane conversion on Interstate 580 between Dublin and Livermore (opened this February) and a similar program on I-680 from San Ramon to Walnut Creek (set to open this fall).

The idea is simple: Allow solo drivers to use the carpool lanes for a fee assessed through their FasTrak tag. The goal is to make better use of the HOV lane by letting in those who want to pay for the privilege.

In theory, allowing drivers to pay to slide over into the diamond lane should maximize its efficiency and improve speed in other lanes as well.

On I-680 south of Pleasanton, where such express lanes are already in use, the advantage of moving into the diamond lane is an increase in speed of around 10 mph, the Alameda County Transportation Commission reports. If there’s a wreck or some other issue, the difference jumps to 25 to 35 mph. Those new lanes also have specific entry and exit points, making it harder for fare cheats to sneak in.

Further, the impact was immediate: Travel times in the adjacent general-purpose lanes were reduced by 13 percent during the morning commute. Commuters in Contra Costa and the Tri-Valley will certainly hope for similar results there.

But Bay Area carpool lanes are a mess: A report using 2013 data shows that more than half of the region’s diamond lane miles fail to move traffic at 45 mph at least 90 percent of the time—the Federal Highway Administration’s benchmark. The problem is confounded by the fact that overall, carpooling is down both nationally and locally. (Although the CHP has reportedly started cracking down on carpool cheats at all-time high rates.)

“Unfortunately, the bottom line is that northbound on I-680 in the afternoon, [the HOV/express lane conversion] is expected to help improve performance slightly, but it cannot be expected to totally eliminate the congestion,” Goodwin acknowledges, while pointing out that it should help the reverse commutes.

“It’s certainly not a magic bullet,” he says.

Perhaps not, but remember that every drop in the bucket—or rather drop out of the bucket—counts. Even a 2 percent reduction in traffic can make a difference to drivers.

Hopes are higher for the newly opened I-580 express lane, especially because it’s a newly built lane. The MTC is planning, over the next 20 years, to close the gaps between HOV lanes throughout the Bay Area’s roadways, developing 550 miles of express traffic by 2035.

While that sounds good, it certainly isn’t free—and may not even be cheap. The fee for using the lane is nominal during noncommute hours but varies based on congestion, and can rise as high as $7.50 when traffic is at its worst. Some days, that might be worth it, but sliding over 200 days a year could wind up costing $1,500.

The other big addition coming to Home roadways is on-ramp metering lights, including for I-680 and I-580. Goodwin says that over the next several years, his department is planning to install 300 such meters, which help cars get on the freeway more efficiently. “The exchange for the traveler may be an extra minute getting on the on-ramp but 10 fewer minutes on the freeway,” he says.

 

Illustrations by Iker Ayestarán

THE BART CONUNDRUM

Of course, the best way to improve traffic flow is to get people off the road, and the obvious option is to get them on BART—but that’s easier said than done, even though BART is, in many ways, the most successful transportation network to serve the Bay Area.

As of 2015, the BART system served roughly 420,000 riders each weekday, an increase of nearly 90,000 per day compared to five years earlier. Several Home stops are booming: Dublin/Pleasanton recorded a 60 percent increase in collected fares in 2015 compared to 1999, while Lafayette was up 37 percent and Walnut Creek 23 percent. Overall, between 6 to 8 percent of residents living along the I-680 corridor take BART to work. (Walnut Creek is higher at 14 percent.)

But that success has led to overcrowded trains, increased delays, and significant strain on the aging cars.

Luckily, there’s some hope on that front: The first of the multibillion-dollar fleet of new BART cars is expected to start carrying riders this December; in 2017, 66 more should be installed; and eventually, the system intends to introduce 1,081 new cars, increasing carrying capacity by 49 percent. Having more cars available will also allow BART to put more 10-car trains into service.

But that doesn’t solve the biggest hang-up when it comes to BART: parking.

“In Contra Costa, it’s unanimously about parking,” says Taylor Huckaby, a spokesperson for BART. Central county and Tri-Valley BART parking lots almost always fill up by 7:30 a.m. And alternative parking options near stations, if there are any, are expensive or hard to score.

For instance, the waiting list for the Reserved Parking Permit Program at the Pleasanton/Dublin BART station is 2,650 names long.

While bus service to BART stations exists, many Home commuters complain that it’s either impractical or unreliable. A 2015 survey from the CCTA that lists the Walnut Creek and Concord BART stations among the most frequent origins and destinations for riders also shows that riders’ number one request was for more frequent service.

The simple solution would seem to be to add parking at existing stations, but that, too, is easier said than done. “Land is scarce,” Huckaby says, “and [parking] is difficult to build.” Most cities aren’t looking to add seven-story parking structures to their skylines, and voters usually agree.

One possibility is adding several park-and-ride lots along the I-680 corridor between Walnut Creek and San Ramon that could provide shuttle and express bus service to BART. The CCTA has proposed such an investment in “mobility hubs” to be spread throughout the corridor—although for now, this is a plan without funding.

Other large projects—such as extending BART to Livermore or Silicon Valley—are at least a decade down the line, and involve huge amounts of money, an extended planning and approval process, and cooperation from voters when transportation measures appear on the ballot.

In the long run, there will be some relief, but that long run may not be completed until this year’s first-graders have grown into full-time commuters.

 

DEMOGRAPHIC SOLUTIONS

There is one very big, swing-for-the-fences hope for traffic congestion relief: driverless cars.

Ideally, such autonomous vehicles will allow cars to travel much closer together and conceivably increase the carrying capacity of freeways by as much as 50 percent, according to Randy Iwasaki of the CCTA. In fact, a major component of the CCTA’s I-680 proposal includes tapping into driverless shuttles to cover the “last mile” of commuters’ travel, like from BART to their offices.

Big thing, though: Nobody knows for sure how this will work.

Some experts say it’s possible self-driving cars will increase efficiency and open up a bit more of our roadways’ pipeline. Others think the vehicles will encourage people to get off public transit entirely—and instead put more cars on the road. And although present predictions about the impact of autonomous cars are almost uniformly positive, there’s a major difference between theory and practice, especially when it comes to cutting-edge technology.

But maybe traffic relief won’t have to rely on technology. Changing demographics might do the trick.

Ample evidence points to younger Americans driving less often than their elders. Younger people are more willing to use public transit, and as urbanization increases, there will be less need for car ownership. Even in what were once considered bedroom communities, there are more employment centers and transit options, which also make it easier to forgo owning a car.

That’s partly organic and partly the result of a change in city planning. Plan Bay Area, a joint project of the MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments, is a long-range plan with the aim of placing 80 percent of the region’s future housing needs in “priority development areas” close to transit hubs, like the area west of downtown in Walnut Creek, by 2040.

And while Home residents still head out of town for work, the number landing jobs close to home is rising: Central Contra Costa areas around Walnut Creek and San Ramon, and eastern Alameda County around Pleasanton and Livermore have seen an influx of employment. In 2013, Contra Costa in general had 18 percent more jobs than in 1990—outpacing the Bay Area job market as a whole—and that percentage is likely even higher today given several high-profile moves.

There are other hopeful signs, too: While Bay Area transit ridership overall is down 12 percent over the past 25 years, it has seen a rise since the economic downturn at the end of the last decade, bolstered by BART and Caltrain’s popularity.

Even County Connection, after years of losing riders, reported an uptick in overall ridership of 8 percent in 2015 over 2014, largely due to huge gains in Walnut Creek, where three routes (4, 5, and 7) are now free to riders, and the sudden popularity of routes to businesses at Bishop Ranch. Rick Ramacier, general manager of County Connection, says 2016 has seen an increase of more than 2.5 percent over the same period last year, too.

Ramacier points to the system’s new Bus Tracker app, its conversion to accepting Clipper Cards, and free onboard wi-fi as signs it’s getting with the times. “That might not increase service levels,” he says, “but it makes the service easier to use.” Last year, 36 percent of the bus system’s riders were between 19 and 35.

Another positive trend is the rise of telecommuting. That trend is already afoot in many Home cities. While 5.8 percent of Bay Area workers telecommute, the number is especially high in places such as Orinda (13.1 percent), Lafayette (10.9 percent), Moraga (9.2 percent), and Walnut Creek (8.2 percent)—with each of those slipper-clad workers representing one fewer car on the road.

 

Illustrations by Iker Ayestarán

LOOKING FORWARD

Meanwhile, the government is offering some help. A new federal long-term transportation bill was recently passed, which could allow some projects to secure funding.

At the state level, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed allocating $1.7 billion for transportation in his 2016–2017 budget, but it’s a long road, so to speak, from asking for the legislature to spend the money to getting it into the hands of agencies to improve traffic flow.

Locally, look for BART to put a proposal on the November ballot. If passed, that funding is most likely going to go to a new control system and a maintenance complex, which will help the system as a whole (but in the short term won’t deliver any more parking spaces).

The CCTA is also contemplating adding to the existing half-cent sales tax authorized in 2004. Although that tax will be on the books until 2034, the major projects funded by that additional income—the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, the extension of Highway 4 in East County—are completed or close to completion. Without a new infusion of funds, the CCTA will be unable to start new capital projects, like building the mobility hubs it hopes will ease congestion.

Put it all together, and it doesn’t exactly spell easy commute. A booming economy, growing population, and geography that’s unfriendly to simple solutions pretty much guarantees that traffic in the Home won’t ever be perfect. But with enough modest solutions to seemingly intractable problems, we might be able to put a dent in the Home’s biggest nuisance.

And if not, let’s at least hope we can relax through our commute in self-driving cars navigating the route home—and maybe reminding us to pick up some milk on the way.


 

Horror Story

The 20-mile drive from hell. 

