DC-area traffic levels on the rise despite stay-at-home orders

WTOP traffic reporter Dave Dildine on the increasing traffic during the pandemic

The traffic bustle is slowly building in the D.C. region despite the ongoing public health restrictions.

Recent vehicle counts indicate that the once-vacant D.C.-area roads are carrying more traffic than they were in April immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued.

Traffic volumes dropped sharply on area highways in late March as schools and businesses were ordered closed over the coronavirus fears. But automatic traffic data recorders show that the number of daily trips has slowly increased from the low levels observed in early April.

Before the pandemic, about 226,000 drivers used the Capital Beltway through Silver Spring, Maryland, daily. A data recorder located on the Capital Beltway near University Boulevard shows the number of trips fell steadily in late March.

The quietest weekday was Tuesday, March 31, when just 115,219 trips were recorded, about 50% less traffic than normal. Only around 65,000 trips were recorded by the device on Easter Sunday.

But since mid-April, traffic counts have been slowly and steadily increasing.

Recent Friday traffic counts on the Capital Beltway near Silver Spring and I-270 near Germantown show that while traffic volumes remain lower than usual, the number of trips has been slowly increasing since April despite the ongoing stay-at-home orders. (Data courtesy MDOT/SHA)

The number of trips on the last Friday in April compared to last Friday, May 8, grew by nearly 25,000, an 18% increase over two weeks.

Last Thursday, more than 150,000 drivers used the Capital Beltway east of University Boulevard, the highest number of daily trips measured since Friday, March 20, just days after all Maryland public schools were closed.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s order for all nonessential businesses to close took effect the following Monday.

A similar trend has been observed on Interstate 270 in Germantown, Maryland. The number of recorded trips over the last two Fridays has risen by nearly 16%.

The automatic traffic recorders on the Capital Beltway and I-270 near Middlebrook Road are operated by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Traffic volume on the Beltway east of University Boulevard in Silver Spring plummeted during the public health emergency but have been steadily climbing since the middle of April. The average number of pre-pandemic trips for this part of the Beltway was around 226,000 per day. (Data courtesy MDOT/SHA)

Despite the recent uptick in volumes, nearly all highways remain under capacity.

Recent data for Virginia roads were not immediately available.

On Interstate 95 near the Occoquan River, ranked as one of the worse bottlenecks in Virginia, congestion has formed on the southbound mainline highway during weekday afternoons in May. The traffic flow failed to break down for most of April, suggesting that volume on I-95 in Virginia is increasing as well.

A recent study by the University of Maryland Transportation Institute concluded that Maryland and Virginia ranked among the top 10 states with the highest increases of out-of-state trips.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Dave Dildine

A native to the Washington area, Dave Dildine is no stranger to the region's complex traffic and weather patterns. Dave joined WTOP in 2010 when the station launched its very own in-house traffic service. You can hear him "on the 8s and when it breaks" from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.

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