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Pandemic’s impact on traffic, transit, may outlast outbreak

Traffic flows along interchanges that link the Capital Beltway and I-270. (The Washington Post/Katherine Frey)

Traffic flows along interchanges that link the Capital Beltway and I-270. Overall traffic in Maryland is down by about 25% because of the pandemic. (The Washington Post/Katherine Frey)

The coronavirus pandemic has slashed Maryland traffic and transit ridership, but it also has led to some unexpected consequences and may be reshaping commuting patterns for years to come, local experts say.

Since Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on Mar. 5, Maryland Transit Administration ridership has been down by an average of about 60 percent compared to last year, according to data from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

The week of April 20, saw the highest decrease – ridership was down almost 78 percent. This date is approximately halfway between Hogan’s issuance of the stay-at-home order and his later safer-at-home recommendation.

Meanwhile, the council said its traffic data showed that the highest number of Maryland residents staying off the road – in every county – was on or around Sunday, April 12. They stayed home the least on or around Friday, June 12.

The first date was about two weeks after Hogan issued the stay-at-home order. The second date was a week after Maryland entered phase two of its recovery plan, which, among other things, allowed indoor dining at 50 percent capacity.

Baltimore city residents have been staying home the most, but this was also the case before the pandemic. Residents of Queen Anne’s and Carroll counties were staying home the least before the pandemic, but a small gap formed as COVID-19 continued raging.

Wes Guckert, CEO of The Traffic Group, says commuting patterns will be altered even after the pandemic subsides.

Wes Guckert, CEO of The Traffic Group, says commuting patterns will be altered even after the pandemic subsides.

Today, residents of Queen Anne’s County are staying home the least. Wes Guckert, president and CEO of The Traffic Group, which assists government agencies, developers and landowners with traffic and transportation planning and data collection, said this is occurring because the rural county’s population is less dense and many residents commute to other counties for work.

Baltimore city is much denser, fewer people are working and more businesses are closed, providing people with less of an excuse to leave home, Guckert said.

Even after the pandemic ends, the impact of the teleworking trend will linger, Guckert said. Between 25% to 50% of the workforce could work remotely long term, he predicted.

“The convenience of teleworking and the forced experiment will end up having many people avoid the commuting peak hour, 7 to 9 and 4 to 6,” Guckert said. “And they will be coming to work earlier, leaving earlier, arriving later, leaving later.”

Until schools fully reopen, traffic will be under normal levels, he said.

“I think you’re still going to end up with a 20 to 25% reduction in traffic, certainly for the fall of 2020,” Guckert said. “If schools go back in the winter and spring of 2021, I think you’ll still end up with a slight reduction in traffic, but it’s not going to be much of a slight reduction, because you’re going to be offset by those who decide not to take transit and to either carpool or use their own car,” he added.

With fewer drivers on the road – traffic is down by about 25 percent now – some motorists have been taking advantage of eased congestion by speeding, Guckert said.

Nationally, Guckert said, the rate of fatal traffic accidents per miles driven actually has gone up, even though overall traffic have declined.

“With lower volumes of traffic there are crazies that feel, ‘hell, there’s less traffic, I’m in a hurry, and I can speed and I’m going to assume that there are not enough police out there to give me a ticket,’” Guckert said.

In May, the fatality rate per miles driven increased by over 23 percent nationwide compared to last year.

But some states saw decreases in this fatality rate – including Maryland, which had the fourth-largest decline, at 18 percent.


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