U.S. traffic has rebounded to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, analysts say

More than three months after roads emptied amid the coronavirus outbreak, U.S. traffic has rebounded to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels as states lift more restrictions, “quarantine fatigue” continues to take a toll, and summer weather draws people out, according to travel analysts.

In 22 states, people have begun to drive even more than they did in late February, before government shutdown orders began to take effect, according to INRIX, a traffic analytics firm based in Kirkland, Washington.

Those include states with recent increases in coronavirus infections, such as South Dakota at 121% of pre-pandemic levels, South Carolina at 108%, and Oklahoma at 105%, according to the INRIX data analyzed up to June 12.

In Indiana, traffic has slowly rebounded from a level of about 54% in early April to 100% of pre-pandemic levels, according to INRIX. The state’s quarterly average was 74%.

Bob Pishue, an INRIX transportation analyst, said the number of miles traveled by passenger vehicles nationwide during the week of June 6-12 averaged 93% of miles traveled during the last week of February. He said vehicle mileage has increased steadily since April 9, when average traffic nationwide bottomed out at 52% of normal.

However, Pishue said, when seasonal travel changes are factored in, the national average comes closer to 80% of what’s typical for this time of year. That’s because driving trips increase in the summer by 15 to 20% compared with winter months.

“We’re still down,” Pishue said. “We’re just now hitting that February level.”

Many major metropolitan areas also have seen less traffic growth, Pishue said, probably because many people still working from home aren’t commuting into downtowns and other job centers.

In the Washington region, traffic on June 12 was at about 79% of late February levels based on miles traveled, he said. The New York City region was at 82%. while Los Angeles hit 85%.

Pishue said he was surprised to see that congestion has started to return to some major metropolitan areas, including parts of New York City and Los Angeles, perhaps as some people avoid public transportation or as even lower-than-usual traffic volumes outstrip road capacity. INRIX collects data anonymously via GPS probes on roadways, vehicle navigation systems and other devices.

Smartphone location data being tracked anonymously by University of Maryland researchers shows that miles traveled per person are back to 90% nationwide, compared with early March. Unlike INRIX, which focuses on passenger vehicles, the University of Maryland’s smartphone data includes travel by all modes, including by car, plane, walking, bicycle and public transportation.

Sepehr Ghader, assistant director of the university’s Maryland Transportation Institute, said travel dropped nationwide starting March 15 and began ticking up again in early April. He said he was surprised that travel had rebounded so quickly in many parts of the country.

Ghader attributed some of the increase to the typical summer jump as people head out more to restaurants, parks and other leisure destinations. His other theory: People tired of staying home this spring have viewed the lifting of government orders on businesses as a sign that they can resume their pre-pandemic travel habits.

“If people don’t get true guidelines of why they need to behave differently, I think people naturally do what they were doing before,” Ghader said.

The increase in travel comes as Americans tell pollsters they plan to travel less for vacation this summer due to the pandemic. In a Monmouth University poll released June 15, 26% of Americans say they definitely or probably plan to travel this summer for vacation, down from 63% before the outbreak.

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2 thoughts on “U.S. traffic has rebounded to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, analysts say

  1. A March 23rd NPR report addressed the long-term strategy for re-establishment of relative normalcy, speculating in part that the pandemic might extend 18 months.

    https://www.npr.org/2020/03/23/820030716/is-there-a-long-term-strategy-for-overcoming-the-covid-19-pandemic

    And an unsettling May 2nd NYT opinion piece quotes pandemic expert Laurie Garrett that her best-case scenario is a
    36-month event horizon.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-prediction-laurie-garrett.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Opinion&fbclid=IwAR2RoHHSg4JGpPinsYFl6OWD2RxrmJZMceVe3Mx2CY-JLUaw2Am1lWaCftU

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