Congestion in the Bay Area is at a record high. Amsterdam might have some solutions

Andrew Lisa doesn’t have a typical commute. On some days, he only ventures out for twenty miles round trip to nearby clients. On others, he drives more than 200 miles, from Pleasanton to San Jose and to Berkeley before heading home to Pittsburg.

On days when he drives to his office in Union City in the morning, his average time on the road is two hours for 50 miles.

“But in the afternoon, it’s more brutal,” Lisa said. He sometimes spends over three hours in traffic.

Traffic congestion is one of the Bay Area’s most pressing problems. San Francisco is the fifth most congested city in the world, according to a 2018 Global Congestion Ranking. On average, Bay Area drivers spent over 79 hours in traffic jams last year.

“The [highway] 101 is like a continuous rush hour,” said Dehan Glanz, an urban designer from San Francisco.

Glanz doesn’t commute by car. Instead, he takes public transit to get to Stanford University, where he lectures in the Urban Studies department.

“I walk to BART in twenty minutes, get to Millbrae, switch to Caltrain, get out in Palo Alto, bike to campus, and do the whole thing in the reverse when I go back home,” said Glanz.

Glanz is one among the 8 percent of workers in the Bay Area who use public transit to commute. By contrast, 69 percent of Bay Area residents drive alone in their car to work.

One reason why people aren’t giving up their daily commute is that navigating the public transit system in the Bay Area is complex and often unsatisfying.

“You’ve got to know what you’re doing,” said Glanz. “For most people, it’s an unacceptable … extreme logistical challenge.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Amsterdam Transit Region in the Netherlands, where around 1.5 million people live, more than half of them commute by other means than cars. About twenty percent of people use public transit, and over 30 percent commute by bike.

Compare this to a region in the Bay Area with a similar population and geographical size, from San Francisco to Palo Alto, and only around 11 percent of residents use public transit to get to work. Just around 2 percent use a bike to commute.

Bay Area Region (~1,5 million people)

Amsterdam Transit Region (~1,5 million people)

The Bay Area seems unable to incentivize people to get out of their cars.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the government agency responsible for planning and financing transportation in the Bay Area, spent more than $2 billion of its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funding on public transit projects the last two years. Over the next four years, the MTC plans to spend over $7 billion of its $13.6 billion improvement budget on public transit projects.

Still, less than 10 percent of commuters in the entire Bay Area use public transit, according to the Census Bureau. In the meantime, the 2018 Global Congestion Ranking estimated that congestion in San Francisco cost drivers $2,250 in wasted time, fuel and other expenses last year.

The Amsterdam Transit Region on the other hand wants to have a leading role in developing new mobility concepts and successfully promotes alternative transit in favor of the car.

The Transit Region has a vast network of trains and connected regional and city-based transit, and there are more bikes than people in the Dutch capital. Together, bikes and public transit are used for 42 percent of all trips made by both residents and visitors of the region, while the car is used for only 36 percent of trips.

If the Bay Area wants to learn how to turn the car culture around, Amsterdam could provide some ideas.

From the enormous windows in his apartment overlooking the river IJ, Miro Lucassen sees the ferries that take passengers from Amsterdam North to the other side of the river, where the city center is. It would take him mere minutes to get to Amsterdam Central Station, from where he could catch one of the more than forty trains that depart every hour.

He can go nearly anywhere he needs to be with public transit.

“I don’t own a car,” he said. “I own a parking spot, but not a car.”

Lucassen had to buy the parking spot when he got his apartment. On it, he stores four bicycles.

Amsterdammers spent about 30 hours, slightly over a day, in congestion last year. It puts the city in the 182nd place on the global congestion ranking. But even while Amsterdam is already car-light, its city council wants to reduce the share of cars in the streets even more.

It does so not only by raising parking fees and removing parking spots, but also by prioritizing alternative transit and experimenting with smart mobility solutions, which uses technology to improve traffic flow.

An effective, but controversial solution to traffic jams is congestion pricing. Research shows that surcharging road users during peak congestion times decreases the number of cars on the road. Removing 10 percent of cars could reduce congestion with 20 to 50 percent.

Fee systems have been successfully implemented in Stockholm and London. In Amsterdam, the idea is back on the political agenda.

