By on April 27, 2020

Following two weeks of unseasonably cold weather that seemed to put spring on hold, Saturday was a gorgeous day in this writer’s city. Warm temps, endless sunshine, and a pandemic that compelled public health officials to tell everyone to stay indoors for the fifth weekend in a row. Or was it the sixth? Time feels more fluid than it once was.

Anyway, yours truly was on the road, seeking an escape from humanity. With too many potential walking or running spaces overrun with people or, oddly, closed off for public safety, I realized I needed to go further afield to distance myself from this constrained, antsy populace. And so I hopped on the highway… and found myself driving in a near-normal level of traffic for the first time since this all began.

Was everyone being an asshole? Was I?

Ghostly freeways crying out for a cinematic tumbleweed marked the early days of lockdown, but road traffic isn’t nearly as absent as some might think. Sure, North America has seen a sharp drop in driving, but not to the degree health officials would clearly like.

As reported by The Washington Post, data compiled by traffic analytics firms like Wejo and Inrix reveal that driving is really only halved. And barely that. Wejo data shows that car trips in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia last Wednesday amounted to somewhere between 51 and 59 percent of normal, depending on locale. In California, daily trips are 58 percent of normal.

Seattle, the first American city to be publicly hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic (though studies now show the virus existed in other cities, like L.A., long before its official arrival), saw distances traveled by car at 55 percent of normal at the end of March. The last couple of weeks has seen that figure hover around 50 percent.

This, despite a vast majority of Americans saying they’re staying home as much as possible. And in those homes are stockpiles of essentials that six in 10 Americans say they’ve long since bought.

Well, stockpiles run out, and essential workers still need to get to their jobs. As the weather gets better in northerly regions and people increasingly take to the streets for recreation and exercise, miles traveled will only increase. I drove across the city to an outlying aggregate quarry on Saturday to soak up the rays as far away from any other human being as possible; my only companion that afternoon being a small, curious garter snake. You can bet I wasn’t alone in seeking an urban exodus.

There’s another factor to consider — the hard truth that most miles driven are for personal errands, not for things like commuting. And in this day and age, those personal errands are more likely to be accomplished via a personal vehicle.

Transit authorities have curtailed service, and who wants to be in a (potentially virus-filled) bus or train if they can help it? Twentieth century philosopher Gary Numan was speaking from the heart, and maybe the future, when he wrote, “Here in my car, I feel safest of all…”

“There’s a certain level of automobile use built into our daily lives, even when we’re not going into the office or to a restaurant to socialize,” Trevor Reed, a transportation analyst at Inrix, told WaPo. “Social distancing is by definition not coming into contact with other people. It doesn’t mean stop moving. People could be social distancing perfectly, and you’d still see vehicles on the road.”

While transportation app Waze claims per-day U.S. driving miles were down roughly 67 percent on April 10th, our roadways would need something like a chemical weapons attack or nuclear first strike warning to clear, and even that wouldn’t guarantee empty streets. Perhaps quite the opposite, if disaster films tell us anything.

Still, they’ve cleared enough in hard-hit urban centers to spark think pieces like this on the pitfalls of car-centric land use in the time of social distancing. A hater of germs myself, I’m more sympathetic to this viewpoint than you’d think. The car’s not going away, no matter how hard urbanists scream and cry, but neither is COVID-19. Sidewalks become crowded in a hurry, making the goal of maintaining a six-foot radius a pipe dream.

Myself, I’ve taken to walking up the middle of the street during my after-dark forays through the neighborhood (errands are largely completed by that time).

For sure, it will be interesting to see what solutions cities throw together when lockdown measures ease and cars and COVID-19 considerations have to coexist for a time. Blocked-off street parking seems a popular sidewalk-widening option, with some cities electing to close down certain roadways to vehicular traffic altogether. In some cases, these measures might become permanent.

[Images: Stephan Guarch/Shutterstock, General Motors]

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38 Comments on “Roads Aren’t Nearly As Empty As You’d Think, Which Shouldn’t Come As a Surprise...”


  • avatar

    I’m still going to work most days so I can see the roads. Rush hour is way less busy then normal. But it seems the roads are pretty consistent thru out the day now with typical 1PM on a weekday levels of traffic. Weekends seem slightly busier then weekdays but still nothing like normal.

    It’s pretty easy to explain actually. Once you add up health care workers, grocery workers, transportation and logistics, Warehouse workers, Defense, Infastructre etc you have to have at least 35-40% of the population traveling for work. You also have most of the Trucks still on the road. Then you have people driving to places to get out of the house.

    But man is it nice driving to work now. My average commute before was around 45 minutes I’m not down right around 28.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      It’s pretty much like summer traffic around me with no school traffic and about a quarter of the population on vacation

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        About the same in God’s Waiting Room, SW FL. Most of the snowbirds have flown north (ALL of the Canadians), though some from NY and MI are sticking around longer. It feels like mid-summer traffic-wise – which is to say lots quieter than in the winter, but not exactly dead. No real rush hour here anyway. The nice thing is we have grocery stores sufficient for the winter population, so they are not at all crowded now.

