Updated Feb 14, 2022 - Economy

Traffic is back, but rush hour isn't the same

Data: TomTom Traffic Index 2021; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios
Data: TomTom Traffic Index 2021; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The pandemic didn't kill rush hour in America — it just spread traffic throughout the day.

What's happening: The rise of home offices and flexible work hours means there were fewer cars on the road last year during traditional peak times — particularly the morning commute, according to TomTom Traffic Index 2021.

  • In some cities, there was a new "late morning peak" around 11am.
  • In others, the evening rush started earlier — as early as 3 or 4pm.

Why it matters: The change in traffic patterns could be one of the lasting trends of the pandemic, but a lot will depend on whether remote work sticks around.

Pandemic-driven traffic changes vary by city, often depending on the particular city's COVID restrictions and the nature of its workforce, TomTom data specialist Jeroen Brouwer tells Axios.

  • While office employees stopped commuting in places like Silicon Valley, other workers still have to drive to their shifts at hospitals, factories and other workplaces.

The big picture: Traffic congestion isn't as bad as it was before COVID upended our weekday commute, but it's still stealing our time.

  • In Minneapolis, drivers spent almost a full day — 23 hours — in traffic last year.
  • In Atlanta, Tampa, Florida, and Washington, D.C., drivers lost two days to traffic.
  • New Yorkers? More than three days.

How it works: TomTom collects hundreds of millions of anonymized GPS signals from cars and smartphones around the world to analyze traffic in more than 400 cities.

  • It calculates a baseline for free-flowing traffic at midnight in each city, then compares traffic at other times of the day to determine congestion levels, including morning and evening peaks.
  • New York, with a 35% congestion rate, is America's most congested city. That means a 30-minute trip will take 11 minutes longer when traffic is bad.
  • But here's a surprise: Globally, New York is the only U.S. city ranked in the world's top 50 for congestion — it's No. 43. Istanbul has the worst traffic jams on the planet, with drivers losing 142 hours (six days) in traffic per year.

Between the lines: Overall congestion levels in North America were down 14% in 2021 compared with 2019. At traditional peak hours, the drop in traffic was 31%.

  • In New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Las Vegas, congestion levels are almost back to normal — down just 1% or 2% compared with 2019.
  • But in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San José, California, congestion remains significantly below 2019 levels.

What to watch: Month by month, congestion has been building in the U.S.

  • "Rush hour is coming back slowly," says TomTom's Brouwer. "The question is, what will the new normal look like?"
Percentage change in monthly U.S. traffic congestion, 2021 vs. 2019
Data: TomTom Traffic Index 2021; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios
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