A lingering effect of the pandemic is worsening traffic in these U.S. cities

(NEXSTAR) – The days of light traffic on pandemic-era roads are long gone, according to a new study from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Most of the country is back to pre-COVID levels, said David Schrank, senior research scientist and lead author of the Institute’s Urban Mobility Report. In some cities, despite fewer commuters on the road overall, things have gotten even worse compared to 2019.

For starters, the commute is now less predictable, Schrank explained. With the proliferation of hybrid work schedules, it’s difficult to predict when others in your area will be called into the office for a general meeting or big presentation.

“Anyone can go to the office on any given day and no one expects it,” Schrank says. ‘What if everyone is called up next Monday? Then boom – it’s a stalemate.”

(For what it’s worth, early data seems to indicate that Monday is actually the least popular day for employees to drive to the office, he said.)

Commutes have also become longer thanks to more flexible work schedules. Some office workers log in in the morning to do some work and then go to the office around 10am. Or they leave at 3 p.m. to avoid the crowds. But if everyone thinks this way, the travel time rush (and its attendant delays) creeps in later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon.

Since the pandemic, people have also moved to new cities, heading to the suburbs for more space, but now that they’re back in the office, they have to travel longer. Sun Belt cities that have seen tremendous population growth, such as Phoenix, have also seen corresponding growth in traffic delays.

Another major factor worsening traffic delays has nothing to do with commuting, the researchers found. In efforts to alleviate the supply chain issues we saw in 2020, and to improve shipping efficiency for the proliferation of online orders, major retailers like Amazon have opened more warehouses across the country.

The goods from these mega warehouses often come by truck to your local store or to your front door. Now, in a post-pandemic world, traffic congestion is an even bigger part of the problem than before.

Trucks are on the road all day and on all major highways, not only contributing to traffic congestion during normal travel times.

If you look at some of the cities that had greater traffic problems in 2022 than before the pandemic, many of these cities are located at the intersection of major highways.

“Places like Columbus, where I-75 runs right through it, so it’s an important corridor,” Schrank said. “Louisville, Nashville, they’re full of highways connecting places like Atlanta to Chicago. So some of that extra traffic in those types of places is due to increased commercial and truck traffic.”

Port cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York also tended to see traffic recover more quickly from COVID-era lows, Schrank explained, partly due to increased commercial traffic.

Whether or not you feel like your commute has gotten worse may have to do with hyper-local conditions, Schrank explains. It can come down to the exact corridor you take to get to work, and how many other people have no choice but to go that way too.

According to findings from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the 20 metropolitan areas that experienced the greatest growth in total annual deceleration between 2019 and 2002, as a percentage, were:

  1. Rochester, New York (10% worse)
  2. Bakersfield, California (10% worse)
  3. Laredo, Texas (10% worse)
  4. Provo, Utah (9% worse)
  5. Louisville, Kentucky (8% worse)
  6. Milwaukee, Wisconsin (8% worse)
  7. Bridgeport-Stamford, Connecticut (8% worse)
  8. New Haven, Connecticut (8% worse)
  9. Little Rock, Arkansas (8% worse)
  10. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (7% worse)
  11. Riverside-San Bernardino, California (7% worse)
  12. Salt Lake City, Utah (7% worse)
  13. Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona (6% worse)
  14. Baton Rouge, Louisiana (6% worse)
  15. Colorado Springs, Colorado (6% worse)
  16. Stockton, California (6% worse)
  17. Charleston-North Charleston, South Carolina (5% worse)
  18. Omaha, Nebraska (5% worse)
  19. Sacramento, California (4% worse)
  20. Memphis, Tennessee (4% worse)

Meanwhile, some larger cities are still experiencing far less traffic congestion than in 2019. Washington DC still saw a 26% drop in overall delays compared to before the pandemic, and Boston fell 21%.

Many cities, from San Francisco to Dallas to Portland, Oregon, still saw slightly less traffic than before COVID. But in many cases it is only 2% or 3%, which most drivers would not feel while driving on the road.