The busy San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is sometimes called "the other bridge" by Bay Area locals, due to competition from the striking beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge. Six months older than the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge opened in 1936 as the world's longest steel structure, about 4.5 miles. The Bay Bridge is actually two bridges joined by a tunnel midway across at Yerba Buena Island. Newly designed and reopened in 2013 with an eastern span seismic refit deemed necessary after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damage, it's billed as the widest bridge in the world, carrying more than one quarter million cars every day between the two California cities on the bay.
Busy Morning Commute
Morning is the peak time for bridge traffic headed westbound on the bridge's Interstate 80, which has a maximum flow rate of 9,300 vehicles per hour on its five lanes in each direction. According to the 2010 Bay Bridge Corridor Study, peak hours are between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Traffic regulation occurs at the 20-lane toll plaza located in Oakland, where fees are collected one-way for traffic headed into San Francisco. Carpools with three or more passengers pay a discounted toll and travel in a faster moving access lane.
For a couple of hours on either side of noon, traffic is lighter and tolls are reduced to an off-peak fare. This is the best time to make an eastbound or westbound crossing, perhaps reaching the maximum speed limit of 50 miles per hour. For westbound journeys, aim to arrive at the tolls before 3 p.m. when the fare goes up and traffic starts to build again. Drivers must take care, of course, to avoid being distracted by the gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay and skyline.
Evening Bay Lights
Leaving San Francisco heading east, the entrance ramps and bridge can resemble a parking lot on a Friday evening after work. However, after 7 p.m., when the fare reverts to off-peak, the drive from Oakland to San Francisco can take as little as 10 minutes. As a bonus for evening journeys, from dusk until dawn the western span and towers are decorated with 75,000 LED lights in a non-stop white light display. Called Bay Lights, the semi-permanent animation installed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bridge is privately funded and widely acclaimed.
Weekends and Events
Saturdays and Sundays have a reduced toll fare and relatively light traffic in both directions. The exception occurs whenever there's a city-wide convention, a large event, concert, marathon, bike race or sports game scheduled. If disruption of service occurs on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the Bay Bridge will feel the knock-on effect. FasTrack mechanisms at the toll plaza have dedicated express lanes and require no cash payment once you've registered your account. Just display the FasTrack on your windshield or dashboard for the sensor. These lanes are indicated by electronic signage all day, every day.