COVID-19 and Travel
The COVID-19 pandemic and associated stay-at-home restrictions on work and public activities in 2020 had a significant effect on travel demand. Restrictions put in place to help “flatten the curve” of infections in order to not overwhelm our medical facilities had a dramatic effect on the quantity and distribution of traffic. Impacts have been noted across all modes of transportation: airport activity at the Albuquerque Sunport is at a record low, truck freight traffic has dropped by about six percent in the western multi-state region, and the freeways have seen monthly volumes drop by 11 percent in March and by 26 percent in April (INRIX, NMDOT, 2020).
Traffic volumes in the MRCOG region are recorded on an ongoing basis, and a committee comprised of local agency traffic engineers and planners is continually analyzing the data and monitoring any changes.
Changes are certainly present when traffic volumes recorded while stay-at-home orders are in effect are compared to those recorded during the previous year. In fact, early data shows an approximate reduction in vehicle trips of 18 to 48 percent, depending on the specifuc area.
Work-trips dominate both the AM and PM peak periods, whereas non-work trips tend to take place during the mid-day and PM periods. Analysis shows that the majority of the observed reductions in vehicle-trips are due to corresponding reductions in work trips associated with stay-at-home orders and school closures. The amount of reduction in volume varies by time of day in a way that coincides with known travel patterns:
- AM reductions in traffic volume average 46 percent
- PM reductions in traffic volume average 36 percent
The map shows how widespread and substantial the changes in daily traffic volumes are as measured at over 150 locations during the nine weeks of the stay-at-home restrictions. Clearly visible are the reduced traffic volumes in areas where employment and Activity Centers are located, such as:
- Journal Center
- Coors Blvd Corridor north of I-40
- Cottonwood Mall area
- NM528/US 550 area
Regional Principal Arterials and key commute corridor ares experienced more of a reduction in traffic volume than other facilities as they are more affected by the reduction in work trips.
By the middle of 2021, air traffic at the Albuquerque Sunport, though still below pre-COVID conditions, has reached its highest levels of passenger traffic since the pandemic, and is exceeding 2020 levels by 365 percent. Interstate freight traffic is now approaching pre-COVID levels.
Overall, vehicular traffic is well on its way to returning to pre-COVID travel conditions.
Where the first three months of 2020 showed a 33 percent reduction in regional traffic, the end of 2020 saw that reduction decreased to 18 percent below 2019 levels. Traffic data collected in 2021 is indicating a gradual return to pre-pandemic levels, a likely response to the relaxing of the state-enacted restrictions.
Recovery by Area
The impacts of COVID on traffic varied significantly from area to area, from roadway to roadway, with areas of high employment and those with Activity Centers seeing the largest declines in volumes. Likewise, some areas are now quickly recovering and seeing pre-COVID traffic volumes, where others appear to lag behind.
Clearly, the effects of the pandemic on travel have been significant. Work at home, shortened/flexible hours, and school shutdowns with remote classes are likely to have lasting effects on travel, though the magnitude and character of the changes remains to be seen.
Exactly how a roadway’s traffic volumes are affected is dependent on a roadway’s function (neighborhood street or principle arterial), location, and adjacent land use. The graphs below illustrate this well.
Lomas Boulevard is a principal arterial with both residential and commercial adjacent land uses. It provides connectivity across the entire metro region and includes a river crossing, interstate access, and varied activities/origins and destinations along the route.
Coal Avenue is the eastbound part of a regional principal arterial that connects several activity centers as well as the interstate. The location of Coal West of Broadway shows a huge reduction during the AM, and also a reduction in PM demand—suggesting this is a corridor dominated by work trips.
As staff continues to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on traffic patterns, MRCOG will investigate how to incorporate this information into the transportation planning process to better inform local transportation planning policy and project development decisions.
Approximately 150 location are being closely monitored to this end, and the COVID Traffic Impacts Committee will be using this information, along with the governor’s stay-at-home orders and school closures, to help determine progress towards a “new normal” of traffic.
As noted above, variations in traffic reductions by sub-district were clear. The histograph above shows the magnitude in reductions that each sub-district experienced. Clear patterns show that some areas “recover” to traffic volumes approaching normal, whereas other districts are slower to return to pre-Covid traffic levels.
For the year of 2020, four cycles of counts were performed on a subset of count locations to closely monitor the changes in traffic. Cycle 1 was from March to May, Cycle 2 from June to August, Cycle 3 was from August to December.
Interesting detail in the analysis: each count cycle’s hourly distribution of traffic over the average 24 hour weekday. Not the reductions in the AM and PM peaks, with the AM being hardest hit. A likely outcome of the combination of reductions in employment and/or work-from-home policies.
Annualized 2020 regional volumes, VMT, related statistics and trends
When 2020 annual volumes were generated for the region as part of the generation of the 2020 Traffic Flow Maps, the overall effect of the COVID pandemic on the 2020 Average Annual Weekday Traffic (AAWDT) volume trend turned out to be staggering. All locations on the flow map show a reduction in annual average daily traffic volumes, and the volume trends we monitor every year show drastic drops for 2020. Included below are trend volumes going back to 1980, taken at key locations and including the amount of travel per capita:
- The AMPA Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) total
- Daily River Crossing Volumes
- Average Weekday Traffic (AWDT) volume approaching the Big I
- Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) per Capita