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US Traffic Congestion Still Lags Behind 2019 Figures

The latest Global Traffic Scorecard by INRIX highlights interesting trends in traffic congestion and mobility around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the way people work and travel.

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Auto traffic in the United States has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, as the nation adjusts to the shifts in mobility brought on by COVID-19 disruptions. These adjustments have set the stage for new trends in how America works and travels, according to a study.

“Depending on where you are, and what modes kind of dominate, you’ll see different recovery rates,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst with INRIX, a transportation data and technology firm. INRIX just released its annual 2021 Global Traffic Scorecard, which measures traffic congestion and intensity around the world.

“That being said, we think it’s going to look different too,” Pishue remarked, referring to U.S. traffic. “You may see more cars in the midday as that trend continues, verses the morning. And so even though you may have the same number of cars on the road, [vehicle miles traveled] is back to normal, it’ll look different on the road network.”

Driving, as nearly everyone observed, declined significantly in 2020, particularly in the early days of the pandemic. Driving dropped 40 percent in April, but had largely rebounded by the end of the year. However, traffic levels have not reached 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels, the INRIX report concluded.

“We’re expecting traffic congestion to continue to lag 2019 levels, even through 2022,” said Pishue, pointing to varying levels of recovery, lingering effects of new coronavirus variants and lasting changes to work and travel.

The virus crisis also quickened the pace of movement of certain trends that were already in place. The INRIX report pointed out that in 2019 telecommuting surpassed transit commuting, a sign that this shift in how America works had already begun prior to the onset of COVID-19. About 35 percent of workers reported a switch to remote work when the pandemic started, according to the report.

“As we’ve seen in so many different areas, COVID tended to accelerate trends that were somewhat already going,” said Pishue. “People working at home has been growing for 15 years, 20 years, and those trends have really been going up.”

For this reason, commuter rail and subway lines serving workers traveling into downtown areas have been slow to rebound. Restoring rail ridership to 2019 levels could be “at least a few years out,” said Pishue.

Also, how people travel and when they travel has changed, with the shift to more midday travel and the softening of the morning commute peak.

During the pandemic speculation ran wild around urban dwellers abandoning transit en masse and switching to cars, creating visions of “carmageddon,” with streets clogged with congestion.

“We didn’t think that was going to happen,” said Pishue. “It didn’t happen.”

The reduced levels of traffic, modified travel patterns, evolving views around the role of transit and even how street space is divvied up have all been products of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the crisis to serve as a form of reset as cities and states plot a route forward with the goals of reducing traffic, increasing sustainability and reorienting public policy toward more equitable outcomes.

“Maybe this is a time for transit to break that old-school model of bringing commuters into downtown, and have flexible vans everywhere or something,” Pishue offered.

Transit officials gathering for the recent CoMotion LA conference were also no less visionary as they offered fresh concepts about how to reshape public transit.

“Neighborhood-based transportation and neighborhood-based transportation networks and services that really focus on the broader spectrum of people’s transportation needs are, I hope, where we can go with our funding and service delivery,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

“We have to have systemic structural change in our thinking into how to deliver these services, if we really want to meet our climate goals and our region’s health disparities,” echoed Stephanie Wiggins, CEO of L.A. Metro, the Los Angeles region’s public transit system.

New technology, incentives, public funding from the newly passed infrastructure law and changing travel habits all present opportunities to make lasting change in urban mobility, said Pishue. “I do think it should be a starting point to rethink some of the things we’ve been doing for decades.”

Top 10 Most Congested U.S. Cities
  1. New York
  2. Chicago
  3. Philadelphia
  4. Boston
  5. Miami
  6. Los Angeles
  7. San Francisco
  8. Houston
  9. New Orleans
  10. Atlanta

Source: INRIX
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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