Silver Linings: COVID-19 Thinning Traffic Across the Country

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
silver linings covid 19 thinning traffic across the country

Road traffic across the United States is dropping drastically, thanks to social-distancing efforts taking place to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. For yours truly, traffic in New York City has gone from frequently hectic to downright pleasurable and relaxed. While there’s a statewide initiative in place to keep residents in their homes, the days leading up to the shelter-in-place order saw a decline in roadway activity I’d only previously witnessed during Hurricane Sandy.

According to INRIX, a Washington-based firm providing traffic analytics, road use in the United States dropped by about 30 percent last week — with regions affected by state-mandated shutdowns seeing even larger declines. The study compares the national traffic volume from the 14th to the 20th of March to volumes recorded between the 22nd and the 28th of February — noting that March 13th was the first day traffic started trending downward in most regions. Moving forward, INRIX says it wants to continue offering up a weekly synopsis of national traffic volume until the health crisis ends.

Regions fared differently depending on when COVID-19 struck and how aggressive local governments responded. For Seattle, that culminated in a 29-percent decrease in motorists on March 20th. Meanwhile, San Francisco witnessed a 51-percent decline as New York City maxed out at 43 percent (which, again, has been lovely).

Major metropolitan areas were hardest hit by the virus since its migration out of China. However, statewide declines in traffic are still noteworthy, with many seeing roads clear by more than the national average of 30 percent. For the most part, people seem to be making the same sort of trips they used to — just at a much lower frequency (as many are opting to stay home). The only exception was said to be commercial traffic.


Digging a little deeper, so far, the decline in national passenger traffic volume is directly tied to a decline in total trips, with distance-per-trip increasingly slightly from 9.2 miles to 9.4 miles. With the reduction in congestion as reported by INRIX Research, we are seeing slightly shorter trip times, with 18.5 minutes per trip dropping to 17.8 minutes.

A silver lining, if there is one, is that commercial traffic is holding up. Long haul truck traffic is holding steady — a hopeful sign as we clearly need the nation’s logistics backbone to continue to function. Local fleets, such as service vehicles and local deliveries, are experiencing a drop nationwide, slightly under 10 [percent] through the week. These commercial traffic trends bear watching.

[Images: Stephan Guarch/Shutterstock; INRIX]

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  • Newenthusiast Newenthusiast on Mar 25, 2020

    Here on Oahu (where locals who learned to drive here take a perverse pride in giving up the right of way to as many cars as possible and have bumper sticker that read 'Slow down, this ain't da mainland, brah'), H-1 has been wide open and easy. It's normally clogged between 5:30 - 9am and 3-6:30pm or so. Hitting the 55 mph speed limit is normally a sign of no traffic. Right now, if you aren't doing 65 in the right lane, you're gonna get honked at. More motorcycles and sports cars are out on my normal drive. I'm working from home and playing teacher as well, but I still need groceries and what not and head out early (7am). So, while I expected the light traffic, I didn't expect to see the weird, cool, and fast things come out. Saw an old school suicide door Continental on Monday. Yesterday a classic Nissan Z and a first gen RX-7. So many sport bikes. It feels like there is suddenly a ton of somewhat older modded Japanese compacts, older Mustangs and Camaros, and all manner of Corvettes. I even saw a had my first sighting of a Suzuki Kizashi... showroom new look. I think people are just taking out their fun or weird vehicles and driving. Its kinda cool, but I know it means a lot of people aren't working or getting checks. :/

    • -Nate -Nate on Mar 27, 2020

      I really enjoyed Oahu and I think everyone needs to visit Hawaii at least once, same as New York City . Hawaii has multiple islands so you can try different lifestyles . -Nate

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Mar 26, 2020

    Just before everything shut, I had to be in lower Manhattan, then the next day, Coney Island. Normally a painful two hour slog each way, the 1948 traffic levels allowed me free-flow from upstate to the city. Less than an hour to City Hall, and not even pushing it. Turns out the roadway system works really well with 1/4 the usual traffic, especially the Uber and Lyft idiots being gone. Making the run to Coney Island in less than an hour was a once in a lifetime thing.....and I wasn't even trying hard or pushing beyond my normal pace + 10/15 mph.

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