From his car seat behind me, my two-year-old observed something he hadn’t seen in over a year and most certainly didn’t remember: a traffic jam. As Californians get vaccinated and begin their “return to normal,” one of the state’s most famous headaches is making its smoggy comeback. Our freeways and highways are filling up with the cars of commuters, travelers, and schoolchildren.
In the urban hubs of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, traffic congestion has nearly returned to pre-pandemic numbers, despite many people continuing to work from home. Newly reopened attractions like museums and restaurants are drawing people onto the roads, as is in-person learning in California’s public schools. In the grand scheme of things, this is great—for our sanity and our economy. But for those of us who’ve enjoyed breezing across an empty Bay Bridge or flying down the 405, the return of bumper-to-bumper traffic is unwelcome. It’s also a different kind from the one we once knew. The pandemic has, at least for now, changed the way we drive and the reasons that we’re back behind the wheel.
In Los Angeles, traffic-related deaths have returned to pre-pandemic levels—and not necessarily because there are more cars on the road. In the past 15 months, more citizens have taken to walking and bicycling, and many of those who are driving are accustomed to the empty streets of the shelter-in-place phase, leading to a substantial rise in speeding. This jump in both car speeds and pedestrians is resulting in what the Los Angeles Police Department is calling an “alarming increase” in tragic deaths.
There’s also this unexpected twist on post-pandemic traffic numbers: Over the past year, we’ve experienced a population exodus from California’s cities to the state’s suburbs. Working from home has allowed people who’ve struggled to afford urban rents or mortgages the opportunity to sprawl into cheaper outlying areas. According to change-of-address information from the United States Postal Service, between March and November of last year, there was a 77 percent increase in people leaving their San Francisco apartments from the year prior, although the majority of those people remained in the Bay Area. San Franciscans who move to the typically car-dependent suburbs (and now there are a lot more of them) must now drive instead of walk or use public transit, as they formerly did.
While we might be working from home, we’re driving to recreate. Mobility numbers to outdoor destinations in counties like Mariposa (home to Yosemite National Park) and El Dorado (home to South Lake Tahoe) are up 95 percent and 87 percent, respectively.
Public transit ridership, which requires passengers to share an enclosed space with strangers—a situation still too fraught to many as we get closer to being out of the pandemic—remains drastically diminished. BART, for example, had about 14 percent of its pre-COVID ridership. San Francisco’s Muni busses carry only 27 percent of their 2019 passengers.
Finally, the state’s shutdown gave air-quality experts and scientists an opportunity to study Los Angeles’s infamous smog. If we drive a lot less, does the air get a lot better? No. A few of the dire effects of climate change—namely an increase in temperatures and wildfires—are the biggest contributors to the continued decline in L.A. air quality, not CO2 emissions. Don’t get us wrong. CO2 emissions are bad—and particularly in the communities, most often lower-income, surrounded by online retailer mega-warehouses that rely on big rigs for deliveries, the majority of which are in Southern California. The statewide shutdown didn’t fix smog, despite our optimism.
So, yep. We’re stuck in traffic again. But the driving changes brought on by a pandemic provide opportunities for innovators and problem-solvers to adapt and improve the ways we get around. California cities are working hard to become more pedestrian-friendly and less reliant on cars, and state lawmakers are calling on corporations with L.A.-area warehouses to slash diesel emissions caused by their trucks.
Back to normal probably isn’t in the cards yet for California—even if our bumpers get a lot closer than six feet apart. Are you driving differently post-pandemic?•
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.