Traffic is back, but rush hour isn't the same
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.
- Many companies have given up on their return-to-office plans because of all the unknowns. Nor have they figured out the concept of hybrid work, making new traffic patterns hard to predict.
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?"