Traffic is starting to rebound, will look different post-pandemic

As the pandemic subsides, are you noticing traffic returning to normal where you live in the Metro D.C. Region with rush hours and congestion? We may be rounding a corner – literally – in our response to the coronavirus pandemic as restrictions are being lifted and more people are getting vaccinated.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) has been monitoring COVID-19 travel since the start of the pandemic.  

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Tim Canan, Planning Data and Research Program Director for the MWCOG, said there is a 25% increase in traffic levels across the Metro DC region, but still lagging compared to what they used to be before COVID-19. He adds DC is nowhere near the typical traffic patterns, but surrounding counties like Montgomery in Maryland and Fairfax in Virginia are quickly picking back up.

MWCOG said due to the lockdown, social distancing, and working from home – traffic dramatically dropped in half – a 50 % decrease – when comparing 2020 to 2019.

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Now, we are starting to see more cars on I-95, I-495, 270, and 66 as well as morning and evening peaks in traffic volumes, but it’s still down from pre-pandemic levels.

Experts believe as we get back to normal life, traffic will look different due to new habits we picked up during the pandemic. For example, we may not see the typical rush hour and there may be different times of the day that get busy. Canan believes the changes will mainly be due to people are trying new work schedules. Certain hours of the day might not be as crowded because people are trying new work schedules and doing a mix of teleworking and commuting to the office.

"I think what was predictable before the pandemic broke in terms of the peak periods morning and afternoon rush, we may notice those won’t be the full peak periods we’re used to. We may see other times of days that it may not have been as busy," said Canan.

We spoke to DC residents who were delighted to hear this.

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"That would be better. I mean rush hour is the worst part, right? If it could be more flat all the time, that’s fine because usually it’s up and down and there’s peak hours where you can’t do anything in the city so if it was more constant all the time, I think that would be a big improvement," one man said in Georgetown.

FOX 5 spoke to local Chamber of Commerce’s throughout the region to see what the plan is to get employees back into the office.

"I think every business is looking into what’s best for them, but certainly we want to go back to work. That would help the whole economy. I just think that every business has difference policies according to their business model and they’re looking into what works for them," said Angela Franco, President and CEO, DC Chamber of Commerce.

"I think flexibility is here to stay. I think a lot of employers and employees are working together to determine best ways to be productive and happy to get the job done, but also to be mindful that a lot of people discovered they can work remotely," said Gigi Godwin, President and CEO, Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

"The Arlington Chamber shares the excitement felt by our members, and many in the broader community, about the declining rates of infection and increased rates of vaccination, which are allowing many businesses and activities to return to more of their pre-pandemic capacities. The announcements last week by the CDC and Governor Northam allowing for fully vaccinated people not to wear a mask in most circumstances is another key step in our return to normalcy," said Kate Bates, President and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. "We encourage Virginia’s government to incorporate the new masking and distancing guidance into the Department of Labor and Industry’s COVID standard’s requirements for workers. We also encourage everyone to respect the rules put in place by businesses, including if the business chooses to require patrons to wear a mask, and to respect and support our front-line workforce who continue to serve our community, as they have throughout the pandemic."

So, when will we see traffic levels fully pick up again?  

"Difficult to understand at this point. There will be a transition period. Once we all feel safe that the public health threat of the pandemic is over," said Canan.

So what’s his advice to commuters?

"I think to be flexible and not expect to have things return back to the way they were before the pandemic. We are all going to be traveling differently. We certainly are traveling different now – it’s not just workers. During the pandemic, our habits changed. We got a bit more comfortable with online ordering so more delivery trucks, schools are still adjusting, more patterns with school buses… we don’t know what full form it will take."