The pandemic has changed so many of our routines: how we commute, how we shop, and how we spend our free time.
A key question for regional planners and elected officials: How will this affect traffic on our roads and highways in the years and decades to come?
It’s a complex, highly dynamic issue. Even experts say they don’t yet know the long-term impact. But new data sheds light on where things stand, and what may lie ahead, around the next curve:
Highway traffic counts getting close to ‘normal’
More people are hitting the roads as the pandemic wears on, but overall traffic counts remain below pre-COVID levels. That’s according to the latest traffic data from Georgia DOT.
Consider average weekly traffic volume on I-75 South at Delk Road in Cob County. Traffic counts initially dropped by more than 7% when comparing the third week of September 2019 to the same period in 2020. But by 2021, traffic has creeped back up and is now 4% below 2019 levels.
The numbers are even more dramatic for Ga. 400 southbound at Pitts Road. Traffic plunged by 20% between 2019 and 2020 before rising by 10% in past year. Overall, traffic in that area is down 14% between 2019 and 2021.
The chart below shows traffic volume changes on a number of key corridors.
COVID-19 Average Traffic Volumes (third week of September)
(2020 – 2021)
(2019 – 2021)
|I-75 SB-Delk Road||138,002||128,083||132,466||+3.4%||– 4.2%|
|I-85 SB – Beaver Ruin||150,227||144,317||144,271||0%||-4.1%|
|GA 400 SB- Pitts Road||92,470||73,806||81,103||9.9%||-14%|
|I-285WB at Cham-Dunwdy||102,878||92,179||94,577||2.6%||-8.8%|
|I-20 WB at Columbia Dr||94,577||41,456||44,523||7.4%||-0.2%|
|I-20 EB at MLK Jr. Dr||83,224||72,915||79,677||9.3%||-4.5%|
|I-75 NB at I-675||91,852||89,180||92,812||4%||-1%|
Biggest Impact: AM and PM Rush Hours
As the pandemic hit, many commuters began working at home, while some businesses closed their doors altogether.
That meant dramatically different rush hour commutes. The Tom Tom Traffic Index provides a wealth of data that show just how much change has taken place.
Here’s one example:
On Wednesday, Oct. 20, the average hourly congestion level at 5 p.m. was 49%. That means a trip that would take 30 minutes at an uncongested time took 49% longer, or an additional 15 minutes. OK, got that?
By comparison, congestion levels hit 65% on the equivalent day and time in 2019. In 2020 the figure dropped to 36% as the pandemic set in.
In contrast, traffic levels in the middle of the day were almost the same across the three years.
Will the Changes Last?
That’s the 65-mph question.
Traffic planners with the Atlanta Regional Commission say they’ll be studying the issue closely over the next few years as they prepare an update to the region’s long-range transportation plan.
Meanwhile, Georgia Commute Options has been surveying employers and employees during the pandemic to gauge opinion on teleworking.
The survey launched in April 2020 and was most recently updated this past summer, providing more than a year of data. The upshot:
- The rate of teleworking declined slightly following the widespread availability of vaccines. The average days respondents worked from home fell from 4 days in April 2021 to 3.5 days in July 2021
- There is sustained interest in telework even after the pandemic, though workers may not be able to work at home as many days a week as they’d like.
- Employees like teleworking, but some employers are expressing concerns.
Public Transportation to the Rescue?
The waning pandemic may mean more people will return to public transportation. MARTA’s ridership has been increasing, but it remains well below pre-pandemic levels
Rail ridership is down 55%, according to the agency, while bus ridership has declined 40-45% from pre-pandemic levels. More people on buses and trains, of course, mean fewer vehicles on the roads.
What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.