More people expected to drive than fly for the holiday this year due to pandemic concerns

Thanksgiving traffic to peak Wednesday afternoon

Fewer people will be traveling this Thanksgiving, but projections suggest many will still be on the move, despite warnings from officials to stay home as the coronavirus pandemic rages into its third wave.

Many of those who still plan to move forward with their holiday plans might be gathering a little closer to home, and traveling by car rather than plane.

San Francisco International Airport had about 60,000 departures over the past weekend, the most since the shelter-in-place started, but still down 75 percent from the 240,000 seen during the same period last year, a spokesperson said Monday.

AAA’s holiday predictions from mid-October reveal similar findings nationwide.

The not-for-profit organization predicts at least a 10 percent drop in travel, declining from roughly 55 million people last year to less than 50 million people this year.

However, trips by car are expected to make up a significantly greater share of overall travel as they provide more flexibility and less contact with strangers.

AAA predicts vehicle travel will drop by only 4.3 percent as compared to last year, and will account for as much as 95 percent of all holiday travel.

Traffic in all urban areas, including San Francisco, will peak on Wednesday afternoon, according to INRIX, a transportation analytics firm, reaching levels as high as 30 percent above normal pandemic congestion.

The busiest corridor in the Bay Area is expected to be where I-580 eastbound meets CA-238/Hayward and the 205 Interchange headed to Tracy. Inrix predicts drivers here could see delays of up to 57 minutes Wednesday late afternoon at 3:45 p.m.

Though the anticipated drop in overall travel seems nominal on paper, it actually marks the largest one-year decrease since the Great Recession in 2008.

Tourism has dropped notably in San Francisco. The most recently available data from the San Francisco Travel Association projects a total of 12.9 million visitors to The City for 2020, a 53.1 percent decline from 2019. The same is true regionally, where the firm forecasts a 52.4 percent decline in visitors.

Visitors mean dollars, and San Francisco is slated to lose huge amounts of money in the vacuum.

SF Travel expects tourists to spend $3.1 billion, down from last year’s $9.6 billion, with spending expected to slowly bounce back next year but nowhere near its previous numbers.

Analysis from Google Analytics of Google Maps searches shows similar holiday travel trends nationally.

Many are opting for solo adventures with driving continuing to be the most popular transportation mode. Meanwhile, as interest in transit has declined by 50 percent, interest in cycling has shifted up by 30 percent compared to pre-pandemic.

People are also getting directions to fewer new places, likely a sign that people are heeding, at least to some extent, government direction to stay local.

Thanksgiving spent closer-to-home has changed other holiday behaviors, too.

Google’s data posits people might spend Turkey Day ordering the bird instead of roasting their own.

While trends early in the pandemic showed record numbers of searches for “easy recipes,” the trend has since swung the other direction with searches for “takeout” and reservations booked directly on Google Maps bumped up by 306 percent and 200 percent, respectively, as compared to the beginning of the pandemic

For those who do plan to go traditional with a home-cooked meal, grocery stores this year are expected to be the most crowded on weekend afternoons, usually between 1 and 3pm, a sign that you should get your holiday shopping done early this year.

Good news for those staying local who have planned outdoor gatherings with their quaranteams: the weather forecast looks splendid.

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