5 ways the pandemic changed your Atlanta commute

During the Memorial Day holiday period from Thursday, May 25, to Monday, May 29, AAA forecasts a substantial increase in travelers, with an estimated 1.32 million individuals in Georgia expected to travel at least 50 miles. 
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

During the Memorial Day holiday period from Thursday, May 25, to Monday, May 29, AAA forecasts a substantial increase in travelers, with an estimated 1.32 million individuals in Georgia expected to travel at least 50 miles. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Three years after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses and left thousands of workers hunkered down at home, commuting in metro Atlanta has yet to return to what used to be called “normal.”

Overall, traffic is nearly as bad as it was before the pandemic — and it’s expected to get worse as the region’s population grows. But some areas suffer more than others.

Many people are still working from home. But they’re running errands at lunch or having goods delivered to their homes, contributing to an increase in mid-day traffic.

Traffic fatalities rose during the pandemic and have not subsided. And thousands of commuters have not returned to MARTA trains and buses, and it’s unclear if they ever will.

Here are five pandemic-related commuting trends that experts are watching — and how they may affect you in the years to come.

Traffic moves along Tom Moreland Interchange, the interchange of I-85 and I-285 also known as Spaghetti Junction, northeast of Atlanta on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Traffic merges north on I 85 in downtown Atlanta on Monday, May 15, 2023.  
(Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Traffic is back

By the broadest measure, traffic has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels.

According to Georgia Department of Transportation estimates, the total number of miles traveled by vehicles on Georgia highways fell 69% in 2020 from the previous year. But by 2021, vehicle miles traveled in the state was just 2% below pre-pandemic levels.

GDOT has not released 2022 estimates. But Deputy Chief Engineer Andrew Heath believes traffic continues to grow.

“Since the state started to reopen in May 2020 we’ve seen a gradual increase and return to normal,” Heath said. “But not a complete return to normal.”

Metro Atlanta has slightly lagged the rest of the state — vehicle miles traveled here were 4% below pre-pandemic levels in 2021. That’s likely due in part to the region having more jobs that allow people to work from home.

What’s more, there are more trucks on the road as e-commerce takes off and the Port of Savannah grows. The estimated miles driven by trucks jumped 52% statewide and 84% in metro Atlanta from 2019 to 2021.

That’s one indicator of perhaps the biggest reason traffic is nearly back to normal despite a surge of people working from home: Georgia’s economy is booming, and people are moving here for jobs.

John Orr, who tracks transportation trends for the Atlanta Regional Commission, attributed the growth in part to Georgia’s decision to reopen businesses during the pandemic sooner than other states. ARC estimates the 11-county metro Atlanta region added 65,000 people last year alone.

“We really got a head start on getting back to full employment levels,” Orr said. “We continue to have strong population growth that’s occurred during the pandemic.”

That’s why you can expect the number of cars and trucks on metro Atlanta highways to keep growing.

Traffic travels northbound on I-85 just past the I-285 overpass, also known as Spaghetti Junction, Monday, January 30, 2023, in Doraville, Ga.. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Rush hour has changed

Yes, metro Atlanta traffic is still awful. The average commuter here spent 74 hours stuck in traffic last year, according to the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. The report says Atlanta has the 10th-worst traffic in the United States.

But it’s not as awful as it used to be at certain times and places. For example, GDOT’s Heath said Monday morning rush hour remains a little lighter and starts a little later than it did before the pandemic. One possible explanation: Monday may be a popular day to work from home.

Or take Ga. 400. The average traffic count on southbound Ga. 400 near Pitts Road in Sandy Springs for the first week of May was nearly 13% below the same week in 2019, according to GDOT.

But traffic has already exceeded pre-pandemic levels on I-20 eastbound near Martin Luther King Drive.

Heath said variations among locations depend on a variety of factors, including whether the surrounding areas are predominantly residential, commercial or industrial.

Doug Turnbull, who spends his days in a helicopter for the WSB Traffic Team, echoed GDOT’s observations. He said mornings are generally “not as fierce as they used to be.” Mid-day traffic is worse than it used to be, and the afternoon rush hour is as bad as it always was.

Turnbull said the most chaotic time to drive is the transition from mid-day to afternoon rush hour, with its mix of fast and slow traffic.

“You would think that would be about 4 o’clock. No, it’s 2:30,” Turnbull said. “That’s insane, man. That used to be in the middle of the workday.”

