Bay Area commuters are getting a sinking feeling as we see firsthand what economic recovery looks like -- miles of brake lights on commutes so congested we're wasting hours a week inching to work and back.
It almost makes you miss the recession.
Commuters say trips that took 30 minutes a year ago now may take 60 or more. It's happening on Highway 85 in the South Bay, Highway 101 along the Peninsula, Interstate 880 through the East Bay and Interstate 680 from the Sunol Grade to the Benicia Bridge.
Forget talk about Twitter stock. When people gather around the office water cooler, it's often to gripe about traffic, traffic, traffic.
San Jose had the 13th worst congestion in the nation in 2010, but now ranks fifth, according to Inrix, which monitors traffic nationwide. Delays are also growing through San Francisco and Oakland, which are counted together and are considered the country's third most congested city, a spot it has held for years.
"It's gotten noticeably worse, even in the last two weeks," said KQED traffic reporter Joe McConnell. "Every morning has been nightmarish.
"Something may have tipped, but it could be like trying to connect any particular stormy day to climate change or just bad weather."
Mostly, experts say, the congestion is a testament to the growth in jobs in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and the East Bay as the economy recovers from the Great Recession. And that has exacerbated problems that were already worse here than elsewhere.
Where drivers nationwide spend about 38 hours stuck in traffic a year, drivers in California's most urban areas waste 62 hours a year, says the Texas Transportation Institute.
"It takes me 1.5 to 2 hours to drive 30 miles from San Jose to Livermore each evening," said Sean Lamson of his I-680 trek.
If Brenda Nguyen hears a crash reported along her route from San Francisco through the Caldecott Tunnel, her 22-mile drive can turn into two hours. "Bank on it," she said. "It used to be maybe 50 minutes at its worst."
Chris Lee of San Jose just wants to get her kid to class on time at Archbishop Mitty High School in west San Jose.
"In the past few months we have noticed a huge increase in the time it takes to get from 280 and 87 to Saratoga Avenue," she said. "We are now almost late every day, even though we allow 35 minutes to go about four miles."
Other than an improving economy that's putting workers back on the road, here are some factors behind our growing woes: Truck traffic from the Port of Oakland to the Central Valley has turned I-80, I-580 and I-880 into big rig alleys. Thieves continue to steal copper wiring at metering lights, and when they don't work, highway traffic backs up. Road construction is underway seemingly everywhere. Schools are back in session. Gas prices have fallen 28 cents a gallon over the past year. And more traffic on the road means more crashes that make things even worse.
While ridership on BART, Caltrain, light rail and buses continues to grow and carpool use is on the rise, there are simply too many of us driving solo to work.
Honolulu ranks as the nation's most congested city, followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle and San Jose. New York is No. 6.
Through the early part of this year, 61 of America's top 100 cities with the worst congestion saw delays worsen compared to the year before -- and San Jose's jump is at the top of the list. In 2012, only six cities experienced increases.
"That's incredible, to have such a huge increase so quickly," said Jamie Holter of Inrix. "San Jose people really have no choice but to drive."
Traffic delays dropped by more than 22 percent during the recession of 2008, says Inrix, making any increase now seem unbearable. But make no mistake, traffic officials say, delays are on a rapid spiral upward and might be a sample of what is down the road as highway work wraps up and state transportation dollars dwindle.
"We are only experiencing the tip of the Silicon Valley congestion iceberg," said Rod Diridon of the Mineta Transportation Institute. "Since what we knew of as full employment before the Great Recession, government has been unable to invest significantly in highway capacity expansion.
He says Silicon Valley will soon bump against "terminal gridlock" like the kind that occurred in Beijing six years ago when commuters were trapped in their cars for days.
"The capital of China was nearly paralyzed for almost seven days while that massive traffic jam was cleared," Diridon said. "That crisis doesn't happen gradually. There is no quick fix."
Not unless we have another recession.
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.