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Traffic bounces back in year two of the pandemic, minus the commuters


This became a more common sight in 2021 as drivers returned to the roads.
Enlarge / This became a more common sight in 2021 as drivers returned to the roads.

Getty Images

As we head toward the end of the second year of a global pandemic, the effect of COVID-19 on road traffic around the world is clear. Congestion has begun to return, though not everywhere, and not to 2019 levels. Traffic patterns have changed, too, with more traffic popping up in the middle of the day as commuters continue to stay away from the office. That’s according to the 2021 Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard, an annual report prepared by the traffic analytics company.

Here in the US, Chicago and New York are the worst cities for traffic, with their drivers giving up 104 hours and 102 hours of their lives respectively to congestion in 2021. Inrix actually ranks New York as number one in the country due to the higher costs traffic imposes on the city, despite the fact that Chicagoans spent an extra couple of hours behind the wheel. However, traffic in both cities remains almost 30 percent down from pre-pandemic levels.

Other cities have yet to show as much recovery. Washington DC stands out, with traffic still 65 percent lower than in 2019, which translates to 80 fewer hours in traffic per person.

At the other end of the spectrum is Las Vegas. Not only has traffic in the city recovered from COVID-19, but it’s also far outpacing what we saw in 2019. Inrix calculated that in 2019, Las Vegans spent 16 hours a year in traffic. That number halved last year, but in 2021, Inrix calculates the figure at 28 hours—a 76 percent increase compared to 2019.

The worst individual stretch of road in the US was I-5 South, between the Euclid Avenue and I-605 exits in Los Angeles. Here, you could expect an average traffic delay of 22 minutes in the afternoon. The next worse was New York’s Brooklyn Queens Expressway West between I-495 and Tillary Street, with an average delay of 19 minutes.

COVID-19 has changed traffic patterns in our cities as commuters stay home in the mornings and afternoons.
Enlarge / COVID-19 has changed traffic patterns in our cities as commuters stay home in the mornings and afternoons.

Inrix

COVID-19’s effect is clearly visible when you look at traffic distribution over the course of the day. Traffic remains reduced at traditional commuting times in the early morning and late afternoon and is now elevated in the middle of the day. Inrix says that drivers continue to stay away from downtown Detroit, DC, and San Francisco.

Globally, the US only just cracks the top 5 for traffic. According to Inrix’s data, London is now the world’s most congested city, up from 16th place in 2020. Despite the city’s congestion charge, Londoners spent 148 hours in traffic in 2021, just one percent down from pre-pandemic levels. Paris is in second place at 140 hours, but traffic is still down 15 percent from 2019 in the city. People in Brussels and Moscow are also spending more time stuck in their cars, at 138 hours and 108 hours, respectively.



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