A year ago, vehicle traffic in our world was turned off, like water from a hose. Just a few people could go outside, leaving only essential vehicles on the wide-open roadways. Since then, have you noticed more traffic on the roads? 2020 was a record year for traffic, both for setting a low point in April and, according to TrafficCarma Mobility Trends data, for the balloon-like rise to record-setting high traffic that summer.
“When we look at the Denver data, we see those summer months actually eclipsing the pre-COVID norms in total miles traveled,” said Gil Edwards, TrafficCast's head of product strategy and engagement. “Keep in mind the number of trips people take might be different than miles traveled, but we definitely saw some strong numbers for Denver in the summer and spring months of last year.”
Why did traffic come roaring back so quickly? AAA Colorado believes it was from the return of the summertime road trip.
“We were actually up 4.3% over 2019 for July 4th, for example,” said Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. “41.4 million Americans, 670,000 Coloradans, were driving for that holiday because they didn’t feel comfortable flying. So, in terms of what the pandemic changed, a lot of folks who might previously have flown out to Disneyland said, ‘You know what? I’m going to drive to Arches National Park instead.'"
I’ve been studying Denver traffic for 28 years and before COVID I could tell you exactly when and where a traffic jam would start either on or off the highways. But ever since the original lockdown, there has been a shift in the traditional morning and afternoon commute that traffic reporters like me still notice.
“It’s kinda crazy,” said Brett Milove, founder and CEO of Tele-Traffic. “On a Monday, you’re like, 'Oh, things are back to normal' and then Tuesday there’s nothing in the morning and then mid-day traffic comes out of nowhere and this never happens in the middle of the day on a Tuesday. And then 3 p.m., you used to count on traffic to start to build on certain roadways and it’s not there and it doesn’t come to maybe 5 p.m. and only lasts for 30 minutes.”
McKinley said there will not be commuters to the same degree we saw in 2019, possibly ever again
“Work from home was too successful," he said. "Many folks will have to go back to an office but many, many folks won’t. And that’s going to forever change our travel patterns. I’m not going to say the commute is dead as many folks will still commute.”
Edwards said total miles traveled on a national and local level are still large even when you see percentages that are low.
"They’re just spread out across different dayparts and different hours of the day,” Edwards said. “So your traditional morning and afternoon drive commute times might be a little spread out further throughout the day.”
While less traffic has made it easier to get around, it has also made it easier and more comfortable to drive faster than ever. And that, according to local law enforcement, has led to higher speeding tickets and to crashes that are more violent and involve more serious injuries.
When will we be back to the level of traffic we saw before the shutdown? Or has traffic forever changed?
“Signs point to 2021 being a banner year for automobile travel so expect even more,” McKinley said. “I would say we’re probably going to be up another 5%. We’re talking millions of people nationwide over where we were in 2020.”
What really remains up in the air is when does confidence come back with public transit. There is still a lot of apprehension out there about getting on a train or bus, especially if it’s crowded. Does that mean former transit users will be hitting the highways instead?
Only time and low COVID-19 numbers will tell that part of the story. What we know for sure is that the roadways will continue to fill up as the economy opens back up.