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Seattle traffic slowly creeping back up as jobs return, places reopen

Early afternoon traffic is thin on I-5 north of downtown Seattle, Friday, March 20, 2020. With many people working from home or otherwise not traveling, Seattle's notorious traffic has been minimal during the outbreak. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

You might have noticed a little more company on the roads recently. You’re not imagining it. Traffic is slowly returning.

You can tell when you drive that the lanes just aren’t quite as empty as they were a month ago. There has been just enough of a return that I have seen slowing at the spots where it used to be stop and go all the time, especially on I-5 northbound into downtown Seattle.

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Now, I have the data to back it up. The Washington Department of Transportation is aggregating all the travel information for all sectors in real time, so at 10:30 a.m. every day, you can see a good snapshot of our transportation system.

For example, travel on the 520 bridge hit its low right after the governor’s stay-at-home order went into effect in the last week of March. That’s when traffic was down 78% compared to the same week last year. Last week, it was down about 70%.

I-5 at Northgate was down well over 50% that final week of March. Last week, it was down only 35% over 2019. So people are slowly coming back. Ferries were down over 80% at the peak of the stay-at-home order. Now, it’s about 65%.

Bart Treece, WSDOT communications manager, said it’s easy to see why the transportation system has reacted the way it has.

“What creates transportation demand?,” he asked. “It’s people going to work. People taking their kids to school. Doing errands.”

But all those trips have dried up, for the most part.

As some jobs return and other places are reopening, Treece said it makes sense we would start to see a little uptick in travel.

“That’s going to have an impact on the transportation system,” he said. “You do see a little bit of a slight uptick. You see those dips in between. Those are weekend trips.”

Those discretionary trips have disappeared, with no concerts or games to attend and many beaches closed on the coast, or islands closed for tourism.

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Even passenger rail is making a slight comeback. I’m talking Amtrak, not Sound Transit. The Cascades run between Portland and Seattle had not had a 100 passenger trip since March 25. It had two 100 passenger trips in just the last week.

The positive side of all of this: Crashes are way down, well over 50% in the month of April.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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