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Collapse of SF transit shows shelter-in-place order working

Transit metrics dropped last month, as people listened to public health warnings and stayed home

A high photo of a parking lot with only a handful of cars in it.
The typically busy staging area for taxicabs is nearly empty at San Francisco International Airport on April 2.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The numbers don’t lie: Despite a few bad actors, San Franciscans are committed to stopping the spread of COVID-19 by following orders to stay at home, as evidenced by transit data from across the city.

Both vehicular traffic and public transit use is a fraction of what it was just a few weeks ago in San Francisco, in many cases sinking to historic lows.

Although some residents haven’t taken shelter-in-place orders seriously enough, with crowds at popular destinations provoking SF to close many public spaces this week, most of the city is still doing the safe thing and staying home, judging from the numbers.

  • The San Francisco Examiner reports that, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, traffic on Bay Area bridges dropped 50 percent in March and remains at half volume consistently.
  • The trip planning app City Planner released data at the end of March showing that SF users were taking 94 percent fewer trips. What’s interesting is that the dramatic declines happened before the shelter-in-place order; by March 13, the number of trips people plotted with the app dropped more than 50 percent from two weeks prior. By March 16, when SF’s health officer announced the shelter-in-place order, trips fell two-thirds. The next day, March 17, transit declined to just 16 percent of what it had been at the beginning of the month.
  • Parking app Spot Hero reports similar figures using its own data. On March 17, the first day of sheltering in place, parking demand (at least among those using the app) declined a whopping 93.8 percent compared to the same time last year. By the following Saturday, it was down more than 95 percent.
  • Travel tech company INRIX, which measures miles driven in major cities with users of its app, estimated that SF traffic declined 54 percent by the final week of March. Note that a significant percentage of INRIX users are delivery drivers and other professionals who are more likely to still be on the road than most San Franciscans.
  • BART—which continues updating publicly released figures about its ridership decline daily as part of a campaign to impress on state and local leaders the necessity of a bailout—says that ridership was down 93 percent every day this week compared to roughly the same time in February, the largest declines yet in its free-falling trip volume. Fewer than 30,000 people a day are riding BART now, versus the previous weekday average of around 400,000.
  • Similarly, Caltrain says that daily ticket sales dropped 95 percent from their average the final week of March.

Declining public transit ridership is an increasingly worrisome bugbear for agencies like BART and Caltrain, both of which rely on fares for the majority of funding.

Nevertheless, the diversity of figures is encouraging; the shelter-in-place orders are effective with the majority of people remaining at home. Although the number of COVID-19 cases in SF is growing—as of Thursday the total number of positive diagnoses reached 450, up from just a few dozen at the beginning of March, with seven people dead—that growth is minor compared to national trends.