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COVID-19 Nearly Killed the Economy; It Didn't Kill Traffic

Analysis from StreetLight Data shows traffic levels have largely returned to pre-COVID levels, particularly in rural counties, and among more blue-collar workers who can’t always work from home.

congested highway traffic
Traffic analysis from StreetLight Data shows traffic levels have largely returned to pre-COVID levels.
Dreams of replacing car trips with other transportation modes like transit or cycling may have to be put on hold. This doesn’t seem to be where Americans want to head, according to the data.

An analyisis of travel data before, during and post-COVID-19 – even though the virus is still surging as economies have somewhat reopened in a number of states – shows an affinity for the personal car. The study was conducted with the Boston Consulting Group, and known as the Trip Reduction Index.

“VMT [vehicle miles traveled] nationwide, is almost back to where it was in March,” said Laura Schewel, CEO of StreetLight Data, maker of the VMT Monitor, which estimates vehicle miles traveled for every county in the U.S. everyday. StreetLight Data updates the monitor about three times a week.

“We’ve seen tons of interest in this from all different types of agencies, and private-sector people using it for different reasons,” Schewel said of the travel and traffic monitor tool. 

The COVID-19 crisis, which largely shut down the country in mid-March, offered an almost unheard of traffic and work life experiment as cars disappeared from freeways, and employees took to working from home across a number of industry sectors. Transportation watchers began imagining efforts to keep traffic levels down once the economy re-opened, often proposing approaches to make local streets more inviting to pedestrians and bikers.

The reality, however, is a little more disappointing. The trend we’re seeing, said Schewel, “is not pleasant.”

StreetLight’s data suggests traffic activity is growing at a faster pace than economic activity.

“I don’t like that. That worries me,” said Schewel.

“What we also see,” she added, “is transit, not coming back.”

Transit is nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels, Schewel said, adding that transit ridership seems to have dipped in favor of personal vehilce use.

“What we also think we’re seeing is a mode-shift,” said Schewel. “And that is alarming for what it means for the future of cities, for the future of congestion, things like that.”

In the first quarter of 2020, which ended at the close of March, transit ridership had fallen 9.9 percent, nationwide, compared to the first quarter in 2019, according to recently released statistics from the American Public Transit Association (APTA). The decline happened almost entirely in March. Ridership in March was down 40.7 percent, compared to March in 2019. In fact, transit ridership was up across a number of transit agencies in January and February.

The StreetLight Data analysis offered other findings related to traffic. VMT has largely returned to rural areas, while cities are still showing reduced driving. Car trips are still down among professional white-collar workers — an indication of work-from-home allowances.

That phenomenon was seen first-hand in Los Angeles, said Seleta Reynolds, general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

In L.A. transportation data was able to illuminate who has the luxury of telecommuting, in which parts of the city and who doesn’t, Reynolds said during the recent CoMotion Miami transportation virtual conference.

There was a stark difference between who was driving during the pandemic, with wealthier Angelenos largely staying home, while poorer residents were taking to the streets, said Reynolds.

“But in South L.A., and the lower-income neighborhoods of the city, VMT actually increased,” she added, speculating that a number of residents hold jobs in areas required to remain operating, or some residents may have taken to working for on-demand delivery services, or other businesses requiring them to drive. “So not only were people still driving, to get to probably their jobs, but they were driving more.”

The StreetLight data also suggested cycling may not be the next great transportation mode-shift in the U.S., despite the shortages seen at a number of bike shops.

“It’s true that biking is up. But what we’ve found pretty clearly is that in fact, in cities – like downtown San Francisco – biking is down,” said Schewel, calling to mind the general decline of activity in city streets. 

One of the key takeaways behind the traffic analysis is the realization that all regions are unique and transportation policy needs to be drafted for each community, based on data from that community, said Schewel.

“Cities, suburbs and rural areas, they’ve living in completely different realities right now,” she remarked. “That may have been true before [COVID-19], but [COVID-19] has exasperated this. So each of these types of communities needs very different types of planning, needs different types of education for the community, needs different everything.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.