        My understanding is that the evening and morning rush in Tampa and Sarasota are still pretty much non-existent though. Flying out of Sarasota tomorrow, but mid-afternoon so I expect no traffic issues.

      • 0 avatar

        Rush hour is the big change here. With no one commuting to office jobs in Hartford, I don’t even drop below 60 MPH going thru the city.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I’m with mopar I’m fortunate enough to be working full time. Or unfortunate, I have a lot of shows I want watch,maybe bake some bread. Regardless, I’m gonna a real grump once KC metro opens up for business.If i’m not the 1st at every stop light now I’m downright pissed. My commute is usually 30min of steady freeway motoring in a reverse commute fashion. Now it’s 20 at the most, it would 10 if had a 911 and no traffic laws.

  • avatar
    redapple

    This China Plague has really changed things. Will we ever go back to normal? I ll miss live concerts.

    • 0 avatar
      R Henry

      “I’ll miss live concerts”

      I am holding tickets to the June 20 Earth, Wind and Fire/Santana/War show in LA. No official word of cancellation yet, but I am not exactly optimistic…. I was REALLY looking forward to that show….!

      • 0 avatar
        Rnaboz

        Concerts! I have tickets to LeMans! Postponed until Sept, but I fear it is not going to happen this year. The completion of my bucket list will have to wait

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        “I am holding tickets to the June 20 Earth, Wind and Fire/Santana/War show in LA.”

        Are they doing the retirement home circuit now? ;-)

      • 0 avatar
        Moparmann

        @ R Henry: I don’t know, without Maurice White E W & F just isn’t the same. Philip Bailey is good, but he’s showing his age and he isn’t Maurice! I think I’d rather listen to vintage recordings/watch videos, rather than have my memories abruptly hijacked by the realities of (GASP!) growing older!! Notice, that I never used any reference to B——s! LOL! :-)

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Hopefully by 7-25…I have Alanis Morisette/Garbage/Liz Phair tickets in Nashville.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Of course we’ll all get back to normal, whatever that is. Human nature hasn’t changed.

      When the mayor of NYC asked people to rat on their neighbors, he ended up with the world’s largest collection of penix pics, plus a supply of middle fingers, and more pics of A. Hitler than the History Channel.

      New Yorkers haven’t changed and won’t. What makes anyone think the rest of the country will?

  • avatar
    Robotdawn

    I’m not sure how much I would trust Waze’s stats. I would assume that app trends towards millenials, who are probably much more affected by the lockdown than older people. It’s completely redundant to Maps, provides tons of useless information unless you filter it down to almost nothing, has adverts Maps doesn’t and the maps themselves are inferior.
    I will say routing is better, up until it routes you around a trivial accident some Wazer reported that it was completely unnecessary to do.

  • avatar
    ajla

    General traffic is definitely lighter than normal but the takeout lines at the restaurants are spilling into the streets around meal times.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    Yeah traffic in Seattle is not down that much outside of the typical rush hour. I’d say in the hours I’ve been out on the roads it has been at ~75% of normal.

  • avatar
    SPPPP

    I have found the traffic to be lower overall, but on major arteries, it looks like about 60-65% of normal. Like driving on a Sunday. I was disappointed by how deserted it didn’t feel.

  • avatar
    jalop1991

    “Was everyone being an asshole? Was I?”

    Yes.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    traffic in SE MI is quite a bit lighter. when the stay-at-home order went out the state AG clarified to police departments that they couldn’t just pull people over to ask where they were going. folks (myself included) have rolled out for a bit of two wheel therapy here and there. basically it’s seemed that as long as you aren’t out there being an a$$hat you won’t have any issue.

    Don’t start none, won’t be none.

  • avatar

    O.K. Boomers, Zombies and Snowflakes alike: Reporting from Northern California, East Bay. I am driving at speed limits because there is not one around to push me to drive faster. That’s boring – no one to drive faster than.

    • 0 avatar
      tinbad

      Castro Valley resident here. Plenty doing 100+mph where normally would be stop & go. Was driving on the San Mateo bridge the other day, was passed by half a dozen or so boi racers thinking 150mph was a safe speed to race each other’s crap mobiles (10+ year old Mustangs, Camaros and 5-owner Mercedes AMG) accompanied by the inevitable zigzagging and swerving. Was hoping the cop at the other end would get them but he seemed to not be bothered.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        You’ve illustrated why it will all go back to the old normal, not a new normal. It’s human nature to go as fast as you want when you think you won’t be caught.

        That doesn’t change unless you’re tinbad, who apparently doesn’t want to go faster than the speed limit. For many, the limits of the car being driven is the main factor – there’s a difference in freeway ride between a Fiat 500 and a Chrysler 300.

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          We shall see, Xur.

          We shall see!

        • 0 avatar
          tinbad

          Growing up in Europe I’ve had my fair share of 150+ mph autobahn drives. There’s a time and place for everything, if you physically CAN go 150 doesn’t mean you should or it’s safe for others. Sorry to say but roads (and drivers) in US are generally shit and you shouldn’t be driving those speeds.

