Working From Home Shifts Traffic Patterns

Trips were down 9% in the mornings and 6% in the evenings last year.

February 17, 2022

Traffic on highway

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Traffic patterns have shifted dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and though traffic and congestion are slowly moving back to pre-pandemic patterns and volume, the work-from-home culture may permanently change when and how often the world drives.

A TomTom traffic study shows that congestion levels in the U.S. were up slightly last year over 2020, but congestion in 2021 was down 14% in the U.S. compared with 2019. The top three congested cities in 2021 were New York, Los Angeles and Miami, and congestion was up 9%, 6% and 5% last year compared with 2020, respectively.

Worldwide, congestion is 10% lower versus 2019, with a decrease of 19% specifically at peak hours. Out of the 404 global cities included in the study, 283 experienced lower average congestion than in 2019. However, many cities have shown extreme fluctuations in traffic across the year, going from extreme lows during travel restrictions to extreme highs when restrictions were lifted.

Due to a dramatic change in working habits across the world, peak hours have shifted in almost 40% of the cities worldwide, the study found. During the pandemic, new mobility usages have gained popularity, with e-scooter and bicycle use increasing, supported by cycle lanes in many cities. However, public transportation has lost its attractiveness to commuters, and the increased use of private cars led to a sharp increase in traffic congestion in many cities whenever pandemic restrictions were lifted, reaching and sometimes exceeding the 2019 thresholds, the study indicates. In Paris, traffic was 10% higher in September 2021 versus September 2019.

According to TomTom, U.S. cities have seen traffic spread throughout the daytime, as traffic at peak hours decreased. “This can partly be explained by the boom of e-commerce,” said Ralf Peter Schäfer, vice president of product management traffic and routing at TomTom. “The COVID-19 crisis has acted as a catalyst that increased the speed of change in our way to consume. The last-mile sector is experiencing a massive transformation driven by increasing customer requirements who demand more immediate or same-day deliveries and return options.”

In the U.S. and U.K., traffic congestion during the morning and evening rush hours decreased in 2021 compared with 2019, but the traffic during midday and nighttime hours remained similar to 2019 levels. In the U.S., morning traffic was down by 9%, and evening traffic was down by 6%. Over a third of cities worldwide have seen a shift in peak traffic hours, TomTom found.

During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, c-store visits declined by just over 19% versus 2019, and visits during the profitable weekday morning rush fell 26%, PDI data indicate. However, according to the NACS Magazine article, “Reawakening the Morning Daypart,” business is on the upswing.

“Morning rush trips are up 6% versus 2020, which is not surprising given the drop in March to May 2020,” said Dafna Gabel, vice president, insights, at PDI Software. “Morning rush is recovering faster than other key weekday dayparts—lunch, afternoon and evening. However, morning rush trips aren’t yet back to pre-pandemic levels. That daypart lost the most and still has the most to gain.”

But one good thing about today’s c-store shoppers is that they’re spending more per trip, and Gabel doesn’t see that waning.