Telework was not a fad

Before the pandemic, about 9% of metro Atlanta workers ages 16 and older worked from home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2021, 24% worked at home. That means many people who used to drive or ride a train to work are no longer out there at rush hour.

But that doesn’t mean all the trips they used to take disappeared. GDOT’s Heath believes many people who work from home are running errands at lunchtime.

“You’ve seen increased flexibility during the workday,” he said. “It’s not like they’re at home and they’re fully at home all day.”

E-commerce also has replaced trips that people used to take themselves. When you order groceries from home, you’re essentially paying someone to make that trip for you. But it’s still a driver on the road.

Though data from last year is not available, there’s some evidence that workers are heading to the office more. A Georgia Commute Options survey of nearly 3,000 workers found the average days they worked from home fell from 3.9 in April 2021 to 3 days a week last October.

Georgia Commute Options encourages commuters to work from home or use transit or vanpool services. Roz Tucker, the agency’s managing director of mobility services, said the pandemic accelerated a work-from-home trend that many people were eager to embrace.

“The genie’s out of the bottle now,” Tucker said. “It’s happened, and we see that, overall, it works.”

August 30, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta police and Atlanta Fire Rescue responded on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 at 3:15 am to the ramp of I-20 Westbound to Northbound I-75/85 in downtown Atlanta in reference to a single vehicle accident. Officers located the vehicle involved in the collision. The driver was pronounced deceased on scene by EMS services. Preliminary findings by the investigators with the Accident Investigations Unit indicates the vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed when the driver lost control and struck a struck a tree after exiting the roadway according to Atlanta police. No charges are anticipated at this time as the investigation continues. The ramp opened up just before 5:30 am (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)


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Bad behavior is deadly

Bad behaviors such as using cell phones while driving contributed to rising traffic fatalities in the years before COVID-19. But the pandemic brought out the worst in drivers, making highways even more deadly.

Georgia traffic fatalities rose nearly 23% from 2019 to 2021, when 1,828 people died in traffic collisions. The rising death toll came despite a decrease in vehicles on the road.

Police and transportation officials say excessive speeding – made possible when traffic temporarily disappeared during the pandemic — was a big factor in rising traffic deaths. A lack of seat belt use, distracted driving and other dangerous behaviors also contributed.

Preliminary statistics from GDOT show fatalities leveled off at 1,831 last year — about the same as 2021, but far above 2019 levels. It’s unclear when and whether traffic deaths will subside. So, you’d better brush up on your defensive driving skills.

“That was one of the most disappointing things we saw during the pandemic,” Heath said.

The Atlanta skyline is shown as a MARTA train leaves the Georgia State MARTA Station off of Piedmont Avenue on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Atlanta. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Will transit ever recover?

Metro Atlanta transit ridership had been declining for years before COVID-19. But the pandemic supercharged that trend.

The number of trips on MARTA trains and buses fell more than 50% in 2020. Other agencies also saw steep declines.

Transit agencies reduced service or eliminated bus routes — all while trying to cater to essential workers who rely on transit.

Since then, passengers have gradually returned — very gradually. MARTA bus ridership in February was just 68% of ridership in February 2020, on the eve of the pandemic. Rail ridership was only 52% of pre-pandemic levels.

MARTA rail service during peak commuting times was hit especially hard. And rail ridership from the northern part of its service area to Buckhead, Midtown and Downtown saw steeper declines than other areas. MARTA officials believe many of those lost riders are now working from home.

On the other hand, ridership during special events – such as Atlanta United games – is much closer to pre-pandemic levels. During recent concerts by Taylor Swift and Janet Jackson in Atlanta, MARTA trains were packed.

It’s not clear when or even if MARTA transit ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels. But CEO Collie Greenwood is optimistic. He cited plans to provide more frequent bus and rail service in the coming year, to redesign MARTA’s bus network and to build new transit lines in Atlanta and Clayton County.

Greenwood said MARTA wants to be out in front of ridership increases, rather than wait until more people show up to boost service. He said the agency must improve in ways that are within its control — such as cleaning and renovating stations and buying new rail cars.

If it does that, Greenwood said passengers will like what they see when they have reason to return.

“Yes, we will see a return to pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “I can’t say when, because this is unprecedented.”

During the Memorial Day holiday period from Thursday, May 25, to Monday, May 29, AAA forecasts a substantial increase in travelers, with an estimated 1.32 million individuals in Georgia expected to travel at least 50 miles. As a result, the auto club advises vacationers to be prepared for substantial traffic and congestion on highways, as well as at airports and aboard airplanes.

Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez