Six months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, does it seem like traffic is as bad as ever in the metro area?
Well, if you’re driving on Paseo del Norte west of Eagle Ranch, you’re right.
But if you’re driving through the area’s job and activity centers – U.S. 550 in Bernalillo; Southern and N.M. 528 in Rio Rancho; the Cottonwood Mall area and the Coors corridor north of Interstate 40 on the West Side; Journal Center; or Downtown and around UNM/CNM – especially in the mornings – it’s nowhere close.
The Mid-Region Council of Governments maintains that’s largely because the Albuquerque Statistical Area lost 44,900 jobs from March to April, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. And many folks started working from home. So when you don’t have to drive to work during morning rush hour, well, you don’t.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at-home order effective March 23, closing “nonessential” businesses – most retail stores, movie theaters, gyms, salons, liquor stores, churches, etc. – and ordering most other employees to work from home if possible. Schools quickly moved to distance learning, and large gatherings including family get-togethers were banned.
Nathan Masek, a transportation planner with MRCOG, says, “Approximately 155 locations within the metro area were identified for the specific purpose of providing a mechanism to assess regional impacts (of the pandemic) on roadway volumes and to gauge the timing of a return to a ‘new normal.’ ”
The traffic data shows that many residents listened to the governor, especially when it came to driving to our employment centers around 8 a.m.
In April 2019 the New Mexico Department of Transportation recorded around 90,000 vehicles a day on Paseo del Norte at Rio Grande. A year and a pandemic later, there were around 55,000.
On the one river crossing that Masek has data for, traffic on Alameda went from just over capacity – anyone who has sat idling in the backups understands that – to almost half-capacity in April.
From March 23 to May 28, MRCOG data shows a huge drop in daily trips around the metro area, down 32.5%. The area’s busy employment and education centers showed the largest declines.
The central business district, aka Downtown, was hardest hit, with a 48.1% decline in traffic volume. Journal Center – where most reporters began telecommuting rather than driving in – recorded a 47.9% drop. Southeast Heights was down 42.1%; Northeast Heights 34.7%; Far Northeast Heights 34.5%; North Valley 31.7%; Rio Rancho 31.1%; Northwest Mesa 29.9%; Far North Valley 27.2%; Southwest Mesa 24.4%; South Valley 22.3% and Valencia County 17.6%.
Dig a little deeper into times and routes, and you find Menaul east of Eubank, which brings drivers into the city’s core, went from close to 500 cars around 8 a.m. to 150. Coal west of Broadway, which feeds Downtown, University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College parking slots, dropped from close to 300 vehicles at 8 a.m. to around 70. Dellyne west of Coors, which takes drivers to major arterial Coors and then Paseo to the north or Interstate 40 to the south, went from 200 vehicles in the morning to around 100.
Afternoon trips were also down, but not nearly as much. Masek says, “In COVID the a.m. is gone … a.m. is affected much more than p.m. Because of impacts to jobs, overall travel was reduced.”
The next three months, June 8 to Aug. 20, as the governor eased restrictions and some businesses opened back up, brought a partial return to traditional traffic patterns, with trips down only 16.6% from pre-coronavirus 2019. And while those parts of town without dense job and retail areas were almost back to normal – the South Valley was down just 2.2% – business areas were still far less congested than in 2019, with drops for this time period ranging from 21.7% in Rio Rancho to 34.7% Downtown. Coal has had even less traffic than at the beginning of the pandemic orders – about 50 vehicles were recorded traveling on it around 8 a.m. in August.
Meanwhile, a return to normal has a downside. In August, Alameda at the river was just under capacity.
Counting continues, and so far, Masek says, the first two weeks of Cycle 3 appear to mirror the June-August data.
Traffic stays the same
As for which part of town has had the most trouble abiding by the stay-at-home orders – and there are myriad reasons, including that not everyone can telecommute – MRCOG traffic patterns recorded a bounce on Paseo del Norte west of Eagle Ranch. At 8 a.m. last year around 250 vehicles were on the road; that dropped to just under 200 in April, then rebounded to around 250 in August. Ditto for 4 p.m., with just under 350 vehicles on the road last year, 250 in April and 350 in August. And Dellyne’s only drop was in the morning.
As we all try to heed the governor’s warning from Thursday to redouble mask-wearing and social distancing efforts, and as daily case counts tick upward after the Labor Day holiday and ahead of flu season, the traffic data shows us where we can do better.
And it gives us important information for the long term. Masek says the big takeaway is the area is recovering from the blow the pandemic dealt, though morning rush hour as well as employment and activity centers are taking longer.
And the planner in him says that could provide an important opportunity to make significant adjustments in how and where we work, go to school and shop.
“These times are allowing us to reconsider how we travel, and what modes we might use and how we might use flexible work schedules to avoid congested times on our roadways,” he says.