“I try to be out of the house by 6:20 a.m.,” says Jason Ahn, a teacher at The Dorris-Eaton School in San Ramon. Ahn lives in Concord near Clayton and must navigate Ygnacio Valley Road to get to Interstate 680, and then battle his way through one of the nastiest commutes in the Bay Area.

“I loathe it so much,” Ahn says. But at least by starting early, he can save some time. “If I leave 10 minutes later,” he says, “my 30-minute morning commute becomes 40 or 45 minutes.”

In the afternoon, it doesn’t matter what time he leaves for his 20-mile crawl home. “It’s a solid hour,” he says, whether he jets out as soon as possible or works until 6:30 p.m., when things only lighten a little. “It’s always ugly.”

As veterans of that I-680 corridor know, finding a secret back road (Lavender Drive to Rudgear is a popular option) is like searching for the Holy Grail—and just as likely to be successful.

Asked about whether his commute has gotten better or worse since he started four years ago, Ahn is philosophical: “It’s like the difference between 380 and 400 degrees,” he says. “It’s all hot.”


 

Walnut Creek’s Traffic Guru

Rafat Raie oversees a high-tech system to keep traffic moving.

For a city of 67,000, Walnut Creek plays an outsize role in Bay Area traffic.

According to Rafat Raie, the city’s traffic engineer, Walnut Creek sees some 120,000 cars pass through its two main east-west roads, Treat Boulevard and Ygnacio Valley Road, each day, with 12,000 cars an hour at peak times. “Those arterials are at their full capacity,” he says. “You can’t fit any more cars than that.”

To keep the cars moving, the city relies on several tools. One is its Intelligent Transportation System, a grid of computers that orchestrates 100 traffic signals in and around Walnut Creek. The synchronized lights can adapt to changing demand in real time to maximize traffic flow and reduce backups.

The city is also on the forefront of using web apps to fight the slog. It is busy building its “smart city” infrastructure, which will send information about parking availability to mobile phones—and eventually, directly to cars—to eliminate the need to circle endlessly for a spot.

There’s also the app EnLighten, which alerts drivers when the closest light is about to change. Walnut Creek is the first Bay Area city to adopt the app.

But the challenge remains to convince people here to drive less. That’s where widening bike lanes and creating pedestrian-friendly crosswalks and boulevards come into play. “It’s a societal thing,” Raie says. “We’re gradually normalizing other modes of travel.”

Given that he’s the city’s traffic guru, does Raie have any secret shortcuts he uses to get to work? “Most days,” he says with a grin, “I walk.”


 

There’s an App for That

Is that a solution for your commute in your pocket? Well, maybe.

EnLighten: The app, which taps into the city’s traffic network, chimes a few seconds before your light turns green, giving you a heads up to get ready to go. It can also alert you to slow down if you’re unlikely to make the light you’ve been gunning for.

Waze: Waze tracks its members’ movements and combines that with local traffic data to calculate the best route to wherever you’re going. Sometimes, that puts you on weird detours, and sometimes, you wonder just what the app is doing, but often Waze can save time and frustration by helping drivers avoid unexpected traffic jams.

Hitch-a-Ride: This ridesharing app allows workers to find people going to the same place from the same place at roughly the same time—and allows drivers and riders to negotiate their own deals, unlike Lyft and Uber.

Carma: Carma, which started in the Bay Area in 2013, also pairs people on the same path. With the CarmaZoom app, people who share the same commute meet at a designated location and then hit the road in a shared Carma car. The Carma Carpooling app matches riders and drivers headed in the same direction using their own cars, for a small per-mile fee. You can sign up as a driver or a rider.


 

Automatic Autos

The Home is a growing hotbed for driverless car technology.

Newspaper headlines are all abuzz about self-driving cars, though most of us have never seen one in action. But before long, two of them will be a common sight at the Bishop Ranch office park.

“People may realize this technology is here and now,” says Alex Mehran Sr., the developer of Bishop Ranch, “but they need to see it and touch it and feel it.”

By the end of 2016, Bishop Ranch will have two self-driving, eight-passenger shuttles transporting workers around the office park. This exciting technology will make getting around the park a breeze—and provide a glimpse into a future in which similar driverless shuttles will transport workers from public transit hubs like BART stations to their office door.

The shuttles—which operate at slow speeds and on predetermined routes—have been prototyped at the CCTA’s GoMentum Station at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, the ghost town with nearly 20 miles of empty paved streets. Last year, Mercedes-Benz tested its driverless technology on the base, and Honda is now testing driverless versions of its Acura models. Other automakers and tech companies have expressed interest in testing their wares in Concord, too.

At Bishop Ranch, the driverless shuttles will join 26 buses that loop to BART, helping to reduce single-occupancy riders among its 30,000 employees, Mehran says.


 

40%

Increase in Congestion on Bay Area roadways since 2010.

 

4/10

Drivers in Contra Costa that commute to a neighboring county.

 

60%

Increase in Bart ridership starting from Dublin/Pleasanton since 1999.

 

14%

Increase in rush hour traffic at the I-680/Hwy. 24 interchange from 2009 to 2014.

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