While the novel coronavirus itself is all but invisible, we’ve seen its impact everywhere, and especially on our roadways. In March of 2020, as the region locked down, traffic congestion—that symbol of Southern California life and a problem so vexing that the brightest minds have been unable to solve it—disappeared almost overnight.
For many Californians, the newly empty roads were a discomfiting novelty—simply further evidence that life as we knew it had changed. For a number of academics and policy analysts, the shift demanded a closer look. “A big event like this gives us opportunities to learn about the world, about ourselves, and ultimately about our interaction with the world,” says Fraser Shilling, who codirects University of California, Davis’ Road Ecology Center.
Early in 2020, Shilling spent hours poring over traffic data to study the lockdown’s impact. From early March to early April, he found driving in California dropped roughly 40 percent, as measured by vehicle miles traveled. Not surprisingly, traffic speeds went up. On once-gridlocked freeways, for example, cars were moving at a steady clip. But Shilling also found the odd driver hurtling along an empty SoCal freeway at 120 or 130 mph. By mid-April of 2020, in fact, the California Highway Patrol reported an 87 percent increase in citations for drivers exceeding 100 mph.
Fortunately, most drivers didn’t indulge their Fast and the Furious fantasies. “Most people don’t want to drive superfast because it’s dangerous and scary,” he said.
Traffic patterns on surface streets were upended, too. In Los Angeles, speeds on some city corridors increased by up to 30 percent. Officials urged drivers to slow down, especially because more pedestrians and cyclists were out. To curb speeding, officials turned some daytime traffic signals to nighttime settings so drivers would encounter more red lights.
Analysts discovered that driving patterns varied markedly by neighborhood. Not surprisingly—thanks largely to essential frontline jobs—residents of low-income, Black, and Latino neighborhoods drove more than did people in more affluent and predominantly white communities. The same held true in public transit use. Decreases in ridership were smaller in communities where residents couldn’t telecommute. “They didn’t have the luxury of working at home,” says Connie Llanos, an executive and racial equity officer at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
Were roads safer?
Initially, they were. In the first weeks of the shelter-in-place order, the number of crashes on California roads and highways dropped by about half, Shilling found. But when heavy rains hit Southern California in April 2020, crashes shot back up. And by mid-May of last year, fatal crashes on L.A. streets were on par with previous years. Nationwide, according to early estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatal crashes in early 2020 were down only slightly compared to the same period in 2019.
But according to a preliminary report from the National Safety Council, when comparing 2019 traffic deaths per vehicle miles traveled with the equivalent data from 2020, experts found an alarming 24 percent increase in fatalities nationwide—the biggest spike in nearly a century.
Westways travel editor Jim Benning prefers his coffee mug full and his roads empty.