May 3, 2023 - News

Phoenix freeway congestion has returned to pre-pandemic levels

a fleet of cars each with superimposed directional arrows

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It took three years, but traffic congestion on Valley freeways has officially returned to pre-pandemic levels.

What's happening: Maricopa County saw about 30,000 hours of daily freeway traffic delays in March, roughly the same amount seen the first week of March 2020 — before the COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Why it matters: Congestion means more time stuck on the road and less predictable drive-time schedules, MAG transportation data program manager Wang Zhang tells us.

The intrigue: The number of vehicles on the road returned to pre-pandemic levels within a year. But congestion — measured as the amount of time vehicles spend traveling at less than 50 miles per hour — took longer to return to normal.

What they're saying: Zhang says this is in part because workers now have more flexibility in their schedules and don't always have to travel at peak times in the mornings and evenings, resulting in less traffic.

  • The Arizona Department of Transportation has added several freeway lanes since 2020, helping relieve congestion, Zhang says.

Between the lines: More people are working from home now than pre-pandemic, but metro Phoenix has also seen explosive population growth.

  • That's resulted in about 10% more vehicles on our roadways than before the pandemic, per MAG's analysis.

2 new trends: Zhang says MAG is seeing more congestion during the noon hour on weekdays than before COVID and new traffic delays on Saturdays.

  • His team is currently conducting surveys to figure out why.

What's next: The future of congestion largely depends on whether the region continues to invest in its transportation infrastructure — by adding more freeway capacity and providing public transit options for commuters.


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