Gridlock Guy: Amid pandemic, Atlantans losing less time in traffic than others

2020 stats show Atlanta gridlock returning less quickly than other major U.S. cities.

Nearly every major in the city world saw COVID-19 shutdowns and behavior shifts take big bites out of their traffic jams. Travel data firm INRIX just released its “2020 Global Traffic Scorecard” that shows some very promising and unexpected news for Atlanta.

INRIX measured cities’ backup intensities by hours per year lost in congestion and Americans saw a  decrease in 2020 (26) versus 2019 (99) in that department. Atlanta, which saw businesses open up earlier than some bigger cities in more restrictive states, saw a surprising shift in its spot on INRIX’s rankings.

Atlantans lost only 20 hours each per year in traffic in 2020, down nearly 75% from 80 hours lost in 2019. That 2019 number made Atlanta the region with the 10th-worst traffic delays in the U.S. But Atlanta was only 22nd-worst in 2020, despite almost all urban areas seeing this rapturous disappearance of cars.

“What we notice is that it’s very local, it’s not a one-size for what’s going on in every city,” INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. “Different cities have different abilities to work from home, depending on the local economy.” For example, freight traffic sank sharply in Detroit when the auto plants closed for COVID-19. But freight in most other regions stayed busy.

Traffic nationwide began increasing last summer, but driving patterns wildly changed. “The mileage that people are driving is not down that much. It’s down 13%. But the delays are down multiple times that, close to 70% or maybe 75%. What that tells us is that there’s a big shift in the time of day that people are traveling,” Pishue explained.

Midday trips nationally - roughly 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. - are increasing, Pishue said. And those trips are seeing a greater average mileage, too. People are spreading out the times they commute, meaning, “That morning commute is largely gone away for now and shifted to the midday, PM commute, and weekends,” said Pishue.

The WSB Traffic Team and I can back that up anecdotally. Morning drive usually reaches its peak later. Midday traffic sees a lot of wrecks and the scheduled road work lane closures cause increasing delays. And PM drive, though lacking the bite it had pre-coronavirus, sees more delays on the average day than morning drive. And any kind of weekend construction causes mounting backups, especially, lately, I-75 in both north and south Metro Atlanta. Many people and products pass through Atlanta on that corridor.

“In many cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C., the downtown is the focus. A lot of the region’s jobs - think, the metro region - are concentrated downtown. When we get to Atlanta, that’s not so much the case. Jobs are everywhere. So even though the downtown area is affected, the jobs are dispersed enough that if you decrease the trips just a little bit, it has a larger effect,” Pishue explained. Simply put: a small decrease in traffic volume creates a large decrease in delays. And Atlanta is still reaping those metro-wide benefits from 2020.

Pishue and his team, still, found Atlanta’s drop off in national gridlock rankings intriguing and studied the numbers. Pishue found that Atlanta’s top 10 busiest corridors in 2019 saw a 56% decrease in delays in 2020. “That tells me that even where traffic is concentrating, the delays are less than half of what they were last year.”

Atlanta had two freeway stretches rank amongst the 25 worst nationally. Not surprisingly, I-75/85 (Downtown Connector) between Highway 166 (Exit 243) and 10th Street (Exit 250) is the 10th-slowest in the U.S. I-285 in DeKalb between Chamblee Tucker Road (Exit 34) and I-20 (Exit 46) is 21st. I-75/85 combines two freeways in Downtown Atlanta and I-285 handles an increasing freight load.

European cities are seeing the worst backups in the world, in terms of hours lost. Bogota, Colombia and Bucharest, Romania lead the pack with 133 and 134 hours lost per driver last year in traffic. New York moves from 14th to 3rd-worst. Then Moscow and Philadelphia round out the top five.

Cities built before automobiles were invented likely were built around subways and trains and public transit saw ridership plummet in the pandemic. Mass transit is still seeing a slow recovery. And this is why traffic in New York and some European cities is still so lousy.

Interestingly, New York led the U.S. in that hours-lost metric, despite seeing the third-largest dropoff in average daily vehicle miles traveled (-28%).

Pishue said traffic data is very mercurial worldwide. Traffic patterns are very unpredictable, given the aforementioned shifts in times people travel. Then entire nations smaller than ours, such as Germany, have quickly instituted nationwide shutdowns, creating large, uniform drops and increases in their traffic numbers.

But the U.S. trends have been harder to track, with different states and cities each having their own protocols. Within cities, as we see here at home, school districts vary on their in-person learning practices. Workplaces all have different remote options. And various cities have different dependencies on public transit.

While Atlanta has had some good news on the traffic delay front, the traffic fatality rate is still up, Pishue said. This continues an upward trend that began while the roads were emptier last year and people began driving faster. In Atlanta alone, there have been numerous fatality crash investigations in 2021, ordeals that can shut down roads for hours. This is a scary and frustrating pattern.

The main lesson learned from INRIX’s fascinating study is that the key to easing the traffic pain in Atlanta is not as laborious as it may seem. If we all change our commuting patterns just a little, we have the road capacity and the commercial sprawl to decrease traffic jams a lot. But the bigger problem of our nasty and dangerous driving habits - speed, distraction, and selfishness - still prove fatal. But that solvency is also in each of our hands.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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