Metro Atlanta traffic: What’s the new ‘normal’?

Traffic on metro Georgia highways remains lighter than it was before the coronavirus pandemic.  (Hyosub Shin /



Traffic on metro Georgia highways remains lighter than it was before the coronavirus pandemic. (Hyosub Shin /

Metro Atlanta residents have enjoyed something like commuting nirvana during the coronavirus pandemic. With schools and businesses closed and residents sheltering in place, traffic has been unusually light. Rush hour has been shorter and less painful.

But, gradually, that's changing. In March and April, weekday traffic was down as much as 50 percent on some state highways. Earlier this month, the Georgia Department of Transportation reported that traffic on state highways was just 20 percent below normal. Since then, it's picked up more.

On Thursday GDOT Operations director John Hibbard told the State Transportation Board that traffic on Georgia highways is now between 10 and 20 percent below normal. On rural highways, it’s already more or less back to pre-pandemic levels.

More traffic means slower speeds at rush hour. Back in February, before the pandemic, southbound traffic on Atlanta’s Downtown Connector traveled at an average speed of 21 mph at 5 p.m. on weekdays, Hibbard reported. In April, when traffic bottomed out, average speeds rose to 65.5 mph.

Last month, with traffic returning, southbound traffic on the Downtown Connector averaged 50.8 mph. at 5 p.m. on weekdays. That’s still faster than usual for pre-pandemic times, but traffic is clearly slowing down.

That said, don't expect the usual rush hour misery any time soon. COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in Georgia, and unemployment remains high. So there may still be fewer cars than usual on the road for the foreseeable future.

Hibbard suggested we may get a sense of the new “normal” when students return to school.

“It’s apparent traffic is steadily increasing,” he told the board. “It’s returning to something like a new normal.

“Will normal be just the same (as it was)? I don’t know,” he said. “But I think we’ll get something we’ll call normal about the first of August.”