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Border & Immigration

Southbound jam — a new twist to border wait times

Last Thursday morning, Victoria waited four hours to cross the border into San Diego. That afternoon, with her unhappy son in the back seat, she waited another two hours to get back to her home in Tijuana.

“This is horrible,” she said in Spanish as she sat among the cacophony of horns on Camino de la Plaza. “My boy gets in a terrible mood. And he has to go to the bathroom right now.”

Cross-border traffic isn’t new. For decades, people have waited as long as three hours to cross from Tijuana to San Diego.


But traffic jams heading south into Tijuana? Yeah, that is new.

“Everyone started noticing two, maybe three-hour wait times heading southbound, which was completely uncommon,” said Joaquin Luken, executive director of the Smart Border Coalition, a San Diego-based business advocacy group.

Luken said southbound traffic has increased steadily over the past couple years as the housing crunch has forced more people to live in Tijuana and work in San Diego. But it’s only been in the past several months that the organization has heard complaints about the southbound wait.

“The binational workforce keeps growing more with news of San Diego being the most expensive city in the U.S.,” Luken said. “That just creates more stress on Tijuana and the infrastructure.”

Making matters worse was that for months half of the vehicle lanes at the southbound border crossing were closed, he added. The result of all of this is traffic that used to only be an issue on Fridays is now a problem every day of the work week.


Data show that peak rush hour times increased significantly between 2022 and 2023, according to StreetLight Data, a San Francisco-based company with a mobility platform that analyzes hundreds of data sources to study traffic patterns.

“I would say the rush hour has become rush hours,” said Jim Hubbell, a StreetLight Data engineer who conducted the analysis. “It’s starting earlier and ending later.”

Hubbell said human behavior also plays a role.

“If people know that it’s really congested at 5 p.m., they might try to leave at 3 p.m. thinking they can beat the rush,” Hubbell explained. “But enough people had that same idea that it’s really just causing the peak to start earlier.”

This kind of traffic can ruin someone’s day.

“It’s crazy,” said a woman named Gloria who wanted half an hour on Thursday afternoon to move the equivalent of two blocks. “If you’re not in line by 2 o’clock, you’re going to be hours to get across.”

Cars wait to cross the border in this undated photo. There are approximately 80,000 cross-border commuters who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego.
Matthew Bowler
Cars wait to cross the border in this undated photo. There are approximately 80,000 cross-border commuters who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego.

Imagine waiting three hours to cross into San Diego in the morning, working an 8-hour shift, and then waiting another two hours to go back home to Tijuana.

“So much of your life is lost waiting in the border line,” said Margaret Yova, the co-owner of the San Diego-based Border Traffic, an app that gives users a real-time view of traffic conditions.

The company launched with one camera in 2010. It now has more than 40 cameras and tens of thousands of users — all of them planning their entire schedule around the cross-border rush hours.

“People depend on our service,” Yova said. “Because it does offer something that you can’t get anywhere else.”

The northbound border traffic has impacts that go beyond inconvenience. It costs the San Diego-Tijuana border region billions in lost productivity each year.

The increase in southbound traffic is nowhere near that point … but it’s bad enough that Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had to get involved.

During a pre-planned visit to Baja California in November, local reporters asked Lopez Obrador about the traffic and why only six of 20 southbound lanes were regularly open.

“People are angry and tired,” reporter Yolanda Morales said during a press conference.

Lopez Obrador asked the Tijuana press corps to give him until the end of the year to solve the issue. A few days later, troops from Mexico’s National Guard began directing traffic at the border crossing. And officials opened all 20 lanes.

“We’ve already been seeing some of the benefits of having most of the lanes open heading into Tijuana,” Luken said.

But it’s still not enough for commuters like Victoria and her poor son’s bladder.