Here Are Four Charts That Show The Pandemic's Impact On Locals' Travel Habits These graphs offer a look at traffic, public transit, air travel and biking and walking trends during the pandemic.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

NPR logo Here Are Four Charts That Show The Pandemic's Impact On Locals' Travel Habits

Here Are Four Charts That Show The Pandemic's Impact On Locals' Travel Habits

Traffic has returned to pre-COVID pandemic levels in Virginia and about 90% of pre-pandemic levels in Maryland, according to INRIX, a company that uses anonymized data from GPS units, phones and more to analyze traffic trends. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU/DCist hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU/DCist

Katie Aune used to be a daily Green/Yellow Line commuter, but she's used Metro only once in four months since the coronavirus pandemic began. She's been working from home and going out very little, except for walks.

"I walk absolutely everywhere now," she said. "I logged 21 miles in a day back in May."

Aune is one of the many D.C. residents who doesn't own a car, but she did rent one last week to take a road trip for socially-distanced hiking.

The pandemic has drastically changed transportation habits, even over the past few months as jurisdictions attempt to reopen the economy.

Traffic has returned to pre-COVID pandemic levels in Virginia and about 90% of pre-pandemic levels in Maryland, according to INRIX, a company that uses anonymized data from GPS units, phones and more to analyze traffic trends.

Weekly Average Personal Travel by State – % of Control Week Travel. Courtesy of/INRIX hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/INRIX

Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst with INRIX, says their traffic data shows travel fell off a cliff in mid-March, followed by a gradual return.

"Some people would love traffic congestion back," he said with a laugh. "It means things are getting back to normal."

Article continues below

Apple also has been compiling statistics about how people use Apple Maps. It has used anonymous data to document the percent change in "requests" for directions by mode: driving, transit and walking. Apple's data shows requests for driving directions have returned and exceeded the baseline level, which was a pre-pandemic "control week."

Walking directions are also back. Public transit... not so much.

Commercial semi-truck traffic on interstates barely ever dropped, Pishue says, as goods still needed to get delivered.

Suburbs, which may have fewer restrictions on business, are seeing more "vehicles miles traveled" than city cores.

In city cores, employment went remote, and so did schools. Tourism went away.

"We've seen less and less activity in downtown cores, which is not surprising," Pishue said. "A lot of empty office buildings, hotels... employers are still having people work from home."

While traffic levels have mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels, it hasn't hit where it would normally be during the summer. Pishue says we're about 15-20% below what a normal summer traffic looks like.

"In winter (when the pandemic began) travel is down, and then it picks up for spring and summer as people start to go out, do more activities," he said. "Not now."

Pishue describes traffic as "on the margins" of congestion at the moment.

"For every 10% more vehicle miles traveled, travel times are going up 2%," he says. "But that will soon flip.

"As you get closer to maxing out that capacity, every single car you add makes a much larger impact. Congestion builds with each additional car on the road," he said.

Public Transit

Public transit use, which has been hotly debated as to if it does or doesn't spread the coronavirus thanks to its small confines, has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Metrorail ridership has remained consistently down about 90% throughout the pandemic, according to data from WMATA. Metrorail is largely used by commuters from the suburbs and by federal government workers, which has allowed work from home. Sporting events, concerts and other big events have also put a dent in Metrorail ridership.

Metrobus ridership hovers around 60-70% of pre-pandemic levels. Metrobus largely serves low-income, essential workers, according to Metro data. During the pandemic, about 70% of bus trips are work trips, Metro says.

"One important lesson of the pandemic this year is that essential workers ride the bus," General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said at a recent board meeting. "Of those (that ride the bus), 49% identified in our survey as African American, 16% as Latino and 10% as Asian,"

James Pizzurro, a developer of the MetroHero app, has decried Metro's service levels since the pandemic began.

He created a graph to look at Metro's stated "social distancing" capacity versus actual ridership. He found that Metro had consistently been putting more people on the system than was safe, given social distancing recommendations. Metro says it's adding more bus trips in August, but full service won't return until spring 2021.

Walking and Biking

Walking and biking data is a bit harder to come by in the D.C. region. There are some trail counters in the region that show big gains. The Capital Crescent Trail in Montgomery County saw a 40% increase in trips in the early parts of the pandemic.

Biking has also seen a dramatic increase during the pandemic, with bike stores seeing record demand.

Air Traffic

People have slowly returned to flying over the past two and a half months after bottoming out from March to April. The numbers have consistently increased, according to national figures of the number of passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration.

Local numbers show similar trends.

Jack Potter, head of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Association says after bottoming out in March/April, both Dulles and Reagan National airports have seen a steady uptick since the pandemic began.

The summer holiday season brought more traffic, especially around the Fourth of July, but has since stalled as vacation destinations like Florida, California, Arizona and Texas have seen record-breaking coronavirus case increases.

But an airport spokesperson says local data is delayed two months because airlines report their actual passenger numbers two months behind.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5