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Taming Traffic

The East Bay’s traffic is only getting worse. Here are three big projects that might just help calm it.


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Illustration by Walter Baumann

Road-weary veterans call it “Friday light,” a small but significant letup in the brutal Bay Area traffic almost every Friday. It’s not as if the traffic goes away, but some people work from home on Friday, others take the day off for a long weekend, and some work longer days Monday through Thursday to leave Friday free.

Whatever the reason, Friday morning traffic tends to run more smoothly than traffic on the first four days of the week, which shows that an incremental change in the number of cars on the road can significantly impact the time you spend on the road.

Given the geographic and financial constraints of widening freeways, digging tunnels, and building bridges, Andrew Fremier, deputy executive director of operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, knows that no one has a magic wand to wave that will make the increasingly maddening East Bay traffic go away.

“Building your way out of congestion doesn’t work,” says Fremier. “The goal is to reduce traffic 5 to 10 percent and make Friday light the rule, not the exception.”

But it’s not just the typical commute nightmare that has pushed East Bay drivers over the edge: Traffic starts earlier and lasts longer—not to mention the midday delays—and there’s no end in sight.

So, what are Fremier and the other Bay Area traffic honchos doing about it? They know they’re only working on the edges, but they’ve identified three fixes that might expand Friday light through the rest of the workweek.


 

1) High-Occupancy Toll Lanes

We’re familiar with the acronym for high-occupancy vehicle lane (HOV) for carpoolers. But to speed up the traffic, high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT), or express lanes, will soon make their debut on more sections of the East Bay’s freeways. The idea is simple: Commuters willing to pay the fees posted on an electronic board for the privilege of traveling in lanes with less traffic will join carpoolers. This will move cars out of the jammed-up noncarpool lanes, thereby speeding up traffic on the entire freeway.

So, what will prevent the HOT lane from becoming just as crowded as all the other lanes? Variable pricing. If the cost is low and congestion in the regular lanes is high, more drivers will shift over. As the HOT lane becomes more crowded, the cost to join increases (with no price cap) on overhead monitors that charge based on the distance you drive. During true off-peak hours, there will be no toll, and the system will shut off.

While some commuters might grumble at the prices, these new tolls are not meant to be a hidden tax on drivers. The idea is to maximize the available space and make an incremental change in the way traffic flows. “It’s not a revenue tool,” says Fremier. “It’s an operations tool.”

These HOT lanes already operate in some parts of the East Bay, but by midsummer, I-680 between Walnut Creek and Pleasanton will join the fun. The HOT lanes extend southward toward San Jose, so they will most affect southbound traffic. But there are no HOV or HOT lanes in Central Contra Costa County. “The northern HOV lanes dead-end in Walnut Creek,” says Fremier, “and once you get congestion, there’s not much you can do.”

 

2) eBART  (East Contra Costa BART Extension)

Though many think that adding a rail line to Antioch from the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART station won’t impact Central Contra Costa County traffic, it will do more than most expect. And remember, incremental changes are the goal. If eBART can cut traffic by 2 percent, that will help make Friday light a Tuesday reality.

“We know there’s a pent-up demand in East County,” says District 2 BART Director Joel Keller. Keller also points out that taking 4,000 cars off the road is like adding another lane of traffic.

Four thousand seems like a pretty big number. So, how will the BART extension help chip away at those 4,000 cars? Contra Costa County BART riders know that the real problem is the lack of parking space. The eBART line will include at least 1,000 parking spaces in Antioch (when that station opens in 2018), and the Pittsburg/Bay Point station may gain 400 more spaces. This means potential BART riders who now stay on the road because there’s nowhere to park will shift gears, so to speak, when more spaces become available.

 

Illustration by Walter Baumann

3) BART to Warm Springs

The Warm Springs district in Fremont isn’t exactly an employment hotbed, but extending BART to the Silicon Valley will take a bite out of congestion on I-580 and I-880.

“We’re putting the pieces in place,” says Keller, who acknowledges that the dream of taking BART from Walnut Creek to downtown San Jose is at least a decade away.

But, Warm Springs will have 2,000 more parking spaces, and some riders who now come from Fremont can take advantage of the new station (which should open by the end of this year). And again, just taking a few hundred or 1,000 cars off the road will have an impact, especially when combined with cars taken off the road by other means.

 

While no one claims that these incremental improvements will lead to wide-open freeways, they should enable a more predictable commute, as well as reduce traffic during noncommute hours.

“A small change in traffic has a marked effect on reliability,” says Fremier.

The changes might be small, but they’ll go a long way in streamlining those morning and evening commutes. And if all goes well, that Friday light will shine from Monday through Friday in the very near future.

 

Significant Digits

9%
Contra Costa has the worst commute in the Bay Area—taking 9 percent longer than any other commute.

11%
Since 2006, Contra Costa drivers have watched their time spent in traffic congestion increase by 11 percent.

17% / 22%
The Bay Area population has increased 17 percent in the past 20 years, adding roughly 1.3 million people—and their cars. Contra Costa’s population has exploded in that same time frame, increasing by 22 percent.

32%
That’s the decrease in the number of housing units built in Contra Costa between 1996 and 2015. Why does that matter? Commuters who live in Solano County or on the eastern side of the Delta often drive through Contra Costa to get to work.

 

Illustration by Walter Baumann

High-Occupancy Toll Lanes

All vehicles must have a regular FasTrak or FasTrak Flex toll tag to use the express lane during hours of operation.

1. Dashed lines show where it is OK to enter and exit the express lane.

2. Carpools, vanpools, and other eligible vehicles with FasTrak Flex travel toll-free. Carpool occupancy requirements may vary by lane.

3. Signs display the cost to use the express lane to various destinations. Tolls will change based on traffic levels to encourage smooth traffic flow and reliable speeds.

4. Electronic toll tag readers automatically charge the appropriate fees to a vehicle’s FasTrak account.

5. Solid double white lines show where it is illegal to enter and exit the express lane. These access limitations improve traffic flow.

 

The New FasTrak Flex

The new FasTrak transponder, called FasTrak Flex, will allow commuters to choose from one of three options to take advantage of the soon-to-arrive HOT lanes.

Option 1:
A solo driver will pay the full amount to use the HOT lanes.

Option 2:
A driver plus one passenger will result in toll-free travel.

Option 3:
Three or more people, motorcycles, and clean air vehicles also gain a free ride.

Drivers will set their FasTrak before each ride, and then move in and out of the HOT lanes as their needs require.

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