          CV does look attractive on the map but once you factor in pre-covid traffic not so sure anymore. It sure beats Tracy (where I lived before) and commuting into the city AND I sure hope this will be the new normal, makes driving much more enjoyable.

      • 0 avatar

        I lived in Castro Valley. Centrally located and easy reach to any of Bay area major destinations including Napa Valley. I cannot imagine driving 100 mph on 880 or even 238 – always jammed and in 2000 – permanently (until Dotcom bust).

        On the other hand you can not drive faster than speed of light. Unfortunate but fact.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    I live just off a rural two-lane highway, if rural is three miles from the sharp cutoff edge of the city, that is. The road is crammed on summer weekends because it is very curvy, going around the edges of two lakes, and people come out to bathe in the glorious views. And get in the way of we locals trying to get things done.

    A normal weekday on our road is characterized by almost zero traffic. Now, for reasons unknown to me, it’s quite busy all the time. Who are these people and where in hell are they all going? It’s a mystery to me.

    Take today. It was raining, so I had decided to make my 10 day grocery run away from those people I’ve noticed are buying whenever I go on a nice day. At 10 am, I was stuck in my little rural Post Office’s parking lot, as steady traffic both ways prevented me getting back on the road. As a retiree, I’ve NEVER been stuck like that on a weekday morning.

    Strictly speaking, people are supposed to be stuck in their homes and not motoring around. Not happening, obviously. And the people in the tiny really rural village where 13 of the 22 people gunned down by Canada’s worst ever murderer just over a week ago, have had to close their highway to prevent hordes of rubber neckers out for the usual mouth agape gawking you see at accident sites. “We gotta go see them burned-out houses and cars, Martha!” “Okay Charlie, let’s go.” Don’t know why the Mounties don’t issue tickets to people from miles away as they turn ’em around. Hell, they give tickets to people for stopping at provincial “parks” often situated just on the side of the highway.

  • avatar
    TS020

    Maybe people have stopped listening to the government? Mind you, taking government advice in the first place implies you believe what they’re telling you, and no-one is going to admit to that.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    My morning commute is much less of a hassle. I don’t see as much traffic on the highways either. I’ve been on some back country roads and there was much more traffic than normal. I’m seeing way more motorcycles than normal for this time of year. I’ve been driving more since fuel is so cheep. A lot of trips into the back country.
    Saturday night my son and I went out in the bush to try to rescue a friend of his who got his mom’s pickup stuck. We couldn’t get close enough. We got ourselves stuck then unstuck. We got him out but the ice and snow was bad. He slid into the weeds again. We gave up and took the two boys home at 2:00 AM. Dad went out with a small excavator. I’m thinking those two boys will be in self isolation for a while.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Less car traffic than normal, although more than in the early weeks of the lockdown. But the drivers are all acting crazy, driving on city streets as though they were 50 mph rural roads.

    Way more bicycle and pedestrian traffic than normal, as cooped-up people try to get some exercise.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Much less traffic but there is traffic. Since I am working at home all the time since COVID-19 the only time I go out it to get groceries and necessities. I might look at a used one owner 2004 F-150 Heritage for a weekend truck with 118k miles regular cab V6 auto with air for $3,495. If it is in decent shape I will buy it. It has a 7 foot bed and I could use a bigger bed to haul things.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    The magic of mostly-empty roads is gone here now – the sheeple are back and driving at least as badly as before.

    (And my stock of on-hand oil filters has become embarrassingly small.)

  • avatar
    IHateCars

    Streets are fairly empty, it’s been great. Been taking the bike out a lot more lately…

  • avatar

    In the NYC area, I did lower Manhattan twice from the burbs in under an hour. Normally a 90-120 minute horror, I wasn’t even Cannonball-ing.

    1947 levels of traffic all around.

    Had to tend a family matter upstate. Thruway. No one but trucks. No cops. No minivans with texting drivers. Next Exit, Stuttgart. The C does top out where they say it does.

    Not always, though. I live near a few popular State Parks, and my formerly quiet hike trail heads are suddenly full of new people. One park has been closed due to traffic many times, something you only see maybe once in August.

    Office parks are empty but the Lowes and HD parking lots are full. The mall mama works at is closed….so YMMV.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Los Angeles freeway traffic is much looser than normal, I drove it North to South in 20 minutes last night in the late rush hour times .

    Way too many racer bois crashing late at night ~ the amount of crashes has dropped over 50 % the amount of damage and death has risen well over 50 % due entirely to excess speed and lack of driving skills .

    Bummer this as I finally got my old Honda running and riding but not going to get run over riding after sunset again ~ once was enough .

    ? Where the hell do I get my hair cut ? .

    I’d shave my self bald but all the damn bumps in my (empty) skull mean I’d prolly bleed to death .

    This isn’t the fun filled retirement I’d hoped and worked for .

    I wonder what percentage of readers here live in apartments ? .

    -Nate

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