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How much time did Seattle drivers save on the roads in 2020?

Traffic in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of SDOT/Flickr)

It’s fair to say that most of our congestion has returned to pre-COVID levels, as we’ve seen in our daily drives in recent weeks. State data shows we’re only off 4% now, but just how much time did Seattle-area drivers save last year when the roads were so empty?

I think commuters remember April of 2020 well. That’s when Washington’s stay-at-home order first went into effect, and the roads emptied out. Traffic bounced back a bit through July 2020, before making a more gradual rise back to normal over the last 12 months.

Kirkland-based traffic data firm INRIX has crunched the numbers through this June, estimating that the average Seattle-area driver spent 67% less time stuck in congestion last year than in 2019. Seattle drivers still lost 25 hours in congestion, but again, that’s a 67% improvement.

Analyst Bob Pishue told the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) this week that the average Seattle driver also drove 24% fewer miles during the pandemic. There were 35% fewer crashes in Seattle as well.

“With less traffic congestion, there were fewer collisions. Although, as the federal data has come out, fatalities are still up there, even with the drop in vehicle miles traveled,” he said.

And we were driving faster too. The average peak hour speed in Seattle jumped 12 miles an hour with fewer people on the road, from an average of 25 miles an hour to 37 miles an hour.

INRIX has also noticed a change in our traffic patterns. The afternoon commute has come back faster than the morning commute, and a new middle-of-the-day commute has emerged, INRIX’s Ted Trepanier told the commission.

“The emergence of the midday peak, which is enabled by telecommuting, is something that we kind of expect to persist,” he said. “The lessening of the morning peak — much more traffic in the middle of the day, which is bi-directional — very different trips than what we’ve seen previously.”

Will this commuting shift stick around forever? Pishue expects our congestion to return to normal over the next two years. Anything more specific just can’t be predicted right now.

“Anyone who says they know for sure may be kidding themselves,” he joked.

Another interesting piece of this is that Pishue says weekend and leisure trips are still strong, and that a lot of the people on the road are going somewhere other than work.

INRIX also looked at transit. It is still way off pre-COVID ridership numbers, down 45%, and Pishue said that won’t change until more companies have their employees return to the office. He doesn’t believe it has much to do with a fear of sharing tight spaces in buses and trains.

“Transit ridership is more correlated toward downtown trip demand versus something else, like aversion to transit or something like that,” he said. “That does not have a strong correlation, whereas the demand for trips downtown does.”

Though he admits that you can’t analyze and quantify people’s feelings about returning to transit. I will say that I keep hearing from listeners that they still aren’t comfortable sharing those spaces, but that is a really small sample size and more anecdotal.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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