The system could be combined with other smart mobility solutions, such as interactive traffic lights, or an app that shows where available parking spots are.

U.S. citizens have never voted to change travel behavior, but transportation planner Steve Raney, who heads the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, thinks congestion charging is the only system that would be effective, initially.

“Sticks work better than carrots,” he said in an interview. He said road users should be charged by the day rather than monthly, to ensure people make a daily decision whether to drive.

Among transportation planners, an idea was to make people pay their congestion fee with quarters, so they’d have to get out of their vehicle to put the coins into a machine.

“Just to make it as hard to do as possible. You want to create friction,” said Raney.

The fee system would create more demand for alternative transit. That would be an opportunity to improve the public transit system.

But improvements require funding. According to Dan Lieberman, representative of San Mateo County bus operator SamTrans, funding is the thickest challenge for transit organizations.

San Mateo recently passed Measure W, which will provide $80 million annually for public transit improvements.

The extra money will be used, among other things, to add express bus lines and continue the Dumbarton Rail Bridge project, which would connect the Peninsula with the East Bay.

SamTrans will also implement a transit signal priority program for busses on the El Camino corridor, in which traffic lights give priority to public transit lanes.

The Amsterdam region, which invests $11 billion in improving regional public transit until 2025, already uses such a system. It makes riding the bus or tram only slightly slower than biking, and a lot faster than driving.

Biking as an alternative transit mode is underused in the Bay Area. Sabine van der Sluis lives and works in San Francisco, but is originally from Germany. She said many people don’t feel safe enough to bike in the city.

“I feel pretty safe, but I have a lot of experience with biking,” she said. “You need to always look forward and assume everyone around you is an idiot.”

Rob Hageman, representative for the Municipal Transit Agency of the Amsterdam region, said the Bay Area could invest in bicycle highways for e-bikes, just as Amsterdam is doing. These bikes can go as fast as 20 miles per hour.

The highways would connect to major public transit stations to support travelers on the first and last mile of their commute.

Constructing such a network of regional bicycle super highways was one of the ideas submitted for a competition launched by the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to improve mobility across the Bay Area. The idea became a finalist and could be included in the Plan Bay Area 2050, a long-term plan for transportation, among other things.

But even with a long-term vision, it remains a challenge for the Bay Area to combat its congestion problems. In the end, it’s not just about getting cars off the road, but also about fundamentally changing the way people think about and use transit options.

In the meantime, those stuck in traffic try to make the most of it. Daily car commuter Andrew Lisa invested in a nicer vehicle with heated seats and a good sound system, on which he listens to his satellite radio subscription.

“It’s the little comforts that make a big difference,” he said.


The two regions that are compared in this article, the Amsterdam Transit Region and a portion of the South Bay Area, are created to be as similar as possible. The population size of both regions are roughly comparable: both had around 1.5 million people living there in 2016, according to data from the Census Bureau and the Dutch Central Statistics Bureau.

To create a part of the South Bay Area similar to the Amsterdam Transit Region, the region from San Francisco up to and including Palo Alto, on the right hand side of the 280 interstate was chosen. The Amsterdam Transit Region is a densely populated region without rural areas, and this is more comparable to the San Mateo region on the right hand side of the interstate.

Another reason to chose this area is that people on this side of the interstate of the interstate have easier access to CalTrain, which would provide a more fair comparison with the Amsterdam Transit Region, which has many train stations.

Another reason for looking at this portion of the Bay Area is that both regions have a major city with around 800,000 inhabitants, as well as a major airport and multiple regional and municipal public transit options. Furthermore, the regions are roughly the same geographical size: both span around 40 miles in ‘length’.


  • Fabienne Meijer

    Fabienne Meijer graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a BSc in Bèta-Gamma, an interdisciplinary bachelor focusing on subjects such as chemistry and astronomy as well as philosophy and sociology. She majored in Philosophy. In the Netherlands, she worked as a freelance journalist and manager of a cooperative publisher for freelancers, where she also was a managing editor of an online magazine for refugee journalists. She has always been interested in investigative journalism and helped organize the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in 2017 in Johannesburg. At Stanford, she wants to learn to combine data journalism with storytelling, and become more experienced in running and managing a media enterprise.

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