Traffic congestion in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas is simply a way of life, but a new study finds that the usual rush hour traffic jams aren’t as bad in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
The study, conducted by the University of North Carolina, found that, while traffic plunged to record lows during the height of the pandemic, overall traffic has returned to its pre-pandemic levels.
But even with the same number of drivers on the road, rush hour traffic isn’t as bad as it was prior to the pandemic.
The reason, researchers found, is that heavy traffic is being spread out throughout the day, rather than concentrated around specific times.
The study utilized the thousands of California traffic sensors located on freeways and highways across the state, scouring data over a six-year period.
What researchers found was that rush hour no longer follows the exact traditional patterns that drivers have gotten used to. Essentially, gone are the days when everyone was commuting to and from work around the same general time.
The exact cause for the traffic shift is unclear, but one of the working suggestions is that changes to the daily commute, including more hybrid and work-from-home positions, are stretching out the heavy congestion windows and spreading out the impact of cars on the road.
And even on days when hybrid workers do go into the office, “they may work from home part of the day and commute at off-peak times to avoid traffic,” researchers said.
Staggering the start of the workday has been shown in previous instances to be a successful traffic mitigation strategy.
Researchers also suggest that the pandemic led to an increased interest in bicycling and walking, and many cities responded to that interest by making additional roadway space available to support other methods of transportation. The data suggests that some cities should consider making these changes permanent, researchers added.
Not only do the findings indicate that traffic isn’t as bad as in years past, they also suggest that city planners and engineers might be able to reconsider some existing infrastructure plans.
“Roadways are generally sized based on peak-hour demand,” the study reads. “As the peaks spread, some highway construction projects may prove unnecessary. It may be possible to reallocate road space to other uses with fewer tradeoffs in terms of traffic congestion.”
Essentially, if traffic congestion isn’t as much of a problem when certain infrastructure plans were drafted, it might be time to re-evaluate the best use of time and resources.
Additionally, roadway expansion, researchers said, may actually increase the amount of drivers on the road, increasing pollution and the risk of traffic crashes. Roadway construction also raises other concerns about bisecting cities, displacing and separating low-income residents and people of color from resources.
So by continuing on with existing traffic infrastructure projects and expanding roadways, engineers and city planners might be fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.
Researchers do note, however, that the pandemic is not entirely in the rearview and things could still change in the future — but they theorize that California traffic has likely been altered for good.
It’s been several years since the pandemic, and if people were going to return to their old routines, they probably would’ve done so by now. Plus, work-from-home and hybrid schedules do not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
To read the study in its entirety, including a thorough breakdown of the methodology used by researchers, click here.