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COVID-19 Commute Times Could Double If Bay Area Ditches Public Transit For Cars

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) - The traditional rush hour has turned into 'Friday night light' on Bay Area roads and highways since the coronavirus shelter in place order. But when cities reopen, drivers may be dealing with pandemic-sized commute times if too many people ditch public transit and drive their cars instead, according to a study. In San Francisco, the average commute time could more than double, the most dramatic increase in the country.

In fact, San Francisco fared worse than any other city in the study, because so many rely on public transit, according to researchers. After weeks of sheltering in place, avoiding large gatherings and public spaces, workers may steer clear of BART and other means of public transportation, for fear of contracting COVID-19.

The study titled, 'The Rebound: How COVID-19 Could Lead To Worse Traffic,' is by The Work Research Group, a group of transportation researchers at Vanderbilt University.

The team first observed the dramatic decrease in traffic across the country since the COVID-19 travel restrictions were put in place. Then, using traffic data and commute times in 2018, they created a series of models, or 'what if scenarios' to predict road conditions when cities begin to open up.

"Covid-19 cleared the streets in many communities. As we reopen, traffic will eventually rebound," wrote researchers. "If transit ridership does not return, travel times will increase, sometimes dramatically."

READ: How COVID-19 Could Lead To Worse Traffic

Researchers point out that Bay Area roads were already saturated. In 2018, the average commute time was about 35 minutes in San Francisco and in San Jose, 32 minutes.

If everyone resumes the same mode of transport, drivers and transit and carpool users alike, the commute times will stay the same.

However, in San Francisco, if 1 in 4 transit users drive their cars, commute time will increase to more than 41 minutes, and if 3 in 4 make the switch, 74 minutes, more than double. If all transit users start driving, it increases to 99 minutes, almost triple the average 2018 commute time.

San Jose fared much better in the study with relatively fewer cars on the road. Commute time will increase to approximately 35 minutes, 40 minutes, and 44 minutes respectively.

"The most extreme scenario (when all riders switch) is extremely unlikely. But it does illustrate that keeping transit open, safe, and available will be important to control the traffic rebound," said researchers.

The study notes that all of these numbers could change if more people stay home due to unemployment, or telecommuting.

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