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COVID-19 ISO Insights

Traffic May Take Years to "Recover" from Covid-19

July 12, 2021

By Travis Decaminada

Key Takeaway: Traffic has decreased significantly since the beginning of the pandemic. In some areas traffic congestion may take several years to return to expected levels. Notably, COVID-19 hospitalizations do not appear to have greatly influenced traffic patterns.

 Over the past year many people living in urban areas have reported decreased congestion on roadways and overall faster travel times. The ISO Emerging Issues team last reported on this in May of 2020. Generally, the reduction in traffic is attributed to stay at home orders and an increase in remote work. However, with those precautions coming to an end so too may this brief reprieve from traffic.

Urban Mobility Report

Every year Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute releases an Urban Mobility report (2021 here). Per the report, in most areas, traffic did indeed decrease significantly during the first several months of 2020, though congestion began to rise again during the summer of 2020, returning “closer to normal” the following autumn. Urban areas saw the greatest reduction in traffic though all studied locations experienced a decrease in commute times. Notably, overall traffic congestion is still lower than expected. Per the report “congestion levels in early 2021 are at least a decade behind where they were in 2019”; ultimately suggesting that it may take several years for traffic to return to pre-Covid-19 levels.

The report also suggests that new technology and telecommuting will continue to influence traffic volume, and that employers will play a major role in this by determining whether to allow telecommuting going forward. In general, congestion will likely return to normal levels in places with a lot of on-site work, such as tourism or manufacturing centers.

Traffic Unrelated to Hospitalizations

Unexpectedly, in 2020 traffic volumes do not appear to have been overly impacted by Covid-19 hospitalizations, instead, when hospitalizations increased during the summer so too did traffic. From the Texas A&M report:

Hospitalizations went down during March‐April‐May after the initial virus surge, but traffic volumes and congestion began to increase in May after experiencing the lowest levels in April. The summer and fall saw increases in hospitalizations that accompanied higher traffic volume and sustained returns of congestion. Hospitalizations went down after the initial peak in mid‐April through early July. Traffic volumes and congestion began to increase in May after experiencing the lowest levels in April. The late‐summer and then late‐fall saw increases in hospitalizations that accompanied higher traffic volume and sustained growth in congestion.

See Also:

An overview of some potential traffic change related to Covid-19 from USA Today.

Bloomberg  reports on the impact of Covid-19 on New York City toll roads.

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