Silver Linings: COVID-19 Thinning Traffic Across the Country

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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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.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.