Transit data — and frustrated commuters — point to Bay Area’s booming economy

Above: A typical traffic jam on the way to downtown San Francisco.

Image Credit: Yoshimasa Niwa/Flickr

If you want to see evidence of economic recovery in the Bay Area, or maybe even a bubble, you could look at data on real estate, employment, or tourism. You’d find data to prove your point. But there’s another category of data that makes an even stronger argument: traffic.

The number of cars in at least a couple of areas on an interstate highway along the peninsula has been increasingly steadily each year since 2008, according to state reports. And the average trip has been taking longer this year than it did last year in both the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas, according to calculations based on data the traffic-monitoring company INRIX provided to VentureBeat.

On public transit systems, too, there are growth stories to tell. Generally speaking, Caltrain and BART rider numbers and fare revenues have gone up almost every fiscal year since 1994-95.

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It looks like the trend is continuing this year. A key metric for Caltrain, the average weekday rider count, came in at 47,060 boardings in February, up more than 11 percent over the measurement for that month last year, according to a report Caltrain released in May.

And earlier this year BART forecasted that in the current fiscal year — which will end June 30, 2014 — there will be an average of 403,680 weekday trips, more than 7 percent higher than the previous fiscal year. Passenger revenue should be up 9 percent in the fiscal year, too.

These are not meaningless metrics. It appears that transportation figures can be evaluated as supplements to more traditional economic indicators.

“I think it’s a straightforward correlation — as the economy recovers, as the economy grows, you’re going to see more people on the freeway and more people on the transportation systems,” said Russell Hancock, chief executive of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a nonprofit that works with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to release an index of the region’s economic health every February.

While those patterns do seem to be moving right along this year, Hancock disagrees with the idea that we’re entering another bubble as many media types have been suggesting of late. He sees these good times as having come on gradually and steadily, not suddenly.

He cited “four solid years of job growth” as proof of his point, in contrast with a sharp burst and a sudden loss in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Then, on top of that, you’re not seeing these crazy IPOs, and VCs tripping over themselves,” he said. “Venture capital hasn’t been making any big returns as an industry for quite a while.”

Still, whatever one wants to call it, traffic does look to be hitting higher levels in San Francisco and Silicon Valley lately, on the road and on the train, supporting the notion that some kind of growth happening.

The streets are getting busier, and fast

Let’s start the tour of data on U.S. Highway 101, an interstate that barrels through San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose. Last year, two particularly crowded segments were in San Mateo, from Kehoe Avenue to the junction with state Route 92, and in San Jose, between Tully Road and the junction with Interstate 280. That’s according to figures from the California Department of Transportation’s traffic data division. On those two spans, traffic on average had not been higher for any year since 2008, the earliest year for which data is available online.

Traffic counts

Figures for 2013 are not yet available.

As more cars have been filling up those roads, trips in two key metropolitan areas, San Francisco and San Jose, have been taking longer on average.

When INRIX spokesman Jim Bak sent along data from his company, he mentioned that congestion was up more than 14 percent in the two metro areas for the first nine months of the year compared to the year before. That might be true, although the raw data — the INRIX index, which is the percent of extra time it takes for an average trip — is spiky and hard to interpret at first glance.

I calculated the year-over-year changes to the monthly numbers, and that’s when I came across something fascinating — big growth in both metro areas.

Inrix Index YOY

The two high points happened in the San Francisco metro area in May and July of this year, more than 32 percent up and more than 34 percent up, respectively. The San Jose metro area’s high point happened in April, with a jump in excess of 25 percent.

Too bad INRIX only has this data going back to January 2010. A comparison with the tech bubble would be telling.

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