Gridlock Guy: Coronavirus data on roads and our duty to keep them open

Combined ShapeCaption
Metro Atlanta scored seven spots in the top 100, one more than it did the previous year.

Drivers’ newfound freedom on the wide open roads is having an inverse relationship with a sense of responsibility

In case your version of sheltering in place has involved paying absolutely zero attention to driving around Atlanta, you may not have noticed — the roads are often wide open.

A study from traffic data firm INRIX proves what our eyes are seeing during these COVID-19-fighting measures: a steep drop-off in traffic volume and an uptick in speeds.

Explore» RELATED: Coronavirus in Georgia: COVID-19 Dashboard

The roads are clear, unless the now-high-speed daredevils lose talent and hit walls, trees, or each other. The absence of rush hours now creates unpredictable, unforeseen traffic patterns — and that’s not always good news.

We have observed both from the WSB Skycopter and in the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center that people are driving more erratically and recklessly. Drivers’ newfound freedom on the wide open roads is having an inverse relationship with a sense of responsibility. And in this time of crisis and necessary community, the importance of us keeping these roads open hasn’t been greater.

Combined ShapeCaption
A nearly-empty Downtown Connector (I-75/85) in Midtown on Tuesday, March 24th, 2020 at 5:41 p.m. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

A nearly-empty Downtown Connector (I-75/85) in Midtown on Tuesday, March 24th, 2020 at 5:41 p.m. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

Combined ShapeCaption
A nearly-empty Downtown Connector (I-75/85) in Midtown on Tuesday, March 24th, 2020 at 5:41 p.m. Credit: Doug Turnbull, WSB Skycopter

For now, there have been very few stoppages, and none of them has been routine or of long enough interruption to skew overall traffic data. INRIX transportation analyst Trevor Reed says they gather data from GPS and mobile devices and fleet vehicles to measure traffic patterns around the world. Businesses and governments use INRIX data to shape policy, and automakers use this data in the in-data infotainment systems.

INRIX is based outside of Seattle, where the U.S. COVID 19 outbreak began. Their data not surprisingly showed Seattle being the first city in the U.S. to see its traffic congestion plummet, while Coronavirus regulations grew. Days later, the entire U.S. road system followed suit with Chicago and Los Angeles seeing their average speeds increase as much as 70%.

“L.A. is a very dense city relative to the infrastructure it has, because it’s an old streetcar city,” Reed explained to the AJC and WSB. “Roads aren’t the most efficient way to move people through very dense environments.”

The reason bigger cities see a greater benefit from, as 95.5 WSB Atlanta's Morning News host Scott Slade deems it, "The Great American Shutdown," is because their rush hours were so much worse in those places before.

“When you reduce congestion at the highest level, it has the biggest disparity to make up for,” Reed said.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Atlanta began seeing rush-hour speeds marginally increase the week of March 8, but the improvement became obvious by Thursday, March 12, when schools and businesses really began altering plans. 8 a.m. travel speeds on Thursday were 7% better than normal. Friday they had increased to 11%. And the PM speeds increased by 22% and 20%, respectively.

By Monday, March 16, morning speeds had increased by 12%. Tuesday’s were up 18%, a marked increase. And PM drive speeds skyrocketed to 30% better on March 16 and 44% on the March 17. INRIX ran data through the end of that week with morning and afternoon speed interstate speed improvements averaging 20% better at 8 a.m. and 40% at 5:30 p.m.

“The morning commute is generally a little more concentrated,” Reed said, referring to the locations of the backups, which are pointed at the business districts. “Typically, your afternoon commute has higher congestion across the entire network,” Reed explained, because people are running in less definite directions. They’re not only leaving work, but also running errands and going to social events and taking kids to practices and lessons. This creates a greater array of delays, thus accounting for why the evening speed improvement is greater than in the mornings.

Given this traffic change, some have wondered if GDOT would start blocking more lanes and for longer to get ahead on some road projects. The state considered that idea, especially since their data is showing interstate car volume is 22% less and 47% less on the top nine non-interstate corridors in Atlanta. But they leaned on the side of caution. They didn’t want scheduled road work to delay an ambulance with a COVID-19 patient or a food (or toilet paper) shipment in a tractor trailer. GDOT’s numbers show that freight traffic has actually increased 5% during the outbreak.

So GDOT has decided to maintain its normal schedule and defer to the original duty of the interstate system: large roads to make the movement of important items more efficient. That was President Dwight Eisenhower’s post-World War II vision for the freeways and we, the commuters, should follow suit in our battle against this outbreak.

Reed said he has nothing to compare this to in terms of forecasting human behavior and neither do his cohorts.

“We have a member of our public-sector team who has been over 30 years in road mobility and transportation data,” Reed said. “He’s never seen anything like this.”

“The closest thing I can think of is a hurricane where everyone is leaving town or everyone’s hunkered down. But typically in response to a crisis you have people moving somewhere to avoid it.” Reed continued: “The difference with this one is everyone goes home and stays there.”

Staying put as often as possible is not only the best way to fight the spread of disease, but also the best way to help others fight the pandemic. We should show the same empathy on the roads as we have with social-distancing at work and elsewhere. Our society has mostly come to terms with hand-washing and 6-foot radii. But we need to do a better job at driving with extra alertness and caution.

No one wants to be the reason an interstate or any other thoroughfare shuts down. And we don’t want to be guilty of delaying someone’s time-critical hospital trip.

We are all in this together and are acting that way in our social lives and careers. Let’s do the same on our now nearly delay-free roads.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.