The final impact of the pandemic’s work-from-home requirements aren’t yet known; more offices are calling employees back to their old desks. But two things about the future of transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area are increasingly clear. Driving will cost more. And it will be a while longer before people are as willing to take buses, trains and subways.
Driving has been Californians’ way of life. The San Francisco Bay area and adjacent cities like Stockton and Modesto have been home to more than 120,000 supercommuters – people who drive at least three hours round-trip to and from work, a 2019 study found.
That’s the most in the country. For millions of commuters in the Bay Area, regional gas prices now top $5.69 a gallon. The Russian oil shutoff, caused by the Ukrainian invasion, is driving costs higher.
And while a Bay Area Council survey indicates that 40 percent of employees could opt for work weeks with three days in the office going forward, cutting out 1.1 million daily commutes, there is no sign of a wide return to the close quarters of public transit systems.
Ridership on Caltrain, which runs from Gilroy to San Jose to San Francisco, remains down sharply; last month’s report showed overall weekday travel activity was down 31 percent from pre-pandemic levels; it is now at about 20 percent of the levels of 2018 and 2019.
Like Caltrain, BART is starved for riders. Last month, directors of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System were told ridership is likely to remain well below pre-pandemic levels till 2029. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the pandemic cut ridership to 12 percent of BART’s pre-COVID level; more than 18 months later it is now not even at 30 percent of the old level of weekday passenger trips, according to the San Jose Mercury-News. The ridership drop could cost BART $1 billion when this fiscal year ends. ABC7News quoted the system’s director of financial planning saying, “Many commuters may not return to the transit community even when they return to work.”
If all those commuters stay in their cars, the consequence will be not only bone-wearying commutes, but increased pollution — unless electric cars dominate the fleet. Eighteen months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order required that by 2035, all news vehicles sold be zero-emission vehicles. This would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 35 percent and smog-forming emissions 85 percent, state figures show.
But 80 environmental groups just demanded tougher rules. Answering those who say the Ukraine crisis requires producing more fossil fuels, the environmentalists say it requires producing more electric cars. Sammy Roth’s Los Angeles Times newsletter argued, “accelerating the shift to electric cars and electric heat pumps, the U.S. and Europe could slash emissions while dealing a powerful blow to Vladimir Putin….”
Roth reports that a Stanford research scholar, Michael Wara, proposes a trade: Increase oil and natural gas production in the U.S. in the short term, to cope with the Ukrainian war gas crisis, but only if Congress approves “a massive program to electrify the U.S. vehicle fleet.”
Transportation systems, like those in the San Francisco Bay Area, have proven vulnerable to the two crises of the moment. Wara’s proposal is a reminder that another cataclysm, the results of a warming climate, should impact people’s decisions. Electric cars and public transit offer two ways to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis around the corner.