Traffic around the country has plummeted since governments began enacting stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak, but data from vehicle navigation systems and other monitors shows many of us are still out of our homes and on the road.
Nationwide, traffic analytics firms say, daily traffic remains at about 60% of normal levels, even as the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they’re staying home more.
In California, where a stay-at-home order took effect March 19, daily trips statewide remain at 58% of normal levels, according to Wejo, a British company that collects data from sensors in some passenger vehicles.
On Wednesday — two days after the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland enacted stay-at-home orders — daily car trips in the region remained at 51% of normal in D.C., 53% in Maryland and 59% in Virginia, according to Wejo, which does not include trucks or other commercial vehicles.
The figures are similar in parts of the country at the forefront of the U.S. covid-19 outbreak and where people have been under shelter-in-place orders longer.
Washington state officials announced a stay-at-home order March 23. More than a week later, distances traveled on Seattle roads remained at about 55% of normal, according to INRIX, a Kirkland, Washington-based traffic analytics firm that crunches data from vehicle navigation systems, cellphones and other devices.
Trevor Reed, an INRIX transportation analyst, said Seattle traffic has hovered near 50% of typical levels for about two weeks.
“I think we’re hitting a floor,” he said.
To be sure, an enduring 50% to 60% drop in traffic in some of the most congested urban areas is unprecedented. Many urban highways have the gloriously breezy feel of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Rush hours began to evaporate as soon as many commuters started working from their kitchen counters.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted March 22-25 found that 91% of Americans reported staying home as much as possible due to the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 9 in 10 said they had stopped going to restaurants and bars.
But plenty of Americans are still on the road, even if they have curtailed their travel.
Some of the remaining traffic, experts say, stems from motorists heading to and from the many worksites that have been deemed “essential”: health-care facilities, supermarkets and liquor stores, construction sites, banks, dry cleaners, hardware stores, pet stores, government facilities, and auto and bicycle repair shops, among others. The Washington region’s orders also exempt plumbers, electricians and others needed for home repairs.
Some workers who previously might have taken mass transit or carpooled might now be driving alone in an attempt to distance themselves from others, experts say. Public transportation service hours also have been curtailed dramatically.
And though many of us have greatly reduced our travel, we usually can’t eliminate it. Activities deemed essential to carrying on daily life include fetching food, going to a doctor’s appointment or picking up a prescription. In The Post-ABC News poll, 6 in 10 people said they had stocked up on food and household supplies.
And if you want to hit the road to avoid climbing the walls? Washington-area officials say it’s OK to drive for “leisure” or relaxation — a pastime not typically associated with the region’s roads.
Analysts say we’re also seeing the outsize traffic impact of the “nonwork” trip. Motorists typically feel the most pain during their teeth-gnashing morning and evening commutes. But experts say the vast majority of our driving trips — even before many of us began working from home — are for personal errands.
And when we’re on the hunt for often scarce toilet paper, hand sanitizer or the emergency pint of Ben and Jerry’s, we’re making more of those trips than we otherwise might.
“There’s a certain level of automobile use built into our daily lives, even when we’re not going into the office or to a restaurant to socialize,” said Reed, of INRIX. “Social distancing is by definition not coming into contact with other people. It doesn’t mean stop moving. People could be social distancing perfectly and you’d still see vehicles on the road.”
Another data point hinting at the idea that many motorists are running personal errands: Local roads, used more often for shorter trips rather than long-distance commuting, aren’t seeing as big a drop as highways.
Some analysts say traffic data can help government officials gauge how Americans respond to stay-at-home orders, which now cover about 90% of the country.
Monitoring traffic – and where motorists are heading – amid such orders provides an almost immediate, if incomplete, glimpse into how quickly human behavior can change and how much of our normal travel is probably more flexible than we once thought, they say.
“We’re much more used to looking at the impacts of breakdowns on I-95,” said Daniel Tibble, Wejo’s chief of analytics. “With something as significant as this, the changes we’re seeing are huge.”
Washington-area police say they’re not scouring the roads for scofflaws. Officers might ask motorists they pull over for speeding or other violations why they’re out, police say. But they have no plans to use checkpoints or stop vehicles at random. Doing so, they say, would cause unnecessary fear, particularly among some immigrant communities.
It also might not be legal. Police say it’s unclear whether enforcing an executive order would meet the legal definition of “probable cause” required to stop a motorist.
“I don’t think the community feeling we want is to have police pulling people over just to ask why they’re out there,” said Thomas Jordan, a police captain in Montgomery County, Maryland. “I think there’s enough fear out there already.”
Experts say the amount of remaining traffic also illustrates how much “nonwork” trips contribute to everyday congestion. Even before the pandemic, four out of five car trips in the Washington region were for reasons other than commuting, such as ferrying children and picking up dry cleaning, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
With schools, many businesses and other destinations closed, some of those trips are no longer an option or necessary. But many still are.
“While it appears that trips have significantly decreased, I’m not surprised to still see some travel,” said Tim Canan, COG’s planning data and research program director.
For many motorists, the weekly grocery run has become a multi-trip odyssey in search of Clorox wipes and other items disappearing from store shelves. And that means more traffic.
“I think it’s more fear,” said Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant. “It’s ‘Gee, I didn’t find it here, so I’ll go there.’ “
Other traffic includes the surge in restaurant deliveries and takeout pickups, experts say, as well as people driving to parks for outdoor walking breaks. And the car itself provides a socially distanced reprieve from being homebound.
Bill Eisele, a senior researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said he suspects other parents like him are seeking relief from long days of home schooling that can “fray some nerves.”
“One approach my wife and I have taken is driving the kids around once in a while,” Eisele said. “It’s still social distancing, but we also need a change of scenery.”
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Washington Post polling analyst Emily Guskin contributed to this report.