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Traffic Congestion on the Rise, but Still Not to 2019 Levels

The annual INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard outlines which cities — and even thoroughfares — see the most traffic congestion. The most recent report tracks some of the lingering trends brought about by the pandemic.

An RTA transit train moves through downtown Chicago.
Americans continue to drive despite the initial declines and disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to recent data, traffic congestion in 2022 climbed slightly from 2021, but has still not reached pre-pandemic levels.

Chicago grabbed the not-so-illustrious top spot on the annual 2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard for the most congested city in the U.S. The Windy City is followed by Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Miami.

Drivers in the U.S. spent some 4.8 billion hours in traffic congestion in 2022, which is still less than the 6 billion hours spent in traffic congestion in 2019. The 2022 traffic delays cost the average U.S. driver $869 in lost time, up from $305 in 2021, according to the report.

Not all metro regions are reporting less congestion in 2022 compared to 2019, however. In fact, traffic in 116 metros — out of 295 reviewed — have surpassed 2019 traffic levels. Las Vegas and Miami are two cities that have seen the steepest return of traffic delays. Traffic in Miami is up 59 percent in 2022, compared to the year before, while congestion in Las Vegas is up 46 percent, according to the INRIX report. The increase in these cities is attributed, in part, to the influx of new residents in the last three years, easing of pandemic restrictions and these destinations as draws for tourists, said INRIX officials.

Remote work continues to impact traffic and public transit, with nearly 18 percent of employees working from home at least part of the time. Though trips into downtown centers are generally on the rise compared to last year. Trips into Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; New York City; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; and others all saw traffic volume increase more than 15 percent in 2022, compared to 2021 levels.

Ridership on public transit in 2022 was up 33 percent from 2021 levels, however, it still trails pre-COVID levels by 39 percent, according to the report.

“I think much of it still has to do with remote work,” said report author Bob Pishue.

“Travel demand to and from downtown is still significantly below pre-COVID levels. A lot of that, in my opinion, has to do with employment,” he added. “Transit is seeing the largest declines on rail specifically, not just in the United States but in many European countries as well, as rail tends to focus on bringing people to and from downtown.”

Transit agencies must work to make their service more flexible, said Pishue.

“Modes like buses and vanpools can be extremely valuable as commute and travel patterns shift,” he explained. “Prioritizing service on these modes may help return ridership to pre-pandemic levels.”

Other transportation observers agree.

“When people are not working a 9-to-5 schedule … that morning and evening peak that used to be pretty routine is no longer there anymore,” said Audrey Denis, strategy manager, Cubic Transportation Systems, during a November 2022 panel discussion to address transit challenges. The discussion was organized by CoMotion LIVE. “We’re seeing peaks at different times during the day.

“It’s requiring more agility and flexibility from our transportation networks,” she added.

Rail ridership between January and September 2021 was 65 percent below 2019 levels, and increased 55 percent in 2022, according to INRIX.

The state of cycling is also not quite what it was before the pandemic in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, where, traditionally, a large number of office workers biked to work. With many of these employees now working from home, cycling activity in these cities has declined.

“Recreational cycling may have increased during COVID-19,” said Pishue. “The increase just wasn’t enough to overtake the loss in commute cycling in those cities.”

Bike ridership in San Francisco was down 23 percent in 2022 from January to September, compared to the same period in 2019.

On a more somber note, traffic fatalities remain elevated in the U.S., rising to 1.30 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2021, and declining only slightly in 2022 to 1.27.
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.

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