Rush hour isn’t quite so rushed in the early morning hours anymore. And it’s not just an hour, either. (Not that it ever was.)
While Americans are gradually getting back to some semblance of normal, traffic data suggests that the morning drive has changed drastically – and it may never go back to pre-COVID patterns.
In short, rush-hour traffic is more spread out and, generally, has shifted later in the morning as Americans are more able to avoid heavy traffic periods due to remote work, according to traffic data analyzed for USA TODAY by Wejo, which tracks data from connected vehicles.
To be sure, as the pandemic continues to subside, many Americans are expected to return to the office after Labor Day, likely increasing overall traffic volumes. But traffic experts expect that increasingly flexible work arrangements are likely to give many Americans the ability to avoid the old-fashioned blitz to the workplace altogether.
“The morning rush hour has gotten later and it’s gotten flatter,” says Daniel Tibble, director of data science and analytics for Wejo. “In almost all scenarios, traffic is not dropping as much in the later hours and is dropping more in the earlier hours.”
That means less time on the road, but it also means more dangerous hours on the road, as a spike in speeding on open roads makes drivers more likely to die in car crashes.
Still, a good number of former commuters are avoiding roads because traffic still remains down even if it's bounced back from its 2020 lows.
Total miles driven in April 2021 was down 8.2% from April 2019, according to the Office of Highway Policy Information.
In rural areas, traffic has recovered the most, with volumes in April 2021 down 3.5% from April 2019. But urban traffic volumes were still down 10%.
Here’s what you need to know about how rush hour is changing.
From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., drivers in many regions are experiencing significantly less traffic than before the pandemic.
In May 2021, traffic volume was down 32% from February 2020 in San Francisco; 24% in Manhattan; 24% in Dallas; 22% in Tampa, Florida; and 8% along the heavily traveled I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia.
While traffic in the later morning is still down, it’s not down as much as traffic in the early hours. That suggests that more people are delaying their drive time.
In the 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. stretch, traffic volumes in May 2021 were down 26% from February 2020 in San Francisco; 17% in Manhattan; 13% in Tampa, Florida; and 12% in Dallas. Along I-95, they were up 12%.
Nicole Calisi, who commutes on I-684 from her home in Rye Brook, New York, to her job as a project manager in Brewster, New York, has seen the patterns shifting.
“I’ve noticed the volume is almost more now” later in the morning, she says. “Leaving at 8:30, it’s still packed, where normally it wouldn’t be.”
In general, it’s more dangerous to hit the road now than it was before, due largely to increases in speeding as motorists take advantage of open roads.
In 2020, the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled on U.S. roads was 1.37, reflecting a 23% increase from the rate of 1.11 in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Speed increased because there was less traffic, so people could go faster,” Tibble says.
And police aren’t stepping in, says Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit that advocates safe driving on behalf of state highway agencies.
“One factor is the lack of enforcement,” Adkins says. “People are speeding because they know they can get away with it, and they’re right in many cases.”
Now that traffic is coming back in many areas, incidents of “significant braking” tracked by Wejo are on the rise, as an unusual mix of “fluctuating traffic levels” require drivers to come to a quick stop unexpectedly, Tibble said.
Adkins fears that dangerous road conditions could continue unless police step up enforcement.
“Drivers will do dumb things when they can get away with it,”
In many cases, an expectation of increasingly flexible work arrangements means that many drivers won't need to get to work as early as before.
“More flexible work is taking the pressure off of people to get to work dead on 8 o’clock,” Tibble says.
Such arrangements would it easier for people to handle tasks like getting their kids to childcare. They can often start their work at home and take a short break to take their kids to child care before they make their way to the office.
“If people can flex to improve their quality of life, people are going to want to do that,” Tibble says. “A little flexibility in the office in terms of remote working means that people can choose to improve their quality of life.”
Those small changes could add up to a noticeable and permanent alleviation of congestion on the road.
In normal years, “there is only a 5% - 10% reduction in summertime traffic with school not in session,” Wes Guckert, CEO of The Traffic Group, a transportation planning firm, said in a blog post. “It is easy to see what a 5% - 10% increase in traffic looks like in September when schools and colleges reopen. A 10% reduction in traffic is dramatic.”
As employers increasingly offer some workers the ability to work from home on certain days, congestion could vary sharply.
“Our assumption would be there would be less traffic on the roads on Mondays and Fridays,” Adkins says.
If you want to avoid traffic, the old rules still apply.
“The best way to avoid traffic is the same way it was pre-COVID – get up early,” Tibble says. “The roads are significantly quieter even half an hour earlier before that peak starts at 6 a.m.”
And if you’re not a morning person, you can still enjoy lower traffic volumes after 9 a.m. despite the shift in traffic to later in the morning.
Calisi, the New York state commuter, says on some days overall traffic feels even heavier than before the pandemic – and she thinks it’s because of people who fled New York City during the pandemic.
“People moved up this way,” she says.
Even so, she doesn’t expect any substantive, long-term alleviation of congestion in the city itself.
“I don’t think the traffic in New York City will ever be OK,” she says.
You can follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.