Traffic continues to grow on DC-area highways following pandemic plunge

New data shows traffic on the D.C. region’s highways in May was not back to pre-pandemic levels, but it was getting close in some parts of the area.

“I’m surprised by how fast, or how much that traffic volumes have recovered,” said Tim Canan, Planning Data and Research Program Director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, or MWCOG.

The organization has been tracking traffic volumes and patterns throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and April 2020 brought a major change.

“Regionwide, traffic was down 50%,” Canan said. “That was the result of a lot of people teleworking, as well as a lot of job losses that were occurring as a result of the pandemic.”

The latest available data shows the volume of traffic in the region overall was 10.5% lower in May this year than it was in May 2019.

Compare that to May 2020, when traffic was down 37.5% regionwide compared to the same month the year before.

MWCOG is also breaking down the data to compare traffic changes in three parts of the region: the core (including D.C., Alexandria and Arlington County), the inner suburbs and the outer suburbs.

“I think the recovery of traffic has been a little slower in the core of the region, and it’s been much more robust in the outer parts of the region,” Canan said.

In the outer suburbs, traffic was just 6.9% lower in May 2021 than it was in May 2019. It was 12.2% lower in the inner ring suburbs, and 23.1% lower in the core.

“We have not seen a big rush to go back to the offices, so … our typical work-based trips or commute trips have been slower to recover. And, a lot of the activity that we’ve been seeing in the outer suburbs are probably not work-based trips,” Canan said.

Something else MWCOG is tracking is hour-to-hour changes in highway traffic volumes on weekdays and weekends.

The pandemic caused the traditional morning and afternoon traffic peaks to flatten out a little bit last year.

In May, hour-by-hour traffic levels for the region as a whole were similar to what they were in the pre-pandemic months of January and February 2020. Also, in March through May of this year, the outer suburbs saw weekend traffic levels close to what they had in 2019.

Canan expects more changes to start soon.

“When schools open up again in the fall, we will see people going back to the offices perhaps … and that’s going to cause different types of travel patterns,” he said. “Certainly now, the wild card is the delta variant.”

Canan said pre-pandemic projections for job and population growth in the region remain on track.

“We may not lose growth to other regions even with increased teleworking, but what we might expect are some variations within the region in terms of where people might choose to live or work or how employers use office space. So, those will be important trends to track, I think, once we start going back to the office.”

Canan thinks there will be a transition period — lasting well into 2022 — before levels of traffic in the region settle into some kind of “new normal.”

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.

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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