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Despite fewer cars on roads, Puget Sound traffic congestion still difficult to predict

After months of lighter rush hour traffic during the pandemic, traffic levels are starting to rise back to normal levels. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

What’s the difference between a heavy congestion day and an easy day on the roads with so many people still working from home? It really comes down to just a few thousand cars on the road each day.

Before COVID, we used to say that a 10 to 15% reduction on the roads — similar to what we see on federal holidays — would turn our roads into a breeze. That’s close to what we’re seeing now. It really doesn’t take a huge amount of cars to make a big difference in our travel times.

The Monday after Washington’s initial stay-at-home order was issued in March, major freeways around the state saw a reduction in travel by nearly 50%, a number that’s gradually increased in the weeks and months since.

Traffic congestion begins to tick back up across Washington

Last Thursday, for some reason, we experienced our heaviest commuting day since March, when the reduction in traffic across the state was just 8% compared to the same day last year. I-5 in Lakewood was off just 1% that day, while 167 in Kent was only off by 6%. I-5 in Everett was only down 4%.

Does this show that we are back to “normal”? The short answer is no. But it does show that on any given day our traffic volumes can come close to what we used to see in pre-COVID times, and that can make the difference between a heavy day and a breeze. For example, yesterday we were back to a 19% reduction in travel. The days before the 4th of July and Labor Day holidays also saw huge spikes.

One thing the data shows is that the 167 corridor through the valley continues to be well-traveled. It only dropped by 35% after the lockdown, and it’s been running in the single digits for two months.

The Washington state ferries have also seen a big rebound. Ridership dropped 78% in March. Now, it’s only off about 35%. Transit is still down over 60%.

You can check the daily volumes here.

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