March 11, 2020 / 4:01 PM / 20 days ago

Traffic eases on San Francisco bridges as tech workers log on from home

SAN FRANCISCO, March 11 (Reuters) - The San Francisco Bay area's army of tech workers heeded requests to do their jobs from home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, easing traffic on local bridges for commuters who still had to drive to work.

Some of the area's biggest companies, including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc, asked employees to work from home, as more people got sick.

(For a graphic, please see tmsnrt.rs/2Q3J2Se).

Rush hour traffic across the Dumbarton Bridge, which links East Bay commuter towns to Silicon Valley, was down 18% on Monday from a week earlier, data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission/Bay Area Toll Authority showed.

The morning commute over the San Mateo Bridge was off 8%. And on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, use of the carpool lane - restricted to vehicles of three or more people -- dropped 12%.

Lighter-than-usual commutes have sometimes been symptomatic of an economic downturn. That was the case during the financial crisis in 2008, when there was a 12% drop in the hours Bay Area commuters spent tied up in traffic, a Caltrans study found.

But though some economists fear the coronavirus could indeed trigger a global recession, the suddenly thin traffic in the Bay Area probably does not signal a reduction in economic activity, at least not yet.

"Here it might be caused by a self-imposed modification of work patterns,” said Alexandre Bayen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies.

As the virus has spread globally, some governments like Italy have followed the blueprint of China, where the virus emerged, limiting the movements of millions of people to tamp down its spread.

In the United States, the situation has evolved differently. Companies like Airbnb, Salesforce, Google, and social media giants Facebook and Twitter all in recent days began encouraging employees in cities with growing caseloads to log on from home if possible.

Public health officials say limiting time spent in large groups can fight the spread of the disease.

Though many workers cannot do their jobs remotely, data from the Bay Area toll bridges is among the earliest showing the substantial impact of U.S. work-from-home directives.

Ridership on the Bay Area's train system, BART, is also down, local media have reported.

Worldwide there are now more than 110,000 cases of COVID19, more than 1,000 of them in the United States. As of Tuesday evening, at least 90 people in the Bay Area tested positive.

Overall traffic on the Bay Bridge did not drop, but use of the carpool lane did. That may reflect a drop in commuters using popular "casual carpool" arrangements, where drivers pick up passengers at designated spots in order to take advantage of the faster, cheaper carpool lane.

The data from the toll bridges suggest that commuters are doing so less frequently now, “potentially out of fear or because many Bay Area companies have allowed working remotely,” Bayen said.

Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by David Gregorio

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