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As the economy recovers, that same old problem is resurfacing — Boston traffic

Rush hour traffic on the Southeast Expressway has picked up as the state gradually lifts the restrictions instituted during the surge period of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rush hour traffic on the Southeast Expressway has picked up as the state gradually lifts the restrictions instituted during the surge period of the COVID-19 pandemic.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Perhaps there is no greater sign that things are slowly but surely returning to some semblance of normal than the traffic backups on the Southeast Expressway.

Eduarda Berry found herself in her first traffic jam in months this past week, her short commute home from the overnight shift at Boston Medical Center suddenly jumping to 20 minutes, from under 15.

“I was just telling my friend, ‘Wow, girl, where are all these people coming from?’ ” Berry, a Revere resident, said. “ ‘Is everything back to normal?’ ”

Not quite. These are hardly the apocalyptic backups of the prepandemic era when the traffic crisis was an urgent issue on Beacon Hill. Even with some additional traffic, traveling on the Massachusetts Turnpike, for example, is usually still a breeze.

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But the region’s slow reopening is providing the Boston area with something of a real-time experiment in just how much traffic its highways can take before hitting their tipping points.

The answers have significant implications for the region, especially as the pandemic has prompted companies to, at least for now, extend work-from-home policies and staggered schedules, and as lawmakers indicate they are less likely to take on major transportation initiatives that were in the spotlight before the pandemic.

Against that backdrop, the Southeast Expressway is a sort of canary in the coal mine for the rest of the region.

“The geometry on the Southeast Expressway really lends itself to getting backed up really fast. But it’s an indicator of what’s to come,” said Jonathan Gulliver, the state’s highway administrator. "People who are traveling now without congestion, they can expect to see congestion, I think, in a few weeks.”

At the depth of the shutdown in late March and early April, traffic on major Boston roads was cut by more than half, according to INRIX, a Seattle-area company that uses mobile phone data to analyze auto travel. It’s been slowly climbing since, and, broadly across the Greater Boston region, is now at about 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Statewide, traffic volumes in early June were about 27 percent below the rate from a year ago, compared to about 60 percent in April, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

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Importantly, even with the resumption of some traffic, cars are still moving freely on many roads, with typical speeds hovering around 60 miles per hour at all hours of the day, possibly indicating that the traffic is spread across longer spans of time, INRIX said. There are occasional spasms of backups in various places, according to Google Maps, but they don’t appear to last long and are sometimes due to road construction or accidents, not volume alone.

“Not too long ago, the Mass. Pike was a parking lot during the morning commute, and Route 9 was gummed up all along. We just don’t see that right now,” said Stephanie Hirshon, director of the MetroWest/495 Transportation Management Association, who credited some of the major employers in the Framingham area for letting workers stay home.

Once seen primarily as a recruiting tool and employee benefit, telecommuting has also been championed recently as an anti-congestion solution for gridlocked cities. But it was never widely embraced here, especially as more companies abandoned suburban office parks to crowd into urban downtowns such as Boston.

The pandemic provided the kind of shock test that showed telecommuting can occur on a wide scale; it is now being actively encouraged by Governor Charlie Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack as the key to preventing traffic congestion from rearing its ugly head as the virus continues to circulate.

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It’s especially crucial as public transit, for so long seen as the most obvious solution to transportation, is projecting low ridership for months on end. The MBTA’s stated goal is to give riders more room onboard vehicles and trains. Even if riders and companies do their part by staggering hours, there is virtually no way the T will be able to carry as many passengers as it used to while providing adequate social distance. And if some of those commuters, fearful of those MBTA crowds, take to the roads rather than stay home, traffic congestion could get worse than before.

“I’m most worried about that imbalance,” said Zhan Guo, a transportation policy professor at New York University, who noted that public transit ridership is still down much more than auto travel in many cities.

Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy organization Transportation for Massachusetts has lobbied for an increase in the gas tax and changing tolls as a way to break commuting habits. Prior to the pandemic, the Legislature was moving forward on a big transportation bill, but lawmakers have since indicated they are less likely to increase the gas tax during the economic downturn.

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“If it’s mid-June and we’re already back at 75 percent, where are we going to be on the day after Labor Day?" Dempsey added. “If we’re back at 100 percent or 98 percent, on the one hand we’ll say it’s a relief that the economy is back and things are back to normal, but we’ll really miss an opportunity to bring back the economic growth without the traffic.”

In one notorious spot, congestion appears to have already resurfaced. On the Expressway, travel into Boston lately has slowed to under 30 miles per hour during the 8 a.m. hour, and, again slows to 30 between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. as drivers leave the city, according to INRIX.

“It’s coming back rapidly,” said Louis Pinheiro, owner of Carl-Louis & Co., a plumbing company in Dorchester. His old commute from Weymouth used to take about 35 minutes before bottoming out to 20 amid the virus. Now, it’s back up to about 30 minutes. “Over the last three weeks, it’s gone back exponentially.”

Notably, these types of backups don’t seem to be forming so consistently on the section of I-93 north of the city. It’s a reminder that the Expressway between Boston and Braintree, with its many overlapping on- and off-ramps, has long been one of the most congested stretches of road anywhere in the country.

Still, the conditions on the Expressway are a marked improvement from before the pandemic. A year ago, rush “hour” lasted much longer and vehicles plodded along at 18 miles per hour, according to INRIX. Also, in a major change from before, the traffic seems to be largely cleared by 5 p.m. This could suggest that with so many office workers still at home, much of the traffic may be attributed to construction or health care workers who often get off the job around 3 p.m.

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But the differences between the Expressway and the turnpike, for instance, are almost warping the realities of the traffic resurgence. Mike Simoncini, an Operating Engineers Local 4 member working on a Seaport office development, said he “totally disagrees” with the notion that traffic is coming back. It’s still a quick 40-minute ride to and from Worcester on the Mass. Pike. A foreman on the same job site, Jeff Kingston, commutes from Warwick R.I., and said the traffic on I-93 south of the city is noticeable: “It’s back to how it was before.”

Kristen Eck, the longtime traffic copter reporter for WBZ News Radio, said it makes sense that the Southeast Expressway is showing signs of gridlock as volume picks up because of its unique choke points, such as the Neponset and Columbia Road ramps.

“Those old backups that everybody used to be completely frustrated with are reappearing right in the same places they were before,” said Eck. “It’s like the road remembers exactly where it wants to jam up again.”

State highway officials essentially agree, saying the Expressway is especially vulnerable to added traffic volumes.

“Every time you add traffic to that route, you’re going to start to see slowdowns, just because there’s no real shoulder out there,” said Neil Boudreau, the highway department’s assistant administrator for traffic and safety. “You’ve got a lot of ramp junctions coming on and off. There’s always a lot of friction there, both from the entry and exit points. So by the design alone, when you start putting more volume into the roadways, you’re going to start seeing slowdowns.”

Eck added that many local roads have had heavy traffic throughout the pandemic, especially around supermarkets, and there have also been backups at the Leverett Connector, between Storrow Drive and I-93.

Transportation analysts and researchers have long noted that traffic flow operates in a “non-linear” way. Highways can handle a high number of vehicles for a while; 2,200 per lane each hour is one imperfect rule of thumb, said Boudreau.

But once a road nears capacity, each additional vehicle gums things up exponentially, because crowded conditions make it nearly impossible to merge, change lanes, or exit the highway without triggering a slowdown or stoppage that ripples through traffic.

“In the Three Stooges, the classic trope is they all try and go through a door at once and they get stuck. If they had just walked through individually, not only could all of them have gone through the door but an almost infinite number of people could have gone in behind them,” said Michael Manville, an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and a Reading native. “You can have an incredibly high flow going through a door, or on a road, as long as a critical mass isn’t trying to do so at once.”



Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.