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Data Shows Sharp Traffic Rise in U.S. Beach Communities

The traffic analysis firm StreetLight Data has seen sharp increases in traffic volume in beach communities, a harbinger of what officials can expect during the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

Traffic across the United States has been on the rise since mid-April, as stay-at-home orders are relaxed, and a weary public feels the need to move beyond their homes.

Movement data collected and analyzed by StreetLight Data finds that travel, particularly near beach destinations, has rebounded sharply since the Easter and Mother’s Day holidays, offering a glimpse into what officials might expect this weekend, as the nation edges into the three-day Memorial Day weekend and the proverbial start of summer.

When thinking about beach destinations and the data pointing to a marked uptick in traffic in these areas, “you have to sort of think about parking lot management, and keeping people spaced out,” said Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing for StreetLight Data. “It’s almost inevitable that you’re going to see more activity on Memorial Day.”

StreetLight Data examines anonymized location and movement data from smartphones to understand movement across cities and regions, offering insight into transportation and transit planning. The firm found that “virtually all beach counties” have experienced at least a 200 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) — an indication of traffic load — since mid-April, which marked the low point of traffic volume. And, traffic in a number of beach communities like Kennebunkport, Maine; Cape Cod in Massachusetts; or Ocean City, Md., is up at least 50 percent since Mother’s Day. 

“If you saw a trend that was heading downwards, as it was two months ago, it would be foolish to expect this weekend to be higher,” observed Morzynski. “But, if in fact, the trend is moving left to right, consistently across the country, the anticipation would be that you’re going to see people out there, and you want to be prepared."

“Whoever is managing these facilities, you want to be duly aware,” he added.

But this is not to say traffic levels have returned to what they were across Memorial Day weekend last year. Even as all states have eased into some level of re-opening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, travel and economic activity is still far from normal levels. In fact, traffic levels in a number of counties is still down 50 percent or more from January.

StreetLight Data has released its new VMT Monitor, which tracks VMT in nearly all counties across the U.S. The interactive tool, which is free to access, includes a calendar feature, allowing a look into county traffic movement changes on any particular day, basing those on average VMT in January.  

Still, to the casual observer, traffic in many areas seems to be on the rise.

“People, certainly, are not traveling to your typical office work centers,” said Morzynski, adding that activity around grocery shopping, restaurant pickups and curbside retail is up.

“But I think the important point to note is, if you look at total activity, it kind of feels like cars on the road, but there’s not much just yet,” Morzynski continued.

The coronavirus crisis forced the country into perhaps one of the largest transportation experiments ever undertaken. For weeks at a time, the stay-at-home orders have meant millions of motorists staying in. Cities quickly welcomed “slow streets,” closing throughways to cars, giving them to cyclists and walkers. In a number of cities like Oakland, Calif., and Seattle, officials are hoping to make some of those car closures permanent.

“We’ve shifted from commuting to computing. And that’s a huge permanent change. And there’ll be a lot of resistance to go back to the way before,” said Tim Papandreou, founder of Emerging Transport Advisors, a transportation consulting firm in San Francisco, during a recent Transportation Research Board mobility forum, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Carbon emissions worldwide are predicted to fall 6 percent this year, said Susan Shaheen, director of resilient and innovative mobility at the UC Institute of Transportation Studies and vice chair of the Transportation Research Board.

“So, just with the COVID, we have seen this reduction in vehicle miles traveled and CO2 emissions that predict a 6 percent drop in the year 2020, which if you had told me that in January, I would not have believed you,” said Shaheen in her forum comments.   

“We’re seeing a lot of movement in the area of active transport,” she added, calling attention to developments in Milan, Paris, Buenos Aries and other cities expanding infrastructure for active transportation such as “slowed streets.”

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.